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5 March 2020updated 23 Jul 2021 9:40am

The Priti Patel allegations highlight Westminster’s serious bullying problem

The issue of bullying goes beyond a few high-profile names and spans every political party. 

By Ailbhe Rea

The Priti Patel story rumbles on this morning, amid fresh allegations that the Home Secretary threw a folder at a civil servant, hitting him in the face, in 2016 when she was employment minister. The claim, which she denies, is added to the raft of allegations spanning Patel’s career at the DWP, DfID and Home Office which have emerged since Philip Rutnam’s shock resignation from the Home Office at the weekend.

There is plenty to analyse in the ongoing story – not least how damaging this really is to Patel (as Stephen wrote yesterday, it is – whatever your personal views on this – probably no bad thing for Brand Patel to be seen as “tough” on staff when her appeal to voters is predicated on an extreme toughness on crime and immigration). It would appear that the Home Secretary’s position would only become untenable in the event that the Cabinet Office inquiry into her conduct arrives at a damning conclusion. In the meantime, Boris Johnson and colleagues have been ardently defending her, even if this is causing increasing consternation among Tory MPs, who reportedly resent being ordered by party whips to publicly defend her.

The Patel drama also provides a new framework to consider the government’s priorities: as the Spectator’s Katy Balls has compellingly written, the government is so desperate to keep her because she represents one half of the government’s offer: she embodies a “hang ’em and lash ’em” approach to law and order, counterbalanced by the government’s promises to increase investment spending and level up the economy.

But the Patel allegations also speak to the serious bullying problem that exists in Westminster. Following the excellent bullying investigation conducted by Newsnight several years ago and the findings of two reports on Westminster bullying (the Cox report and the White report), it feels terribly repetitive to point out yet again that bullying is endemic in Westminster, that many of the MPs accused of bullying have faced no repercussions, and that the findings of these reports have yet to be implemented.

Crucially, this isn’t because politicians are more likely to be bullies than those other professions; at least, if this is the case, it certainly isn’t the only reason for the prevalence of this problem. Rather, our politicians are elected on one set of skills (connecting with voters, campaigning, public speaking) and then elected into a position that requires an entirely different skillset (hiring and managing, alongside others). The problem in some cases may be individual, but it is also structural. MPs arrive often with no experience of managing other people, and are often ill-equipped to run the independent business that an MP’s office comprises. There is, furthermore, no training in people management or best practise, leading to widespread poor working practices, baked in by a lack of clear processes, including a system by which party whips often sit on bad stories about their MPs as ammunition to ensure the MP can be pressurised to vote with the party.

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Meg Hillier, the Labour MP for Hackney South and chair of the important Public Accounts Committee, ran for the position of Speaker at the end of last year to highlight precisely this issue. Warning that bullying “could be the next expenses scandal”, she outlined to the NS in detail the problems within the system and how they should be tackled. Those of us who work in Westminster know that this problem is far more widespread than a few high-profile names and spans every political party. It also, crucially, tends to impact on very young parliamentary staff who are often in their first job out of university.

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While the spotlight is on the Home Secretary and her treatment of civil servants, I recommend re-reading Meg Hillier’s comments for a sober and detailed take on the wider structural problems within working practices in Westminster. It’s worth highlighting again and again until the dial eventually shifts.