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Boris Johnson fights off legal challenge over Priti Patel bullying claims

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA</span>
Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA

Boris Johnson has successfully fought off a high court challenge over his decision to back Priti Patel after accusations she had bullied civil servants.

The FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, brought a judicial review after the prime minister decided last year to go against the findings of his then adviser on ministerial standards in order to back the home secretary.

In a ruling released on Monday, Lord Justice Lewis, sitting with Mrs Justice Steyn, dismissed the FDA’s claim. Lewis said Johnson had not misdirected himself as to the provisions of the ministerial code when reaching his decision.

The judge said: “The question for this court is whether the prime minister proceeded on the basis that conduct would not fall within the description of bullying within paragraph 1.2 of the ministerial code if the person concerned was unaware of, or did not intend, the harm or offence caused.

“Reading the statement (made by Johnson) as a whole, and in context, we do not consider that the prime minister misdirected himself in that way.”

In an investigation into Patel’s behaviour, published in November last year, Sir Alex Allan, Johnson’s former adviser on ministerial standards, found she had not always treated civil servants with “consideration and respect”.

He concluded: “Her approach on occasions has amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying in terms of the impact felt by individuals. To that extent, her behaviour has been in breach of the ministerial code, even if unintentionally.”

Johnson, the arbiter of the ministerial code, said Patel was “unaware” of the impact she had and he was “reassured” she was “sorry for inadvertently upsetting those with whom she was working”.

After “weighing up all the factors”, he concluded the code had not been breached.

At a hearing last month, lawyers for the FDA, which represents senior public servants, argued Johnson “misinterpreted” the term “bullying” in the ministerial code when deciding if Patel’s treatment of civil servants breached its standards.

They alleged he made a “misdirection of law” in reaching his decision.

Lawyers for Johnson argued that the FDA’s claim was “not justiciable” and there had been “no error of law”. They said the ministerial code “does not create or impose any legal duties on ministers or the prime minister”, is “not required by law” and its contents “not regulated by law”.

Johnson’s lawyer claimed the code was a “political document” and “not about protecting the rights of civil servants” who still had access “to all the employment law rights”.

Allan left his role in Downing Street after Johnson contradicted his advice.

Reacting to the judgment, the FDA said it represented a step forward for civil servants because the high court had confirmed the prohibition on bullying, discrimination and harassment in the ministerial code is justiciable in the courts.

Dave Penman, the union’s general secretary, said: “The court has determined that the prime minister did not acquit the home secretary of bullying, and that he did not reject the findings of Sir Alex Allan that her conduct amounted to bullying.

“This will bring some comfort to those civil servants who were brave enough to come forward and give evidence to the investigation about the home secretary’s conduct.”

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