Boris Johnson ‘misinterpreted’ the term ‘bullying’ in ministerial code when deciding if Priti Patel had breached standards in her treatment of civil servants, High Court hears
- The PM ‘misinterpreted’ the code in Home Secretary ‘bullying’ row last summer
- FDA Union brings legal challenge over Boris Johnson defending Priti Patel
- Ms Patel, 49, has already apologised for her treatment of her civil servants
- Investigation found she bullied staff, sometimes shouting and swearing at them
The Prime Minister ‘misinterpreted’ the term ‘bullying’ in the ministerial code when deciding if the Home Secretary’s treatment of civil servants breached its standards, the High Court has been told.
The FDA union is bringing a legal challenge over Boris Johnson’s decision last year to stand by Priti Patel following accusations of bullying.
Lawyers for the union, which represents senior public servants, argue Mr Johnson made a ‘misdirection of law’ when he went against the findings of his adviser on ministerial standards in order to back Ms Patel.
Ms Patel, 49, apologised for her treatment of civil servants last year after an official investigation found she bullied staff, on occasion shouting and swearing at them.
The PM let the Home Secretary off with an apology after the investigation launched in March found she broke the ministerial code but also blasted ‘inflexible’ civil servants for obstructing her.
In an investigation into Ms Patel’s behaviour, published in November last year, Sir Alex Allan found she had not always treated civil servants with ‘consideration and respect’.
He concluded: ‘Her approach on occasions has amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying in terms of the impact felt by individuals. To that extent her behaviour has been in breach of the ministerial code, even if unintentionally.’
Home Secretary Priti Patel, 49, apologised for her treatment of civil servants last year after an official investigation found she bullied staff, on occasion shouting and swearing at them
Mr Johnson, the arbiter of the ministerial code, said the Home Secretary was ‘unaware’ of the impact she had and he was ‘reassured’ she was ‘sorry for inadvertently upsetting those with whom she was working’.
After ‘weighing up all the factors’, he concluded the code had not been breached.
Referencing the Prime Minister’s conclusion, Tom Hickman QC, representing the FDA, told a hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice on Wednesday: ‘We say on any fair reading of those words the Prime Minister must have considered that where conduct which otherwise amounts to bullying is inadvertent or that the person is unaware of the distress and upset caused then that is an excuse, a reason why it does not constitute bullying.
‘We say that is a misdirection of law.’
Mr Hickman said that other than Sir Alex’s report, ‘there was no other advice or direction considered by the Prime Minister in making his decision’.
In written submissions to the court, Mr Hickman said the FDA was concerned about the ‘significant implications’ if the ministerial code ‘means that it only protects civil servants from bullying if that conduct is accompanied by an awareness or intention on the part of the minister of the harmful consequences of their conduct’.
He added: ‘This would result in double standards, with ministers subject to different, more lenient, standards than those which apply to civil servants.
‘It would fail to uphold the assurance given to all civil servants that in the Government workplace bullying in any form will not be tolerated from any source.’
Mr Hickman added in written submissions that the FDA, some of whose members were ‘directly involved’ in the investigation of the Home Secretary, is not asking the court to ‘express any view’ on whether she ‘committed the actions alleged against her’ or ‘the sanctions, if any, that should follow from her actions’.
He called on judges to declare that Mr Johnson ‘misinterpreted the term bullying in the ministerial code’.
Boris Johnson let the Home Secretary off with an apology after the investigation launched in March found she broke the ministerial code but also blasted ‘inflexible’ civil servants for obstructing her
In written submissions, Sir James Eadie QC, for the Prime Minister, argued the FDA’s claim is ‘not justiciable’.
He said the ministerial code ‘does not create or impose any legal duties on ministers or the Prime Minister’ and is ‘not required by law’ and its contents ‘not regulated by law’.
Sir James added: ‘Rather, it is a political statement by the Prime Minister as to how he intends to operate his relationship with his ministers and the standards he will judge them by when considering whether they retain his confidence.’
He also said the code ‘does not expressly or implicitly incorporate any definition of bullying’, arguing that ‘subjective experience and objective intention are elements to be considered in relation to any bullying claim but there is no single correct approach to the weight that must be given to them in a given case’.
Sir James said Mr Johnson’s decision ‘was a matter of judgment for him having regard to the nature of the code, his functions under it, and all the circumstances of the case’.
He concluded: ‘His decision on the issue reveals no error of law.’
Sir Alex left his role in Downing Street after Mr Johnson contradicted his advice.
Following the publication of his report, Ms Patel issued an ‘unreserved, fulsome apology’ and said there were ‘no excuses’ for what happened.
The FDA’s case, being heard by Lord Justice Lewis and Mrs Justice Steyn at the Royal Courts of Justice, continues.
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