Priti Patel is involved in a bitter clash over coronavirus with Labour’s Yvette Cooper, who has accused the home secretary of dodging scrutiny by MPs.
But in a furious exchange of letters Ms Patel has accused Ms Cooper, who chairs the House of Commons home affairs committee, of being “adversarial” and wasting civil servants’ time during the coronavirus crisis.
The row is over demands by Ms Cooper – in no fewer than six letters – for the home secretary to appear before her committee to answer questions about the Home Office’s role in battling COVID-19.
The allegation against Ms Patel of evading scrutiny comes as her non-appearance, so far, at any of the daily Downing Street briefings on coronavirus is also being criticised, given the Home Office’s key role.
There will also be a suspicion that Ms Patel does not want to appear before Ms Cooper’s committee because she would be asked about bullying allegations and the resignation of her former Home Office permanent secretary Sir Philip Rutnam.
Ms Patel strenuously denies all allegations against her, which are still the subject of an ongoing Whitehall inquiry.
Ms Cooper says MPs want to quiz Ms Patel about issues arising out of the coronavirus crisis; such as domestic violence, policing and enforcement, testing and personal protection equipment for frontline staff, and quarantine arrangements.
But an angry Ms Patel has told Ms Cooper: “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.
“As I have said to you before, I am absolutely committed to ensuring the Home Office is better open to scrutiny and transparency.
“But 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.
“Nonetheless, I will make myself and my permanent secretaries available for a session with the committee, on our response to COVID-19, towards the end of the month.”
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A Home Office spokesperson said: “The home secretary has accepted the invitation to appear in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee before the end of April.
“As expected, she is currently leading the Home Office response during this national crisis, working tirelessly to keep the British public safe.”
But the end of the month is not good enough, according to Ms Cooper, who wants the committee to question the home secretary next week, on April 15, before the Commons is due to sit again after Easter on 21 April.
“We believe that there is no reason for any delay beyond this date given the importance of timely public information on the Home Office response to coronavirus,” Ms Cooper wrote in her latest letter.
She added her committee wants Ms Patel and the new permanent secretary – the Home Office’s top civil servant – to “provide public information, answer urgent questions, and provide any reassurance that is needed that the Home Office is properly dealing with this crisis”.
Ms Cooper wrote: “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.”
Since she became home secretary last July, Ms Patel has clashed several times with Ms Cooper, who has a reputation as a formidable committee chair.