The Next Legal Drama: Rutnam v Patel
Priti Patel is at the centre of attention again (this time on a much serious matter than her mathematical errors) and is facing legal action after her former permanent secretary, Sir Philip Rutnam, lodged an employment tribunal claim for constructive dismissal and whistleblowing last Monday saying he was forced from his job for exposing her bullying behaviour.
It comes after Rutnam rather dramatically, resigned from his post in February as head of Home Office civil servants.
A constructive dismissal claim is brought when you are forced to leave your job against your will because of your employer’s conduct. That conduct must be so serious that you had no option but to resign, for continuing to work may imply to your employer that you accepted the conduct or treatment towards you. Rutnam is therefore entitled to treat himself as being dismissed. The law then treats the resignation as a form of unfair dismissal – or to quote it fully – “constructive unfair dismissal”.
Rutnam in his resignation statement on 29 February, said that he had confronted Ms Patel over her behaviour, after receiving complaints of “shouting and swearing, belittling people, making unreasonable and repeated demands” 1 which caused fear among staff in the department.
Pressure has been mounting on Ms Patel to resign as Home Secretary however she has denied all allegations of bullying. Negotiations had been underway for an exit package including a payoff if Rutnam left the department quietly but these discussions broke down. There are plenty of options within the Civil Service for example to move people to a different department and for mediation between the parties. At this stage, it is too early to speculate about the motivations behind Rutnam’s decision to go public with what many political commentators and journalists have described as an “explosive” resignation statement.
What we do know is there is no doubt that for a senior civil servant to take this course of action, Sir Philip must certainly have the courage and confidence in his claim because regardless of the outcome, this will potentially cause a damage in relations between the government and Whitehall.
This is certainly a case one should keep an eye on – not just because it is against Priti Patel, but it is believed to be the first time a cabinet minister has been forced to defend an employment tribunal constructive dismissal claim from their own department’s permanent secretary.
The maximum amount of compensation for an unfair dismissal claim is approximately £85,000 but adding whistleblowing allegations to this claim means that the compensation amount, should Rutman win, becomes unlimited.2
“Unlimited” – the legal mind can conjure up all sorts of numbers. Perhaps, if Sir Philip’s claim is upheld, he could receive as much as Ms Patel’s bizarrely, bungled figure of “three hundred thousand, thirty four, nine hundred and seventy four thousand” pounds i.e. 300,034,974,000 which she stated last week was the number of coronavirus tests conducted in the UK. If this case results in any compensation, as much as lawyers claim to prefer English to Mathematics, it is best the calculations are left to the legal team.
Najia Robbani is a committee member and trainee solicitor at Thompsons, where her training focuses on Employment Rights, Clinical Negligence and Criminal Litigation.
- Sir Philip Rutnam’s full public statement of resignation: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/feb/29/philip-rutnam-resignation-his-full-statement
- The leading case on whistleblowing in the UK – https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/news/whistleblowing-judge-denied-her-human-rights-rules-supreme-court/5101824.article