Home secretary Priti Patel has been accused of lacking the commitment to transparency of her peers and predecessors by Home Affairs Select Committee chair Yvette Cooper.
A collection of letters between Cooper and Patel – and new Home Office perm sec Matthew Rycroft – published yesterday display mounting exasperation on the part of the committee that Patel has been unwilling for “many weeks to fix a date to appear before MPs”.
One of the more recent letters, dated 8 April, thanks Patel for agreeing to give evidence to the committee “this month” and suggests 15 April for a remote hearing – then warns the home secretary against “delaying to the end of the month”. Cooper suggests such a move would “clearly be inappropriate given the urgency of the public information and answers that are needed”.
Cooper said the public, parliament and other relevant organisations needed more information on the Home Office’s response to Covid-19, including the provision of personal protective equipment to frontline staff, immigration and visa rules, infection control in immigration removal centres and rising domestic violence.
“This evidence session should be a good opportunity for you and the permanent secretary to provide public information, answer urgent questions, and provide any reassurance that is needed that the Home Office is properly dealing with this crisis,” the letter said.
“That is why we need to hold it at the earliest opportunity, and it is why we have been asking you to come to give evidence for very many weeks in continued correspondence.”
The home secretary’s next appearance before the select committee will also be the panel’s first opportunity to question her on the high-profile resignation of previous perm sec Sir Philip Rutnam. He quit his role at the end of February, alleging Patel had created a “culture of fear” at the department and said he planned to launch a claim for constructive dismissal against the government. Patel has denied the claims.
Rutnam’s resignation followed an intense few days of briefing in which sources close to Patel unpacked the disintegrating relationship between the secretary of state and her perm sec.
In her most recent published letter, select committee chair Cooper acknowledged Patel’s offer of private briefings for MPs, but said it was “not sufficient” as an alternative to a public evidence session on issues of public concern when details were generally neither operationally sensitive nor classified.
“We welcome any additional classified and operationally sensitive briefings you wish to provide us, but as I am sure you will understand, they are really not an alternative to having a home secretary provide public information and answers to public questions at this crucial time,” she said.
“We continue to welcome the transparent approach by other ministers, including the justice secretary, work and pensions secretary, transport secretary and health secretary, who have either given evidence to their select committees already or who have agreed an early date to do so.
“We welcome the similarly transparent approach of your predecessors who have always agreed to give evidence whenever we have asked them to do so, in recognition that the very purpose of the select committee is to seek evidence from the home secretary and to scrutinise the work of the Home Office.”
Earlier this week, Patel wrote to Cooper to say she was “disappointed” with both the “increasingly adversarial” tone of exchanges and the decision to decline her offer of briefings with officials and ministers at the Home Office.
“I feel my proposal strikes an important balance between ensuring the department receives that vital scrutiny, while ensuring the committee can receive operationally sensitive, and sometimes classified, updates at this time of national emergency,” Patel said.
“I am absolutely committed to ensuring the Home Office is better open to scrutiny and transparency, but I am conscious of the need to give Home Office members of staff the time and space they need to carry out their essential duty of keeping the British public safe.”
She added that she would make herself and her permanent secretaries available for a session with the committee “on our response to Covid-19” towards the end of the month.
A separate letter to Cooper sent by Matthew Rycroft on 7 April said he welcomed the committee’s hard work to hold the department to account “on matters such as its new immigration policy, preparations for Covid-19 and many other aspects of Home Office policy”.
He concluded: “I look forward to working with you in the near future”.