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Officials ‘blocked access to witness’ in Priti Patel inquiry

The Guardian logo The Guardian 21/11/2020 Mark Townsend and Toby Helm
a man sitting in a chair talking on a cell phone: Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Boris Johnson’s former adviser on ministerial standards was prevented from interviewing a key witness for his formal bullying inquiry into Priti Patel, an act that stopped him accessing the home secretary’s foremost accuser.

Legal and Whitehall sources have revealed that Sir Alex Allan sought to interview the former top Home Office civil servant Sir Philip Rutnam about his dealings with Patel, but was blocked by government officials.

Allan’s bullying inquiry was launched by the prime minister following the resignation of Rutnam over’s Patel’s alleged behaviour and he is suing the government for constructive dismissal. Sources say Allan was informed he could not interview Rutnam for his independent inquiry because of the legal action.

Allan, however, felt that his inquiry was being denied potentially crucial evidence. The inability of the prime minister’s former ethics adviser to question Rutnam also prompted a “spirited row” within the government’s legal department.

Even so, he uncovered sufficient material to conclude that Patel had broken the code governing ministers’ behaviour.

On Friday Allan resigned after the prime minister took the unprecedented step of exonerating Patel, who has refused to resign.

“Allan bent over backwards to be as fair as possible to the home secretary but the weight of evidence was such that he still came to the conclusion that Patel had bullied staff,” said a legal source.

Following Friday’s disclosure that Patel’s behaviour had broken the rules she claimed she was unaware of her conduct. If Allan, however, had been allowed to question Rutnam it would have clearly undermined her defence.

Alex Allan wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: Sir Alex Allan. Photograph: PA © Provided by The Guardian Sir Alex Allan. Photograph: PA

On Saturday questions emerged over whether Johnson had attempted to tone down the bullying report amid claims Allan had resisted pressure to make the findings more “palatable”.


Video: Ministerial standards adviser quits as PM contradicts his Patel bullying advice (PA Media)

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Sources with knowledge of Allan’s inquiry into Patel confirmed that he had come under “a lot of pressure.”

It has also emerged that Allan’s investigation was conducted far more quickly than previously reported and that it was on the prime minister’s desk as early as April. It means Johnson elected to sit on its damning findings for seven months until pressure grew so intense that he had no option but to make its findings public.

Pressure, meanwhile, continued to mount on Johnson with the former home secretary and Tory veteran Ken Clarke expressing his concern about the prime minister’s refusal to sack Patel, adding he was troubled by the “awkward situation”.

Another former home secretary, Jack Straw, told the Observer that Patel’s bullying appeared to originate from a profound misunderstanding of how her department functions.

“The stance she takes is based on a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the problems in the Home Office,” said Straw, home secretary from 1997 to 2001.

Meanwhile, a former Tory cabinet minister said the fact that Patel could survive was extraordinary enough, but equally incredible was the prime minister’s behaviour in rallying his MPs behind an effort to defend her.

The senior figure, now on the backbenches, said: “He [Johnson] has a formal role, a kind of judicial role, in the process. He should at least try to show respect for that. Instead he just sticks two fingers up at the whole process.”

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - NOVEMBER 11: (EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION IN UK NEWSPAPERS UNTIL 24 HOURS AFTER CREATE DATE AND TIME) Prime Minister Boris Johnson (seen wearing a face mask with a number 10 embroidered into it) attends a service to mark the centenary of the burial of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey on November 11, 2020 in London, England. The service is to commemorate the funeral of an unknown British serviceman, the Unknown Warrior, whose body was brought from Northern France and buried at the west end of the nave in Westminster Abbey on 11th November 1920 to represent all those who lost their lives in the First World War but whose place of death was not known, or whose bodies remained unidentified. (Photo by Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images/Pool) © Getty Images LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - NOVEMBER 11: (EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION IN UK NEWSPAPERS UNTIL 24 HOURS AFTER CREATE DATE AND TIME) Prime Minister Boris Johnson (seen wearing a face mask with a number 10 embroidered into it) attends a service to mark the centenary of the burial of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey on November 11, 2020 in London, England. The service is to commemorate the funeral of an unknown British serviceman, the Unknown Warrior, whose body was brought from Northern France and buried at the west end of the nave in Westminster Abbey on 11th November 1920 to represent all those who lost their lives in the First World War but whose place of death was not known, or whose bodies remained unidentified. (Photo by Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images/Pool)

Away from Westminster, senior figures from the immigration and asylum sector said Patel’s refusal to resign had destroyed any shred of “political legitimacy” she had left.

Bella Sankey of Detention Action, whose legal action against deportation flights last February prompted allegations of Patel bullying senior Home Office staff, said she had become a “joke” figure among many.

She said: “The idea that she is seen credibly or is someone who has any political legitimacy or clout given these revelations is gone. Given her conduct, rhetoric and policy since becoming home secretary she’s become a byword for a joke.”

Sankey also took aim at claims from some Patel supporters that the attacks against the home secretary carried undertones of sexism and racism. “I’m a proud mixed-race woman – a woman of colour in public life is something to be massively celebrated but it does not mean there are lesser standards that people are expected to uphold based on their gender and ethnicity.”

Sankey added: “She does no credit to either of those characteristics by not doing the honourable thing in this situation, which is to consider her position.”

Jacqueline McKenzie, the lawyer representing 200 victims of the Windrush scandal, said:We do not yet know all of the details but I’m disturbed by what we do know. Here is a department responsible for making and implementing policy aimed at some of the most vulnerable people in society, including migrants, refugees, people trafficked, victims of crime and abuse and those affected by the Windrush scandal.

“I want to be confident that the person leading this work measures up to the highest standard of professionalism and accountability. I expect this from their senior managers too.”

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