The Home Office’s second permanent secretary Olly Robbins has been given a tough time by the Home Affairs Select Committee over his “extremely unsatisfactory” answers on the funding of the Border Force.
Robbins — who oversees the Home Office’s immigration directorates — was repeatedly pressed by committee chair Keith Vaz on whether Border Force director general Charles Montgomery had been informed of his organisation’s budget for the year ahead.
Montgomery told the committee in December that the Home Office’s Spending Review settlement — which called for resource savings of 5% across the wider department and a 30% reduction in administrative spending — had yet to be allocated among its agencies, and he was unable to tell MPs whether the Border Force would see its funding increased or cut. The Border Force chief said, however, that he “would expect to know before the start of the business year”.
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Vaz (pictured below) returned to that line of questioning in Robbins’ first appearance before the committee this week, but the HASC chair was unimpressed by the second perm sec’s responses, and sent him back to the Home Office to provide further detail.
Vaz asked: “Has Charles Montogomery been told what his budget is for this year?”
That prompted Robbins to reply: “We know what funds the Border Force needs in order to deliver the plan for this year and Charles has them.”
The HASC chair continued to press the point, asking Robbins to say “either yes or no” to the question of whether Montgomery had been informed of his budget.
Robbins replied: “Ever since the settlement with the Treasury, we’ve had a good amount of certainty about what numbers we’re going to be working to.”
But that failed to placate Vaz, who interrupted Robbins, saying: “We don’t need to know that. I’m asking you a specific question. I know it’s your first appearance before this select committee. We’d prefer to have straightforward answers to our questions. Does he know what his budget is?”
Robbins said the Border Force was “trying to manage a whole series of uncertainties”, but Vaz said the second perm sec’s response had been “very unsatisfactory”.
“I’m surprised that you cannot answer a question about whether or not someone who is reporting to you knows what their budget is,” Vaz said.
“My next letter will be to Sir Charles Montgomery and I will ask him to appear before us next week if necessary. You know, this is a very serious matter. This is a committee of the House. Our duty is to scrutinise the Home Office. You’re the second permanent secretary, you’ve told us what your remit is. Does he now know what his budget is? Has somebody told him?”
Vaz appeared to take particular issue when Robbins pointed out that home secretary Theresa May had already provided detail on the Border Force’s funding to her Labour opposite number Andy Burnham, something Vaz said had "nothing to do" with his committee's work.
"I don’t think you understand the role of a select committee," Vaz said.
When Vaz again asked the question of whether or not Montgomery had been told about his funding, Robbins replied: “I’m afraid it’s not easy to answer it in a simple yes or no Mr Chairman. That’s all I’m trying to say.”
But he said Montgomery had "certainty about the things that we have known for months that the Border Force needs to do this year", and pointed out that the Home Office did not normally publish details of funding settlements below departmental level.
After a further fifteen minutes of questioning on the e-borders programme and English language testing, Vaz again returned to the Border Force funding question and then decided to excuse Robbins from the committee because of his “unsatisfactory” evidence.
“I’m going to give you the opportunity to go back to the Home Office and respond to this committee by 6pm,” he said.
“I’m not asking you, let us be clear, what the budget of Sir Charles Montgomery is. I’m asking you to tell me whether he knows what it is […] I would be grateful if you would let me know by 6pm today whether he knows what it is. That is all this committee is asking. Mr Burnham is not a member of this committee. So what goes on between him and the home secretary is entirely different.”