May taken to task by MPs over immigration row

Theresa May's reputation for conference is under threat
Theresa May's reputation for conference is under threate

By Ian Dunt

Theresa May's reputation for competence took a hammer blow today, after she was subjected to a hostile interrogation by the home affairs committee.

The home secretary, whose disappointing Commons performance yesterday saw sections of the press turn against her, was told that she had lost control of the UK Border Agency by committee chairman Keith Vaz, who engaged in a frosty exchange with Ms May.

Mr Vaz highlighted a leaked internal document with major differences to Ms May's account to MPs.

The two-page document, written by Tom Dowdall, the Border Force's head of operations and performance, suggests the border control regime's change was for reasons of excessive queuing, rather than for security reasons as Ms May told the Commons yesterday.

It also suggested the decision to stop checking the chip in EU passports was "routine" rather than a limited exercise and that senior managers on the ground could authorise further extensions, a claim Ms May denies.

"What concerns me is the difference between what you think was happening and what the memo was saying," Mr Vaz said.

"You see the difference between the language you have given the committee today, to the House yesterday, which was explicitly clear.

"You would expect people to listen to the home secretary."

Ms May replied: "I was not aware the extension of relaxation of checks had taken place. I was not aware a number of relaxations were put in place by officials.

"Brodie Clarke [head of Border Force] has admitted… he did go beyond ministerial authority."

She added: "I take full responsibility for my decisions."

Labour member David Winnick said: "So there's no possibility of you resigning?"

Ms May replied: "No."

Ms May admits authorising watered-down checks on Britons and EU nationals during the busy summer months but Labour insists the home secretary gave a "green light" to a much wider policy.

The row poses a serious problem for Ms May, who has earned a strong reputation in parliament for keeping her head down and conducting herself competently in a job which can often cripples promising political careers.

Her appearance in front of the home affairs committee could be the decisive factor in whether she survives the row.

It is a topic which the committee approaches with a particularly robust attitude. UK Border Agency (UKBA) officials are called in to answer questions every three months – considerably more than those in similar agencies – due to the perception of systemic failure across almost all aspects of its remit.

In a recent report, MPs on the committee mocked the agency for hiding lost applications in a file marked 'controlled archive' and failing to address 18,000 legacy cases.

Three staff have already been suspended from UKBA. Three separate inquiries have been launched into what happened.

The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) has warned that new efforts will be needed to keep control of queues at immigration when another 5,200 staff are cut from UKBA.


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