The problem with Priti Patel 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson yesterday vowed to ‘stick with Prit’ during a conversation with This Morning presenters Phil and Holly, but is he wise to? Should the allegations against Patel, which are growing, mean suspension, pending a full investigation?

The government, under increasing pressure as negotiations with the EU roll on and Coronavirus threatens to strangle the economy, today faced fresh allegations about the conduct of Home Secretary Priti Patel. Two sources at the Department for International Development say they were “shellshocked” by Patel’s “aggression”. Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesperson said those affected by her alleged bullying were now getting in contact with senior Labour Party members with yet more details of her behaviour. The Labour Party have subsequently demanded an independent inquiry, claiming the Cabinet Office’s inquiry will fail in striking the right note when it comes to impartiality. 

Patel has not commented publicly on any of the allegations, sitting quietly beside Johnson yesterday as he faced questions at the weekly Wednesday PMQs. 

A resignation to remember

Prompted by the resignation of Sir Phillip Rutnam from the Home Office at the end of February, pressure on Patel has been rising since Rutnam and Patel allegedly clashed over Patel’s management style and the suffocating workload. His resignation was public and visceral, accusing Patel of telling lies and pointing the finger squarely at her bullying nature as the reason for his explosive departure.

Just three days later, the BBC released details of one of Patel’s former aides and the payout of circa £25,000 they received after suing for harassment. The DWP, however, never admitted liability for the extremely serious allegations against Patel. Documents seen by the BBC reveal that the unidentified former aide twice attempted suicide when, she says, the bullying was at its worst. The first attempt was in the office where she was found unresponsive by a colleague. The former aide later tried again to kill herself once at home. Compounding Sir Philip Rutnam’s allegations of “swearing, belittling people and making unreasonable and repeated demands”, the mounting evidence seems compelling. 

Johnson yesterday batted away questions pertaining to his knowledge of her conduct and “management style” when appointing her to the role of Home Secretary in July 2019. Calling Patel “robust and determined” as well as “extremely courteous and kind”, Health Secretary Matt Hancock is clearly ignoring the allegations, urging people to reserve judgment until the results of the “ongoing investigation” are published.

Labour urges suspension

Labour’s shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, was more forthcoming however, stating that she felt it would be “better if she stepped down”. 

As defined by the Equality Act 2010, bullying is :”Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.”

Whilst the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” is important, the Prime Minister’s insistence and defence of Patel as a “fantastic Home Secretary” must feel, to those who are accusing her, like a slap in the face. Plenty of employers are forced to suspend employees pending investigation – it seems prudent when Patel must be facing increasing pressures. In the case that the allegations against her are true, it’s unlikely that the public nature of the accusations are making her behaviour better, potentially exacerbating the stress and ‘toxic atmosphere’ her accusers describe.

Employee guidance from Acas

The advice from Acas, the independent public body (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) on investigating claims of bullying are as follows: “Investigate the complaint promptly and objectively. Take the complaint seriously. Employees do not normally make serious accusations unless they feel seriously aggrieved. The investigation must be seen to be objective and independent. Decisions can then be made as to what action needs to be taken.

Standing up to bullying, or ‘whistleblowing’ about improper conduct must be one of the most daunting things someone can do within the workplace. Not only have those who rightfully accuse others been struggling with abuse or mistreatment – they will also likely withstand the stigma of speaking out and may even have their careers blighted. 

This difficulty is something that Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire suggested in parliament yesterday, noting that those who bully others get promoted, yet those who stand up for themselves lose their livelihoods. 

The difficulties of suspension

On the flip side, suspension, according to Acas, must never be done automatically. When launching its new guidance, back in 2018, Josh Hudson, one of Acas’ conciliators, warned that suspension should only happen in the most serious of circumstances”: “A recent decision by the High Court has found that suspension is no longer deemed to be a ‘neutral act’. That was the spanner thrown into the works by the case of Agoreyo v London Borough of Lambeth.”

The difficulty is, he points out, that ‘mud sticks’. In the case of teacher Agoreyo, according to Simmons & Simmons lawyers, they ruled the following: “suspension was not a neutral act because it changes the status quo from work to no work, and inevitably casts a shadow over the employee’s competence. The High Court emphasised that this was the case at least in relation to a qualified professional in a vocation, such as a teacher.”

Acas points out that suspension should only be considered under the following circumstances: if there is a serious allegation of misconduct – and – working relationships have severely broken down. I do believe it is arguable, given that a very senior civil servant has seen fit to resign in such a public and inflammatory manner, that Patel should be suspended pending investigation. You can’t get a more damaged working relationship than one that prompted resignation.

Awaiting the investigation’s conclusion

That Johnson and other senior colleagues have seen fit to issue statements in support of Patel is laudable from the point of view of anyone who needs a supportive boss, but it is considerably chilling to anyone thinking about issuing a new complaint against her. If the Prime Minister is already quite so ready to publicly show his support, perhaps it does call into question how impartial any Cabinet Office investigation could be. 

So far there’s no news on exactly what stage the investigation is at, nor when we can expect it to conclude. One only hopes that the investigation is thorough and takes every view point into consideration. In the meantime, I wish the best to all and any victims of workplace bullying. Aside from my dog constantly bugging me for scraps from my plate, it’s not something I’ve ever had to contend with, something I’m constantly grateful for. 

Have you experienced workplace bullying? Or been accused of gross misconduct? Let us know your experiences in the comments.

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