Amber Rudd must, privately, be hopping mad about the Windrush row. Not only is she having to defend policies that her predecessor and now boss introduced when she was Home Secretary, she is also having to try to resolve the mess that was exacerbated by Number 10 in initially refusing a meeting with Commonwealth leaders about the matter, and then made worse still by Caroline Nokes’ interview suggesting that people had been wrongly deported when there was no such evidence of this happening.
That’s not to say that Rudd doesn’t have her own questions to answer: as she argued herself this afternoon when before the Home Affairs Committee, while the principle of the hostile environment immigration policy may well be right, the practice has been wrong. Her session was not a comfortable one. She was quizzed on her support both for the hostile environment policy and the net migration target, and naturally found it very difficult to answer questions on the latter because it is a pet project of Theresa May’s that Rudd is believed to be rather cooler on privately.
Yvette Cooper repeatedly asked whether she disagreed with the net migration target and had asked May to drop the policy, with Rudd claiming that ‘I have not discussed that with the Prime Minister’. She then added that ‘I think I’m not going to be drawn any further on private discussions’. Both phrases are a minister’s way of avoiding lying to a committee, which is a serious offence in Parliament. Both suggested that Rudd did disagree with the target. ‘I’ve had private conversations with the Prime Minister which will stay private, but I do not think the net migration target is the problem here,’ she said a little later.
She then struggled to explain what she meant by her claim in the Commons last week that ‘the Home Office has become too concerned with policy and strategy’. Of course, Rudd couldn’t blame her predecessor, so she had to fob MPs off with lines about ‘what I’m trying to do is look forward’ when they asked whether this wrong focus had developed under May.
The Home Secretary was clearly discombobulated by the experience, accidentally describing the row as ‘the whole Windrush saga’, then correcting this to ‘the whole Windrush sadness, really’. But she tried to be honest about her own involvement, telling the Committee that ‘it is disappointing that no previous government saw this coming, I certainly didn’t see it coming’. When Tim Loughton asked her if the matter could actually have been dealt with ten years ago, she said ‘I wish it had been, yes’. That may pin blame on the last Labour government, but then again, the Conservatives have been banging on about clearing up the mess of that last government for the eight years that they’ve been in power, yet seem to have missed this particular problem.
Cooper then read from a devastating impact assessment about new immigration measures in 2016, claiming that the Home Office had ignored it. Rudd asked whether this document mentioned Windrush, to which Cooper snapped back that the absence of the ‘hashtag Windrush’ didn’t mean the Home Office shouldn’t have noted the problem.
Rudd’s performance today was awkward, and she has clearly been damaged by the row over the past two weeks. What could damage her still further is if it turns out that there are more groups than those in the Windrush generation who were systematically treated as illegal immigrants by the Home Office. A number of MPs on the committee were highlighting non-Windrush cases today. Cooper herself warned of crises coming down the line that she said would appall the minister. If the row does widen much further, Rudd will find herself realising that the Home Office isn’t quite the stepping stone to even greater things that May managed to make it appear: it normally has a reputation as being the graveyard for senior politicians.