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Home secretary Priti Patel has been accused of dodging scrutiny over the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
The minister is due to answer MPs’ questions of the Commons’ powerful home affairs committee amid growing public concern over policing and the pandemic.
But Patel has drawn the ire of the committee chair, Labour’s Yvette Cooper, after trying to delay the session to the end of April – potentially six weeks after Boris Johnson began imposing strict curbs on Brits’ lives.
Letters – published by the committee – reveal how the two MPs clashed over the issue, with Cooper warning Patel “be ready to answer public questions without delay”.
The home secretary, who unlike many cabinet colleagues has yet to chair one of the daily Downing Street briefings on Covid-19, had offered to privately brief Cooper alongside civil servants.
But Cooper told the minister this offer was “not sufficient” and the secretary of state should “provide public information and answers to public questions at this crucial time”.
Patel had accused the MP of an “increasingly adversarial tone” and tried to push the date of the proposed session on coronavirus to the end of April.
Other committees attempting to scrutinise ministers have been able to grill those in office via video conference in order to keep to social distancing rules.
Cooper had suggested April 15 for the question-and-answer session.
Meanwhile, numerous police forces have been challenged over their enforcement of the lockdown, with fines and arrests made.
Domestic abuse victims have sounded the alarm over restrictions, with charities saying those at risk face being trapped at home with perpetrators.
Frontline staff in immigration centres have also raised the concern over shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Cooper wrote to Patel: “A prompt evidence session would allow the department to respond and publicly address urgent Covid-19 related issues including rising domestic violence, policing and enforcement, the provision of PPE and testing to frontline staff, immigration and visa rules, border quarantine arrangements, and infection control in immigration removal centres and asylum accommodation.”
The MP said “clarity” for the public could not wait, adding: “These are urgent issues with serious consequences for the spread of the disease and the safety of the public which are for the most part neither operationally sensitive nor classified and on which public information is needed.”
Cooper underlines the outbreak was “a time of national emergency where public information, reassurance, leadership, transparency and scrutiny are in the national interest”.
She added: “At a time like this, we therefore expect to see the home secretary and senior officials demonstrate public leadership and transparency and to be ready to answer public questions without delay.”
Patel said “operationally sensitive” data would have been available as part of the private briefings.
She said: “I am disappointed at the increasingly adversarial tone of our exchanges and I am very sorry that you have declined my offer of regular 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 she was “absolutely committed” to making the Home Office “open to scrutiny and transparency”, but added: “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 during this national crisis.”
A date has yet to be agreed between the two.
The home secretary is a controversial figure in Johnson’s cabinet. Before coronavirus gripped the UK, she had faced claims of bullying from senior civil servants, with Sir Philip Rutnam resigning and publicly accusing her of orchestrating a campaign against him.
The Cabinet Office had been due to investigate her alleged conduct.