Priti Patel has insisted the Home Office has “always been forthcoming in being open to scrutiny”, after being chastised by a committee of MPs for the way the department has responded to attempts to investigate the barracks accommodation in which asylum seekers have been detained.
The home secretary was forced to defend her department in a letter to Home Affairs Committee chair Yvette Cooper last week after the Labour MP challenged the department’s apparent radio silence about a proposed visit to Napier Barracks in the House of Commons.
The committee is investigating conditions at Napier, where asylum seekers have been detained since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic last year. The MPs were especially concerned to hear people were being made to sleep in dormitories of up to 28 people, before a major outbreak of Covid.
A court judgement in June found the barracks in Kent provided inadequate accommodation for asylum seekers; that its residents were unlawfully detained under Covid rules; and that the home secretary’s process for selecting people to be held at the site was unlawful.
Raising a point of order on 12 July, Cooper said the committee had approached the Home Office four weeks earlier about visiting Napier barracks and Tug Haven reception centre for asylum seekers.
“We had planned to visit today, but we have not received any response from the Home Office, and as a result we are here, not there,” she told Commons speaker Lindsay Hoyle.
“Given the importance of this, given the court judgments there have been about Napier barracks, and given our committee’s ongoing inquiry into this matter, the whole committee is very concerned about the lack of response and our inability to facilitate this visit.”
“Please can you advise me and the committee on the responsibilities of the Home Office to work with the committee to facilitate scrutiny and visits such as these, and on what more we should do to try to get such a visit before the summer recess?”
A second member of the Home Affairs Committee, the Conservative MP Tim Loughton, added to Cooper’s comments, saying she had underplayed "the urgency of this matter”.
“For the past month, we have been asking to visit Napier. We have been fobbed off numerous times, and I have to say that this is not an isolated incident: increasingly, it is becoming difficult to get responses from Home Office officials and ministers, never mind to get them in front of us here in a timely fashion,” he said.
“This particular visit is directly related to some evidence that was given to us by ministers, which has now turned out to be highly questionable, and which impacts on reviews and reports that we are currently preparing,” he added.
In May, the committee took Patel and Home Office permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft to task after they said there were “clear contradictions” between evidence the two had provided on conditions at Napier and the findings of an inspection of the facility.
The Home Office has also been slow to respond to enquiries from the MPs about Napier Barracks and the advice provided to the department about ensuring accommodation is safe during the pandemic by Public Health England.
Loughton added: “How on earth can we get responses from the Home Office in a timely fashion without committee members and officials wasting time in constantly chasing them, or having to raise it on the floor of the house, as the chair of the select committee and others have done on countless occasions?”
In her response, dated 13 July, Patel said departmental officials had been considering the request to visit the site “carefully in the context of Covid to make sure the visit could be carried out in line with Covid restrictions, and this has led to a regrettable delay in responding”.
She said the committee would be welcome to visit the barracks after 19 July – the date on which many coronavirus restrictions are set to lift in England. She added that officials would be “happy to urgently progress” the matter so the committee could visit before the summer parliamentary recess begins at the end of the month.
She added: “I noted the two points of order… and would like to apologise for the delay for responding in this instance. However, I do feel the Home Office have always been forthcoming in being open to scrutiny, and appearing before your committee, and the Home Office is responding to letters within reasonable timescales.
“In the context of this visit, I understand my officials have kept the committee’s clerks updated and explained the fact that this was being considered in the context of Covid.”