Priti Patel and bullying accusations

At the end of last week, we saw the conclusions of the investigation into claims that Priti Patel, the Home Secretary had bullied staff.  It is important to note what was actually reported.  I quote at length the substance of the conclusions here.

“The Ministerial Code says “ministers should be professional in their working relationships with the civil service and treat all those with whom they come into contact with consideration and respect.

I believe civil servants – particularly senior civil servants – should be expected to handle robust criticism but should not have to face behaviour that goes beyond that.

The home secretary says that she puts great store by professional, open relationships. She is action orientated and can be direct.

The home secretary has also become – justifiably in many instances – frustrated by the Home Office leadership’s lack of responsiveness and the lack of support she felt in the Department for International Development (Dfid) three years ago.

The evidence is that this has manifested itself in forceful expression, including some occasions of shouting and swearing.

This may not be done intentionally to cause upset, but that has been the effect on some individuals.”[1]

The report states that Patel did not make comments about people’s personal characteristics of the sort that could be considered harassment.  It recognises that she was not acting intentionally, however, it observes that her behaviour was experienced as bullying by her staff.

We are probably left in the worst of all worlds by its outcome. The Prime Minister seems to believe that he is justified in concluding that bullying did not happen and giving the Home Secretary a clean bill of health. With rumours circulating that he had asked for the report to be “palatable” the view of many (and not just the obvious suspects in the opposition) is that she is a bully. We are not helped by the decision of Alex Aiken, author of the report and ethical advisor to the PM to resign in its aftermath. This kind of suggests that he is not happy with the response to the report. I suspect many will believe that he used gentle civil service language which he hoped would nudge the Prime Minister in the right direction without too much loss of face.  Boris Johnson did not take the hint.

So, what are we to make of all of this?  I want to suggest a couple of thoughts here.  First of all, I think we do live in a day and age where people struggle with robust conversation and strong emotions.  It is not, in and of itself, bullying to have a strong emotional response and to express frustration and anger.  Indeed, many people will perhaps identify with a situation where the establishment has put up the walls and made it impossible for an individual to do her job leading to the emotional floodgates to open. This in itself is a form of bullying and I have written before about how bullies operating in packs can in fact use under the radar behaviour that prods and provokes their victim until they lose it and appear to be the guilty party. You know the situation in school, pokes, nips, whispered insults, hiding of pencil cases etc until the bullied child stands up shouts at and tries to punch their tormentor. It is then the victim who finds themselves escorted to the Head Teacher’s office.

However, if what in fact was happening, was a sustained, daily torrent of foul language. If civil servants were subject to humiliation in front of their peers and those who worked for them, then that would amount to bullying. You see, this creates an unpleasant workplace environment which people dread going to each day.

To a great extent, we are no further forward in knowing which of these two possibilities it was. Indeed, I tend to suspect that we are dealing with a mixture of both.  It sounds like the Home Office has become a toxic environment where individuals are blocked and frustrated in their work but also a place where the same individuals resort to aggressive behaviour, shouting and swearing to get their way. 

We have not been given enough information to draw our own conclusions and there is a risk that the verdict we come to, may be influenced more by our own political presuppositions.  If you were prominent in accusing Gordon Brown and John Bercow of bullying but cannot see it here at all, then that may suggest an element of political bias. Similarly, the converse is true.

Before I conclude, I want to pick up on two common misunderstandings. The first is that the civil servants involved were senior people and so should have been robust enough to cope with anything thrown their way. I think this plays into the same sort of outlook which is dismissive of emotional health problems.  There is an element of “just man up” here.  The reality is that you can be senior and robust but constantly being subject to shouting, swearing and belittling can and will cause emotional wounding.  No-one, no matter how senior or well paid wants to go into a workplace like that.

Secondly, there is the line that any bullying was unintentional and that breach of the ministerial code was inadvertent.  The other day, my friend Steve Kneale wrote an article about racist responses to the Sainsbury’s Christmas advert. He was upbraided for this on social media by those who thought he was seeking to read people’s hearts.  You don’t need to read a heart to see if language or actions are racist because this is an objective issue.  The Bible distinguishes high handed, intentional sin from ignorant sin but both are still sin.  My point is that we too often assume that it is only the motive that matters but God’s Word does not say that.  Sin is still sin, bullying is still bullying, whether or not intentionally.

For those reasons, the fact that the ethics advisor states that, even advertently, Priti Patel broke the ministerial code should make her position untenable.  At the same time, there are serious questions to ask about the culture of the Home Office and behaviour of senior civil servants. No-one has covered themselves in glory in this episode. More important for us as Christians looking in is to consider our own relationships.  There have been too many allegations and investigations concerning bullying and abuse in church circles over the past few years.  It is no good for any of us to hide behind unintentionality. We need to stop and regularly ask what affect our words and actions are having and whether or not those actions are obedient to Scripture. Similarly, we need to ask whether or not the church cultures we create are healthy, Biblical, grace filled cultures.

[1] Priti Patel: Summary of official report into bullying claims – BBC News

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