To lose one Home Secretary as a result of a select committee appearance is bad enough. You might think it would concentrate a department’s mind before they go back in front of the same select committee.
But Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes and her senior officials seem to have done little advance thinking about their appearance in front of Yvette Cooper’s committee on Tuesday. Their evidence was baffling to Parliament, unsettling for citizens, unclear for employers and undermined any goodwill created by assurances the Prime Minister had given.
It was the refusal to admit that free movement cannot end in March 2019 that got the Home Office into hot water
At the heart of their problem was a refusal to come clean on a simple fact: the Home Office will not have the systems in place to end free movement (to “turn the tap off” as the new Second Permanent Secretary Shona Dunn repeatedly put it) by March 2019. Not when they will only just have turned on the tap of the new settled status scheme. This was clear back in 2017.
They could have told the committee about the progress they are making, reported the next day, in developing and testing the settled status scheme. But instead, all the evidence given left the committee (and anyone watching) struggling to find a coherent message.
At least this time the Home Office was a bit quicker off the mark with its rebuttal. The department issued a clarification, reassuring EU citizens and businesses that as far as migration goes there would be no change in March next year – deal or no deal.
The real test of the culture change will be when the Home Office is confronted with some difficult cases – the sort where in the past its reaction has seemed to be to reject and resist, applying the letter rather than the spirit of the rules. But Nokes and her officials could have used their committee appearance to start their communications effort to both EU citizens and employers.
It took two weeks for the Home Office to tell EU citizens signed up to its alert system about the Prime Minister’s unilateral post-Salzburg offer. But even that communication lacked any detail on what they could expect to happen and when.
Advice to EU citizens has been the gaping hole in the Government’s 105 technical notices. Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab has said that is because the subject is not appropriate for a technical notice (even though pet passports are!).
The subject is even less appropriate for a communications void. This is an area where the UK need not wait for the EU – but by giving assurances quickly about what the new processes may be, may have benefits not just for EU citizens in the UK and the people who employ them, but also for UK citizens living in the EU. The French, for example, have made clear that they will decide their treatment of Brits in France once they have seen how the UK treats French citizens here.