Unions have called for tougher repercussions for ministers found to have mistreated staff, after Boris Johnson’s decision not to sack or reprimand Priti Patel despite an independent inquiry finding that she had bullied civil servants.
Johnson denied the ministerial code had been violated after the inquiry concluded otherwise, and insisted he had full faith in the home secretary.
Unions said the move undermined protections for workers, and risked setting a “worrying precedent” for workplace behaviour.
“Where investigations show bullying behaviour to be proved there must be sanctions, otherwise what’s the point?” the assistant general secretary of Unite, Gail Cartmail, said.
“Unite expects every workplace to have in place clear ‘dignity at work’ policies. Policies must be backed up by training on the procedure to employees can trigger if they are bullied. Without this, the claim to oppose bullying is just lip service.
“Workplace surveys show bullying is endemic and particularly damaging if used to exercise power over junior employees. Workers are likely to become less efficient and productive, with poor self-esteem and may suffer mental ill-health leading to sickness absence.”
Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), said: “Bosses must have a zero-tolerance policy and take complaints of abuse seriously. There is no place for bullying in any workplace, whether that’s on the shop floor or in the Houses of Parliament.
“Bullying is abusive behaviour that causes stress and anxiety, and it can have long-term effects on victims’ physical and mental health. Employers must not turn a blind eye or condone bullying in any way. If bullies are allowed to dominate a workplace, wider morale and productivity suffers too.”
Rehana Azam, the GMB national secretary, said the incident “demonstrates how this government led by Boris Johnson has allowed abhorrent behaviour and bullying to flourish against those who work to serve the public”.
“It shows how indispensable and vital unions are in providing safeguards to workers in the face of bad bosses like Ms Patel,” she said.
Henry Chango Lopez, the general secretary of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), said: “For the findings of an independent investigation to be so swiftly brushed aside by the prime minister sets a worrying precedent and a strong signal confirming what we already know: this government does not believe in human rights at work.”
IWGB said it represented precarious workers who “already face enormous barriers to report bullying at work”.
The unions have long been critical of the government’s record on working rights, winning a high court case last week over claims that the government failed to transpose EU health and safety protections into UK laws.
“We should not be surprised either by the home secretary’s record of bullying or by the prime minister’s alleged attempts to water down these findings,” Chango Lopez said.
The Cabinet Office inquiry uncovered instances of Patel shouting and swearing at staff, which the prime minister’s ethics advisor, Sir Alex Allan, said “amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying”.
Allan resigned on Friday after Johnson’s decision to override the report.
The findings followed the resignation of the Home Office’s permanent secretary, Sir Philip Rutnam, over what he described as Patel’s “vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign” against him.