Letters from immigration minister Caroline Nokes appear to show she knew about deportations months earlier than she claimed
The Home Office has been accused of being unfit for purpose and guilty of “shambolic incompetence” after letters written by Caroline Nokes, the immigration minister, appeared to contradict what she told a parliamentary committee about when she became aware of the problems experienced by highly skilled migrants.
Nokes last week told Yvette Cooper, the chair of the home affairs select committee, that she hadn’t had time to investigate revelations in the Guardian that at least 1,000 highly skilled migrants seeking indefinite leave to remain in the UK were wrongly facing deportation.
Officials were citing a paragraph of the Immigration Rules designed in part to tackle terrorists and individuals judged to be a threat to national security under the controversial 322(5) section of the Immigration Act.
At the committee hearing last week, Cooper asked Nokes: “Why have you not looked into what is happening, to find out how many of these cases are serious fraud cases and how many involve ‘trivial mistakes’?” Nokes replied: “Because there have been only two working days since this issue was flagged up”.
However, letters written by Nokes and obtained by the Guardian appear to show she was aware of the issue in February. They also suggest that concerns about the use of 322(5) were among the first issues she was made aware of when she took up theministerial role in January. Asked to respond, the Home Office declined to comment.
In the first letter, written to the Conservative MP Alok Sharma on 21 March, Nokes refers to a letter he sent her on 12 February. In the second letter, written to the Labour MP Anneliese Dodds on 13 March, Nokes refers to a letter Dodds sent her on 13 February. Both letters raised the cases of constituents facing deportation under the 322(5) section.
In both of her detailed replies, Nokes demonstrates an in-depth understanding of the issue and the individual cases, stating that while she is unable to comment on particular instances, “I can set out in general terms how my officials consider these types of application”.
Cooper told the Guardian it was unacceptable for Nokes to mislead the home affairs committee, which “has been given inaccurate information too many times already”.
“As I made clear on Tuesday, I was already very troubled that neither a minister nor a senior Home Office official had asked for a review of these cases since I raised the issue in parliament last week.
“If, in fact, ministers have known about and been discussing the problem for some time then we need some urgent clarification of the information we were given and an accurate account of what ministers agreed to,” she added. “The Home Office cannot keep providing inaccurate or incomplete information to parliament. We will be following this up to get to the facts.”
John Woodcock, an independent committee member who questioned Nokes at the hearing, accused the Home Office of “shambolic incompetence” and said he thought Nokes should be recalled to explain the “glaring contradiction between what she told the committee and the evidence of these letters”.
“Such a basic inaccuracy from a minister is a very serious matter whenever it occurs,” said the MP for Barrow and Furness. “But this from Caroline Nokes comes just after Amber Rudd lost her job for giving inaccurate information in what she knew [about the Windrush scandal], and after the permanent secretary was forced to defend one of his senior officials over accusations of lying to parliament alongside Amber Rudd.”
He said that 12 years ago the then home secretary, John Reid, declared the Home Office not fit for purpose, “and this lack of competency at the top, which is so clearly manifested by so many individuals being failed by the system, shows that the system is still not fit for purpose”.