February 29, 2020 / 10:52 AM / a month ago

Top British home office mandarin quits over minister's behavior

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s top official in the ministry responsible for policing resigned on Saturday after clashes with Home Office minister Priti Patel, in the latest test of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plans for overhauling how the government operates.

FILE PHOTO - Britain's Home Secretary Priti Patel leaves Downing Street 10 in London, Britain February 13, 2020. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

Johnson forced the resignation of his finance minister this month as part of a shake-up of how the government functions amid reports that he wants to change other top government officials.

Philip Rutnam said he was stepping down because he had become the “target of vicious and orchestrated campaign against him”, which he alleged Patel was involved in.

The civil servant’s resignation comes after reports last weekend of tensions between the pair and allegations that Patel mistreated officials and tried to removed Rutnam from her department, which she has denied.

The Home Office declined to comment on Saturday when asked for Patel’s response to Rutnam’s resignation and allegations.

Rutnam, who has worked in government for 33 years, took the unusual step of making a statement outside his home, in which he also said he would sue the government over his departure.

“My experience has been extreme. But I consider there is evidence that it was part of a wider pattern of behavior,” Rutnam said.

“I have received allegations that her conduct has included shouting and swearing, belittling people, making unreasonable and repeated demands - behavior that created fear.”

NO ENGAGEMENT

Rutnam said he had made attempts to reconcile the situation with Patel, at the request of the prime minister.

“But despite my efforts to engage with her, Priti Patel has made no efforts to engage with me to discuss this,” he said.

Rutnam said that this gave him “very strong claims” for constructive dismissal, which he would be pursuing.

Mark Sedwill, the country’s top civil servant, thanked Rutnam and expressed regret at his decision to resign.

Rutnam said the Home Office had offered him a financial settlement to avoid his public resignation – but said he hoped his decision to pursue damages would lead to changes.

Catherine Haddon, senior fellow at the Institute for Government, said Rutnam’s comments that he had turned down a settlement could have significant ramifications.

“Behavior of ministers has not been tested in court in this way,” she said. “It would be extraordinary to see it played out there.”

The opposition Labour Party called for Patel or Johnson to make a statement to the House of Commons on Monday answering questions about Rutnam’s claims.

“Priti Patel’s own position as home secretary must now also be in question,” said Stephen Doughty, a Labour lawmaker on parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee.

Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s senior adviser, is driving the changes to how the government functions, saying there are “profound problems” with how decisions are made.

Sajid Javid quit as finance minister this month after losing a power struggle with the prime minister over who should control Britain’s economy.

In other changes, Johnson’s office has already tightened its grip on the advisers who are hired by ministers to provide media and policy support.

Patel was forced to resign as Britain’s aid minister in 2017 over undisclosed meetings with Israeli officials.

Reporting by Andrew MacAskill; Editing by Alexander Smith

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