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The Yvette Cooper interview: 'Priti Patel's Home Office is failing'

The Yvette Cooper interview: 'Priti Patel's Home Office is failing'
11 min read

Yvette Cooper is back on the Labour front bench and in a brief which is familiar territory. The shadow home secretary talks to Sienna Rodgers about how she hopes new leadership will change Labour’s fortunes – and why she would do a better job than Priti Patel

Priti Patel leaves Yvette Cooper frustrated. It is more intense than the standard level of frustration felt by politicians in long-term opposition; it is the contempt of a former minister who prides herself on a keen attention to detail and believes she could solve many of the most pressing problems currently facing the Home Secretary with her eyes shut.

Cooper expects high standards from all who surround her, whether that be the politicians who come under her scrutiny or her aides. Just as Labour leader Keir Starmer has recently aimed withering remarks at the Prime Minister, so the shadow home secretary has made her disdain for Patel clear across the despatch box. She conveys that same strength of feeling in our interview.

Patel is “the weakest home secretary that I’ve ever seen”, Cooper tells The House. “Ultimately, this is about leadership. But effectively, the Home Office is in special measures at the moment, because huge swathes of policy are ending up having to be handed over to other government departments instead. Because Priti Patel's Home Office is failing.”

The Channel crossings were handed over to the Cabinet Office, then the Ministry of Defence, while the Homes for Ukraine scheme was given to Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, she points out. “All because the Home Office is not seen as being capable, under Priti Patel, of delivering.”

While Cooper does not underestimate the difficulty of the Home Secretary’s job, she evidently thinks she would be far more capable in her place. “How can we come to a situation where the number of asylum decisions taken a year could halve in the space of six years? How could any minister allow that kind of collapse in decision-making without taking basic action to sort it out?” she asks. “There's no plan coming from Priti Patel to sort any of these problems out – not even actually any recognition that there are problems.”

Spelling out the dividing lines between herself and Patel as she sees them, Cooper says: “I think there's probably a big difference in our approach, which is [that] I will focus on the detail and delivery and what's happening in practice. I don't believe that that's Priti Patel's approach. Her approach has been to focus on headlines rather than on practical deliveries.” The priority is “to be thorough” – “otherwise,” Cooper adds, you get “a very weak home secretary”.

“I do not understand why she hasn't sorted out the Ukraine visa delays. I just don't understand it,” she says, sounding genuinely astonished. “Why would any minister not just get rid of those delays? I don't understand why she doesn't do those sorts of basic things.”

Cooper confirms she has applied to the Homes for Ukraine scheme, but “we're stuck in the same vortex as everybody else”. Her household has matched with a Ukrainian family who will live with them in her constituency home, but they are still waiting for visas at the time of our interview. The MP is taking the same approach to the refugee family as she does her to her children, however, and will not give any other details.

Cooper blames Home Office failings on a “laissez faire attitude,” a “lack of leadership” and a tendency to “go for headlines and then not deliver anything”. “It's a funny experience, having done the job before… The things that we were worried about 10 years ago actually have come to pass. And I feel much more worried about them now.”

“I do not understand why she hasn't sorted out the Ukraine visa delays. I just don't understand it”

The shadow home secretary has been stuck as an opposition MP for 12 years. After Labour lost the 2010 general election, her husband Ed Balls unsuccessfully ran for the leadership, and in 2015 she did the same, defeated by a most unlikely victor who no longer holds the party whip. The results of these internal battles can only add to her frustration that neither Ed Miliband nor Jeremy Corbyn won back the keys to No 10.

“It's really important for us to be a party of government. And with Keir's leadership, that is exactly what we look like,” Cooper says. The post-Corbyn Labour Party has been swiftly overhauled under the new leadership – and she clearly approves, describing it as “much more serious” now. “We had to get our act together, and that's what Keir has done.”

Cooper is a tough nut to crack: determined not to commit news, she does not give away much. She describes her experience of the Corbyn years only in the most diplomatic way, saying: “It was a chance to actually do some really interesting things.”

She did not take up a shadow ministerial post, but nor did she twiddle her thumbs on the back benches. The former minister directed her energies towards the Home Affairs Select Committee, which she “really enjoyed” chairing. Parliamentary committees are now being taken “much more seriously”, she enthuses, and her position offered her the “chance to get into huge detail” on home affairs policy. As a detail-oriented politician, this suited her well.

Over her 25-year parliamentary career, Cooper has occupied the back benches only twice: at the start of her life as an MP in 1997, and during the Corbyn era. And she is back at the forefront now, having once again taken up the role of shadow home secretary. Starmer used an extensive reshuffle in November to appoint her to the same job she performed under Miliband. Cooper claims she was not expecting the Labour leader’s call that day, though there had been widespread talk of her possible return to the shadow cabinet.

My understanding is that Cooper was unconvinced about the idea of returning to the front bench, which required giving up her high-profile (and lucrative) committee chair post; and was particularly hesitant about the redux nature of the home affairs appointment, holding up the reshuffle by negotiating extra duties (she also became chair of a working group on the “digital future”). Asked to confirm these reports, Cooper is characteristically subtle.

“You always have to think hard about what best impact you can have in different roles,” comes her cautious reply. She was “keen” to explore Labour’s “optimistic vision of the future” and examine the question of how the party should “respond to the new technological revolution in the way that we responded to the industrial revolution”. “I think we have to have that scale of big vision again.”

Yvette Cooper

Slowly, Labour is setting out where it now stands on the key issues of the day. The party has slammed the government announcement of a Rwanda deal, under which some asylum seekers who arrive in the UK via means considered to be illegal by Patel will be sent to east Africa. In response, Conservatives in sections of the party accuse the opposition of still failing to understand the Brexit result, along with voter concerns over small boats bringing unauthorised immigrants across the channel. What would Cooper say to that?

“What you need to have is workable policies,” she says. The Rwanda plan comes at an “eyewatering cost”, with “no proper details about how it would work” and “huge problems with the practicalities”. She compares it to Theresa May’s net migration target, “rightly ditched” by Boris Johnson, adding: “If you just go for headlines that end up making problems worse, what you do is you corrode trust, you end up creating greater division, and it's just highly irresponsible.”

Often, when Cooper tweets, critics on the left will reply with a photo of her with the infamous “controls on immigration mug” from the Miliband era. “That’s not a real photo,” she is quick to point out. But there was criticism of that positioning, which took place when she was last shadow home secretary. What does she make of that now? Has she moved on immigration?

“Yeah, so I wasn't involved in any of that mug stuff,” Cooper replies. She goes on to say that “there is much more consensus around immigration than people tend to recognise” and that “immigration is really important for Britain” but people also want it “managed and controlled in an effective way”. In sum: “That was the approach that we took before 2015. It is the approach that I will continue to take.”

The other huge issue in Cooper’s brief is crime. “There is a silent decline taking place in trust in policing and the criminal justice system, and the government is doing nothing about it. And to me that feels dangerous,” she warns. Consulting her figures, she picks out a stat: just 5.4 per cent of violence against the person offences result in a charge or summons – down from 18.7 per cent just six years ago. “It's actually never been so easy to be a criminal as it is under the Tories now.”

Labour has promised to open “police hubs’” in every community and Cooper is keen to stress the importance of “restoring neighbourhood policing”. She cites the principle that “the police are the public, the public are the police”. Asked what needs to be done to address concerns that policing by consent has taken damaging hits in relation to violence against women over the last year, she has a long list of areas that merit review: from more effective training to thorough vetting and taking in an “overhaul” of the misconduct and standards process to a probe into how social media and WhatsApp groups are used within policing.

“It's actually never been so easy to be a criminal as it is under the Tories now.”

“The Home Office has a responsibility to make sure that policing standards rise,” Cooper says. “There are police officers who take huge risks, who run towards danger when the rest of us have to run away.” And yet, in the face of the debate on policing standards, she believes the Conservatives and Home Office have “stood back and shrugged their shoulders”. She compares the response, unfavourably, to the 1999 Macpherson Report into police racism and the Stephen Lawrence case, and to what she describes as a “partnership” between “a Labour Home Office and the police”.

On violence against women and girls, Cooper says: “Today, in England and Wales, it's estimated that around 300 women will be raped. And of those cases, less than three of those rapists will end up in court, never mind in a jail cell. And that is just truly appalling.” She criticises the government for undertaking “small, piecemeal pilot schemes” for “no-brainers”. Expressing her obvious frustration again, she asks: “Why is it a pilot scheme to say what we're going to do is investigate the perpetrator rather than the victim? Why is that a pilot scheme?”

Cooper is proud to have made a concrete change for “thousands of victims” at the start of this year. “I did persuade the government to change the law on the six-month time limit for prosecuting domestic abuse, which is something that has come up with a case in my constituency,” she explains. Her amendment to the policing bill was “initially resisted,” but later accepted by Dominic Raab. The satisfaction this gives Cooper underlines the thorough exasperation that she plainly feels as a former minister who has been stuck in opposition for over a decade.

When we talk, Westminster is abuzz with rumours that Ed Balls, the former Treasury minister who lost his Morley and Outwood seat in 2015, may be interested in running in the forthcoming Wakefield byelection. Could we see the pair return as a Westminster power couple? “Ed has always said the same thing about all of this. He's always said, 'look, never say never'. But he's enjoying himself at the moment. He's got a lot of things on,” she says, laughing. Later that day, he tweets to confirm he will not be running for the seat.

The “never say never” answer appears to apply equally to the question of her standing for the Labour leadership again. “I want to be home secretary,” Cooper replies dutifully. But she adds that deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner is “right” to maintain that “people should be ready to go for different jobs and so on in the future”. Considering Rayner is widely tipped to be a contender when the race to replace Starmer comes, it sounds – reading between the carefully crafted lines – as if Cooper’s ambitions are undimmed.

Another run is not ruled out, then? The shadow home secretary is characteristically discreet. “We've got to get on with the job at hand,” she says with a smile.

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