The Sketch: Official ignorance punished with brutal questions

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The Independent Online

That nice young Liam Byrne, with the engaging smile, he became the second Home Office minister to fly into the ack-ack of the European Scrutiny Committee. His wreckage mingles with Joan Ryan's (the Marigold gloves are all that is identifiably Joan).

Michael Connarty's committee had joined forces with John Denham's to punish the Home Office for its attempt to slip the Bulgaria/Romania debacle through the House by means of a written statement.

The punishment was the most brutal the House can inflict. It was publicly to ask the minister questions that he couldn't answer. Poor Liam smiled his charming smile but it wasn't enough.

Dr John "Night Tripper" Reid had remembered the predictions of 13,000 Poles coming over to work here (real number? Maybe 600,000. Maybe double that). So he announced restrictions on the rights of Bulgarians and Romanians to work here.

To summarise David Heathcote-Amory: Isn't this a contradiction? You are preventing these migrants from working here legally, and yet they have a right to come with their wives and families - and thanks to certain new regulations, they have unrestricted access to welfare, education and the NHS.

Aren't you trying to restrict immigration without the means to do so? No answer to that.

So how many Bulgarians and Romanians are expected? The answer was comparatively specific. "It would be very unwise to make predictions about future flows." But at some length he asserted that the predicted 13,000. Polish migrants was never a Home Office figure.

John Denham: "You commissioned it. You paid for it. You published it. You took comfort from it. And now you'd rather not ask the question at all." No answer to that.

James Clappison: "How much additional housing has been predicted to be needed?"

"There's a short-term figure and a long-term figure," the minister began, hopelessly. Pressured further: "It's a question we want to pose rather than answer." He didn't know that the Government's estimate was for 60,000. Bits of the minister were now falling off.

"If it's not possible to predict numbers," another asked, "how do we plan public services to cope?"

That was "a question of extreme importance" to which he didn't know the answer. However, it was "an opportunity to develop in a far more sophisticated way, Local Area Agreements." An opportunity!

What about his assessment of the non-EU nationals with false EU passports?

"My assessment is there is still a risk there to be managed."

James Clappison finished off the poor fellow. If the Home Office didn't know how many migrants might come and refused to speculate on how many might come, and hadn't even tried to find out how many might come - surely the Home Secretary wouldn't have much input in discussions as to how to deal with migration? No answer.

"The horse is not dead," John Denham said moving on, "but it is well flogged."