By: Jasmine Hughes
In the foreword to the current Ministerial Code, Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes a clear statement: “There must be no bullying and no harassment.”
The Ministerial Code, although not a legally binding set of rules, is intended to offer guidance to Ministers allowing them to navigate their position of influence and power in a manner that adheres to set standards, where all Ministers are expected to follow it. The Ministerial Code ought to be read in conjunction with the Seven Principles of Public Life, a set of ethical standards that apply to all who hold public-office, and which lay out core ideas such as accountability. In previous years, accusations of a breach of Ministerial Code has seen the resignation of some of those accused of breaching it such as Michael Fallon in 2017, and Liam Fox in 2011.
However, when it was announced that an Inquiry had concluded that Home Secretary Priti Patel had breached the rules of the Ministerial Code, with one source stating that the report had found that Patel “had not met the requirements of the ministerial code to treat civil servants with consideration and respect.”, no such resignation took place. This is not the first time that Patel has been found to be in breach of the Ministerial Code -- in November 2017, she was made to resign from her position as international development secretary over her attendance at 14 unofficial meetings with Isreali ministers, and other significant Isreali figures. Despite this fact, Patel now seemingly faces no consequences for her recent breach of Ministerial Code.
Even though Sir Alex Allan, the ministerial standards advisor, found that Patel’s approach “amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying”. Bullying is a clear and direct violation of General Principle 1.2 of the Code stating that “bullying… will not be tolerated”, but despite this, the matter ultimately rests in the hands of the Prime Minister where Boris Johnson is the final judge on the behaviour exhibited by Ministers. Johnson, however, has made the decision to take no further action on the matter stating that his “judgment is that the Ministerial Code was not breached.”
The issue with the Prime Minister’s decision to take no action against Patel is two-fold. Firstly, it is an issue that speaks to a wider sentiment that is currently being felt by some of the general public; the idea that, of late, there seems to be ‘one rule for them, and another for us.’ There is an aspect of irony in the fact that the conclusion of Sir Alex’s report was announced during anti-bullying week, and it is a fact that perhaps draws attention increasingly so to the expectation placed on employers to ensure that the workplace is a safe and harassment-free environment for all employees. Employers are expected to have in place an anti-bullying policy that has guidance on how incidents of bullying within the workplace are dealt with. Failing to deal with incidents of bullying that lead to an individual ultimately leaving their job, that individual may even be able to claim constructive unfair dismissal -- which is exactly the claim that Priti Patel’s former permanent secretary, Sir Philip Rutnam, lodged.
Considering this factor, that a precedent is placed on dealing with bullying in the workplace effectively and accordingly, it seems unjust that the Home Secretary is facing no consequences for her actions -- that Boris Johnson is not dealing with bullying in the way that most employers are expected to. It is a fact that Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds stated is “tantamount to condoning bullying”. Parallels can be drawn between this and Boris Johnson’s lack of action over Dominic Cummings’ visit to Barnard Castle earlier on in the year. At a time when so many are sacrificing so much for the benefit of public health, the Conservatives are at risk of creating an atmosphere of frustration amongst the general public as they continue to seemingly play by rules that are different to the ones we are bound to follow.
This in turn leads on to a second, wider, issue. Though it is ultimately the Prime Minister’s decision as to how the Ministerial Code ought to be enforced, in 2006 the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interest was appointed, serving as an independent check. They cannot instigate their own investigations, and are appointed by the Prime Minister. The overarching principle of the Ministerial Code is to provide a framework by which the Prime Minister can effectively hold ministers to account. The fact that Boris Johnson has, in essence, dismissed the findings of Sir Alex is concerning, and perhaps suggests that changes ought to be made in regards to how ministers are held to account. If a Prime Minister can easily disregard the findings of the Independent Advisor, it leads one to wonder quite how effective a system it really is.
This concern has been echoed by Lord Evans, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, who stated:
“this episode raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the current arrangements for investigating and responding to breaches of the Ministerial Code.”
Suggestions that the Ministerial Code ought to be taken out of the hands of the Prime Minister have both been made and rebutted in the past. There are concerns that implementing a fully independent investigatory mechanism in order to sanction breaches of the Ministerial Code would undermine the core principle that, ultimately, ministers are only in office for as long as they hold the Prime Ministers confidence. Yet, in light of events such as this - where Priti Patel has undoubtedly retained the confidence of Boris Johnson yet, simultaneously, lost confidence in the eyes of members of the public - it seems to overlook the opinions of both Parliament and the polity.
Then, as Lord Evans suggests, perhaps it is time for changes to the current system regarding the Ministerial Code to be considered. At the very least, it seems sagacious to argue that there should be measures in place to stop Prime Ministers from completely bypassing the suggestions of the Independent Advisor -- for doing so seems to undermine the appointment of the Independent Advisor altogether.
Priti Patel’s breach of the Ministerial Code, and the subsequent lack of action taken against her, has thus raised questions as to how ministers that break the Ministerial Code, or any other such rule they are bound to follow, should be dealt with. Following the doubts raised by Lord Evans, it seems possible that reforms may be on the horizon.