What PM knew about Priti Patel ‘bully’ claims could be kept secret from tribunal

Priti Patel's 'bullying' storm deepened today after a top official warned he could refuse to tell a tribunal what Boris Johnson knew about her behaviour.

Sir Mark Sedwill refused to say what he told the Prime Minister about Ms Patel, if anything, before she was made Home Secretary last summer.

The Cabinet Secretary, who is in charge of the civil service, said he would have had conversations with the Prime Minister about Cabinet appointees – but refused to comment on an individual case.

Sir Mark even suggested he could withhold this information if he is demanded to produce it as part of an employment tribunal – which is expected after Ms Patel's top official quit in a blaze of bullying claims.

Ms Patel has denied claims about her behaviour from workers in three departments since Philip Rutnam, permanent secretary at the Home Office, resigned and vowed to bring a tribunal.

That tribunal could, in theory, question Ms Patel or the government on the wider complaints against her – including one incident which is said to have happened when she was employment minister.

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But Sir Mark told MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee: "My advice to the Prime Minister is always private and we never, ever get into specifics

“Of course when the Prime Minister is considering appointments, part of my role is to give them advice I can on my knowledge of the individuals they’re considering appointing across the range.

“But I don’t want to be more specific than that. You’ll understand that’s always a private matter between the Cabinet Secretary of the day and the Prime Minister of the day.”

Asked if the information would still be private if he was asked at an employment tribunal, Sir Mark said: “I don’t know, I’d have to seek legal advice of legal counsel in those circumstances.

"But I would not expect private advice between then Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister to be subject to that kind of proceeding. We’ll have to see."

Downing Street has refused to say whether it knew of any complaint against Ms Patel before she was made Home Secretary last summer.

Boris Johnson's official spokesman claimed commenting could prejudice a legal case.

The Cabinet Office is carrying out an internal inquiry into allegations against Ms Patel.

But the Prime Minister has rowed in behind her before it even finishes, saying "I'm sticking by her" and adding: "The Home Secretary is doing a fantastic job – I have every confidence in her."

Sir Mark said he "regretted" Philip Rutnam's resignation but there was no need to overhaul bullying rules.

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He told MPs: "This is clearly a very regrettable incident. I regret Philip Rutnam's decision to resign and hoped it could have been avoided. And we have to allow that case and indeed the other investigations to take their course.

"I don’t think we should necessarily be trying to write further regulations around relationships that in the vast majority of cases are conducted professionally and in accordance with both the letter and the spirits of the various codes.

"There are tensions and difficulties – we deal with those when they arise.  In general I think the mechanisms we have available to us are adequate to the task.

“And our expectation is that senior and experienced professional people conduct professional relationships with each other.

He said there were processes within Whitehall for dealing with complaints of bullying, whether by ministers or officials.

Often they resulted in "some kind behavioural intervention" such as "advice or coaching on the impact that they might be having on others", although there were formal sanctions for the most serious cases.

Sir Mark confirmed there had been cases where senior officials had been "moved on" to other posts when the relationship with ministers had broken down.

However he said that there was an expectation that ministers and officials would use their "best endeavours" to make the relationship work in the interests of good government.

He added ministers should behave "professionally and courteously" in their dealings with their officials, saying: "Our expectation is that these are professional people – as in any big organisation. The job of the Civil Service is to support ministers, build a relationship of confidence and trust with them," he said.

"The expectation on ministers also to conduct themselves professionally and courteously and try to get the best out of their Civil Service team.

"That is the most effective way of delivering the Government's agenda. If it doesn't work, then it doesn't work and we will take whatever the appropriate action might be."

Ms Patel has categorically denied all accusations of bullying.

A Tory source told BBC Newsnight previously: "What we are seeing is a concerted effort by certain sections of the Civil Service to undermine a Home Secretary trying to deliver what people want on crime and immigration.

"It is deeply disturbing that dark forces are trying to influence the findings of a Cabinet Office inquiry."

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