The Home Office permanent secretary is conducting an inquiry into recent leaks from his department that led to the resignation of home secretary Amber Rudd.
Philip Rutnam is organising the inquiry following a series of leaks to the Guardian on the Windrush scandal, including information sent to Rudd’s office about the department’s use of deportation targets.
Rudd had told the Home Affairs Committee that the Home Office did not have targets for removal of illegal immigrants, contradicting testimony from Lucy Moreton, the general secretary of the ISU, a trade union for borders and immigration staff. Rudd resigned on Sunday, stating that she should have been aware of the targets and had “inadvertently misled” the committee, and was replaced by Sajid Javid on Monday.
Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden told MPs on the Public Administration and Public Affairs Committee yesterday that the Home Office had launched an inquiry into the leaks.
Rudd’s resignation followed public furore over the treatment of the so-called Windrush generation – Caribbean-born British citizens who had been threatened with deportation or lost access to public services because they did not have the right documentation to prove their right to remain in the UK.
The issue was discussed by MPs yesterday during a PACAC hearing as part of its inquiry into civil service effectiveness
Rupa Huq, a Labour MP and a member of PACAC, commented on speculation that civil servants had leaked internal communications as a “retaliatory action”, after Rudd appeared to blame her officials for the scandal for becoming too focused on policy and losing sight of individuals.
Dowden, a former special adviser to then prime minister David Cameron who now holds the civil service brief in the Cabinet Office, said: “The conduct of civil servants is principally guided by the civil service code. The enforcement of that is the responsibility of the cabinet secretary, working with permanent secretaries in each department.
“So, in respect of the alleged leak, I understand the Home Office is conducting a leak inquiry and the perm sec is clearly organising that process.”
Dowden also said he would update the committee on progress made in the civil service inquiry into the Department for Exiting the European Union impact assessments leaked in January. The documents, leaked to the BuzzFeed News, appeared to show that Brexit would have an adverse effect on almost every sector and region.
The Home Office refused to comment on its leak inquiry.
Rupert McNeil, civil service chief people officer, told the committee that officials were guided by the civil service code, which is “embedded in management codes in each department, in which we include, for example, provisions around the Official Secrets Act”.
He agreed to write to the committee with information on the range of sanctions available to discipline civil servants who breach the code, and how often they are exercised.
Elsewhere, Bernard Jenkin, PACAC chair and Conservative MP, said the Home Office “seems to have been a bit of a punchbag for successive secretaries of state, not least the most recently departed seemed to be criticising her officials for her predicament rather than taking responsibility for herself”.
Jenkin asked Dowden whether he thought ministers should ever be able to justify blaming officials for the outcome of a policy.
Dowden replied: “The doctrine of ministerial accountability is very clear that they are accountable to Parliament for their actions. I think in the case of the home secretary, she has followed that.”
He also said it was very rare for ministers to criticise their civil servants in public, but refused to agree with Jenkin that this should “never” be justified.
He added: “If you’re saying to me are there no circumstances in which a minister can in any context comment on the sort of advice they’ve received, I think that is acceptable. But the principle is clear and I think ministers adhere to it, that they are responsible to Parliament for their department.”
The committee also discussed Oliver Robbins, the prime minister’s most senior civil service Brexit advisor, who was defended by cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood earlier this week after pro-Brexit politicians called for Theresa May to sack Robbins over his advice on creating a customs partnership with the EU.
Dowden defended the government against the charge put forward by Jenkin that “the only reason Olly Robbins has become so prominent is there’s a lack of collective responsibility amongst ministers”.
Dowden said: “I’m afraid I disagree with you on that. I think that there is clear collective responsibility.
“Cabinet has discussed Brexit and reached collective positions on it, and agreed with the prime minister’s position. There are Cabinet sub-committees that deal with various aspects of it in relation to the negotiation strategy, in relation to the domestic implementation of it.
“All of those proceed on the basis of collective responsibility.”