Boris Johnson has asked the Cabinet Office to “establish the facts” following allegations that Home Secretary Priti Patel has breached the ministerial code.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove confirmed the action being taken following an urgent question from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
He addressed the Commons after Sir Philip Rutnam quit as permanent secretary of the Home Office after rows with Ms Patel, with allegations of bullying levelled against the Home Secretary.
Mr Gove told MPs: “Allegations have been made that the Home Secretary has breached the ministerial code. The Home Secretary absolutely rejects these allegations.
Iâm not sure that debate in Parliament will have done anything to reassure civil servants that any concerns they have on ministerial bullying are anything other than a convenient political football to kick between the Govt and opposition benches.— Dave Penman (@FDAGenSec) March 2, 2020
“The Prime Minister has expressed his full confidence in her, and having worked closely with the Home Secretary over a number of years, I have the highest regard for her, she is a superb minister doing a great job.
“This Government always takes any complaints relating to the ministerial code seriously, and in line with the process set out in the ministerial code the Prime Minister has asked the Cabinet Office to establish the facts.
“As is usual, the independent adviser on ministerial interests, Sir Alex Allan, is available to provide advice to the Prime Minister.”
Mr Gove said the Government would not comment on an individual matter, in line with its long-standing policy, before praising the Home Office ministers and civil servants.
Mr Corbyn said if the “serious allegations” raised by Sir Philip about the Home Secretary’s conduct are true “then that would clearly constitute a breach of the ministerial code”.
He added: “Why, without a proper investigation, has the Prime Minister defended the Home Secretary, calling her fantastic and saying he absolutely has confidence in her?
“It’s not enough just to refer this to the Cabinet Office, the Government must now call in an external lawyer, as quite rightly suggested by the union for senior civil servants, the First Division Association.
“A minister in breach of the ministerial code cannot remain in office and should be dismissed.”
Mr Corbyn said: “Isn’t the truth that this is a Government led by bullies, presided over by a part-time Prime Minister who not only can’t be bothered to turn up but simply won’t take the vital action required when the very integrity and credibility of the Government is on the line.”
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union – which represents senior civil servants, said: “The announcement that the Cabinet Office has been tasked with ‘establishing the facts’ in relation to the allegations being made against the Home Secretary falls far short of the independent inquiry we have called for.
“The Government is establishing an inquiry that civil servants are expected to have trust in, whilst at the same time ministers stand at the despatch box and pledge their confidence in the Home Secretary.
“We will of course work with the Cabinet Secretary in relation to his inquiry. However, the decision is symptomatic of the broader concerns we have on the lack of an independent, transparent and fair process for investigating and determining complaints.”
Meanwhile, the BBC reported that a former aide to the Home Secretary received a £25,000 payout after claiming she was bullied by the minister.
The broadcaster said it had seen legal correspondence claiming the woman had taken an overdose following the alleged incident in 2015, when Ms Patel was employment minister.
The BBC said a junior employee at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) brought a complaint of bullying and harassment against the department after being dismissed in October 2015.
The DWP did not admit liability and the case did not come before a tribunal, the BBC added.
Labour leadership hopeful Keir Starmer described the allegations as “incredibly serious”.
He tweeted: “I welcome the announcement that the Cabinet Secretary will be holding an inquiry into the Home Secretary’s conduct. However, we need assurances that this inquiry will cover Priti Patel’s entire career as a minister.”