Papers Relating to the Home Secretary
Published date : 08 November, 2022
Will the hon. Member give way?
What a debate this is turning out to be on one side of the House. I cast my mind back to last week’s SNP Opposition day debate, and to other Opposition day debates. A single transferable speech seems to be rattling around about all the things that the Opposition could be talking about. The clue for Conservative Members is in the name. If they want to be in charge of choosing the topics for Opposition day debates, they should simply call a general election, which would be welcomed by the country.
Opposition day debates are about the things the Opposition want to talk about, which are very often the things that the Government desperately do not want to talk about. I do not blame the Government or the Paymaster General—the Paymaster General always seems to be the one sent out to defend the crease, even when the post holder changes—for not wanting to talk about the Home Secretary’s shockingly casual approach to security protocols, her apparent disregard for her officials’ legal advice or her extreme rhetoric, which is creating security risks and surely makes her completely unfit for any kind of public office.
We are often told that there are two things we should never see being made: laws and sausages. After the Paymaster General’s remarks today, we might need to add ministerial appointments to that list. It is astonishing that, six days after admitting she had broken the ministerial code and resigning, the Home Secretary was able to saunter back into her old job, off the back of her grubby deal to endorse the Prime Minister in the Conservative party’s leadership election.
It has been obvious in recent years that, whenever a Minister transgresses badly enough, even under this Government, to have to leave office, the time they have to spend in the ex-ministerial sin bin has diminished. I am not sure if that is always because standards have dropped, but the half-life of the radioactivity that results from political misdemeanours seems to have markedly reduced.
The Home Secretary’s reappointment to Government, never mind her reappointment as Home Secretary, raises some extremely serious questions, because there is not one but two emerging scandals surrounding her. Each one, in its own way, not only calls into question her competence and integrity in office but raises extremely serious questions about the judgment of the Prime Minister himself.
Members have spoken about the woeful situation at Manston and, with your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to move away slightly from the discussion of the unauthorised release of information
and talk about the obstinate refusal to disclose relevant information—surely that is completely the wrong way round for how Ministers should be operating. We have heard the Home Secretary’s approach to defending the way she dealt with legal advice; she did not, apparently, ignore it, but simply chose to act in a contrary and potentially unlawful fashion having read it.
What cannot be in dispute is that a facility designed to hold up to 1,600 people for no more than 24 hours at a time as a short-term processing facility became, under this Home Secretary’s watch, severely overcrowded. The result has been what the Prison Officers Association assistant general secretary Andy Baxter described as a
“humanitarian crisis on British soil”,
with people sleeping on cardboard in tents amid outbreaks of covid, diphtheria, scabies and hepatitis. David Neal the chief inspector of borders and immigration told the Home Affairs Committee that we are now past the point where we can describe Manston as being a safe facility.
All of that coincided with the Home Secretary’s first period in office. Although she denies this, numerous sources, both inside and outside Government, have stated that one major factor for that overcrowding was that the new Home Secretary was refusing to sign off on hotel accommodation—or “alternative accommodation”, call it whatever you like—that would have allowed people to move on from Manston. I tabled a named day question last week asking how many people had been rehoused in that alternative accommodation and how many such alternative places had been approved by the Home Secretary. Remarkably, the answer that came back refused to divulge that information, because, apparently, it could be obtained only at “disproportionate cost”. I do not think that disproportionate cost is something that can be measured in financial terms, but I hazard a guess that this would have come at a greatly disproportionate cost to the remaining credibility of the Home Secretary.
I go down that byway because paragraph 1(c) of the motion calls for the “minutes”, “submissions” and “communications relating to” the Home Secretary’s appointment or
“advice relating to that appointment”
to be disclosed. It would be extraordinary if the advice that we have been told was being proffered to the Home Secretary was dealt with and treated by her, through her actions, in the manner that many of us believe it was.
This debate is, of course, concerned with security rather than Manston itself, and the reason for that is simple: we know that, by her own admission, the Home Secretary sent confidential information from a secure government IT environment to her own personal Gmail account. She also sent information to another Member of this House, who was not authorised to receive it in that form. Incredibly, she also tried to send it on to the Member’s spouse’s email account and the only reason they failed to receive it was that the Home Secretary accidentally sent it to a different unauthorised recipient, a member of staff of a different parliamentarian. So there were two unauthorised recipients, one of whom it was sent to deliberately and the other of whom was an accidental recipient, every bit as unauthorised as the other intended recipient.
In her resignation letter, the Home Secretary claims to have “rapidly reported” the breach when she realised it. However, a former chairman of the Conservative party has said:
“As I understand it, the evidence was put to her and she accepted the evidence, rather than the other way round.”
In a letter to the Home Affairs Committee on 31 October, the Home Secretary wrote that she realised her error at 10 am and that by 10.2 am had emailed the staff member involved asking them to delete the document—whoop-de-doo. Despite that, the Home Secretary apparently did not think to email or contact the Chief Whip—this further contradicts her claim of rapidly reporting the breach—or, perhaps more pertinently, the permanent secretary or the Cabinet Secretary. It was nearly lunchtime when the Home Secretary said that, by coincidence, she saw the Chief Whip, who by then was already aware of what had happened. It is impossible to square the Home Secretary’s explanation of her actions and motivations with the timeline and the information that we now know. What I think is perhaps hardest to accept is the complete and utter insouciance of the Home Secretary in this matter. Indeed, if we were to take both her resignation letter and her letter to the Home Affairs Committee at face value, we could be forgiven for imagining that this was the first Home Secretary who had ever been forced to resign for doing absolutely nothing wrong.
To take the two most high profile resignations from this Government of late, there is some quite remarkable language used in the letters. The Home Secretary said that she was
“choosing to tender her resignation”,
when she should not even have been given the luxury of that choice. That is almost as good, if not better than, the line in the letter of resignation from the right hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng). He said:
“You have asked me to stand aside as your Chancellor. I have accepted.”
My goodness, how gracious of him! Nevertheless, there are serious discrepancies in the Home Secretary’s version of events around this breach.
When it comes to that laxness in IT and informational security, we know, of course, that the Home Secretary has form. She herself has conceded that, on six separate occasions, between 15 September and 16 October, she sent documents from her UK Government email environment to her personal Gmail account. That gives rise to a much, much wider issue, which is that, as a result, the UK is now in the absurd position where the Minister responsible for national security has, by her own actions and admissions, proved that she cannot be trusted with the integrity of sensitive documents. That has very serious implications—whether Conservative Members wish to hear it or not—for what the security services can be confident in sharing with the Home Secretary and consequently, flowing from that, serious issues about the accountability that there can be of the security services to Ministers. International partners will also have taken note, and I suspect that the explanations that have been given will cut little ice. They will simply see a security risk.
If the Prime Minister wants to restore some level of confidence in national security and in the office of Home Secretary, he now needs to remove this Home Secretary from office and commit to a full investigation
and to the release of all the relevant documentation to establish what exactly took place. If the Prime Minister was in the least bit serious when he talked of integrity and accountability in his Government, he needs to match those fine words with the reality of his actions: release that information and sack the Home Secretary.
As I have said, this matter raises very serious concerns about the Prime Minister’s judgment. That is why the information must be released. That is why the Government must release information also made available to the Prime Minister in deciding whether to reappoint the Home Secretary. That would allow us get to the bottom of it. It would allow us to reach an informed judgment and see whether it is justified that so many Members on the Opposition Benches take the view that the appointment of this Home Secretary was a very, very serious misjudgment indeed.
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