Theresa May has been accused of misleading Parliament over the Windrush fiasco after she suggested Labour had junked migrants’ identity documents.
An embattled May told MPs during Prime Minister’s Question Time that “the decision to destroy the landing cards was taken in 2009 under a Labour government”.
That prompted loud cheers from Tory MPs, given the Home Secretaries that year were Labour’s Jacqui Smith and Alan Johnson.
The PM’s broadside was designed to derail Jeremy Corbyn’s own questions probing her role in the saga which has seen Commonwealth migrants treated like illegal immigrants and threatened with deportation.
But within minutes it emerged that no Labour minister had actually been involved and that officials from the UK Border Agency had made the decision to destroy the landing cards on data protection grounds.
Labour MPs Chuka Umunna and Paul Sweeney both suggested May had mislead MPs with her statement.
Pressed by HuffPost UK on the issue, the PM’s spokesman admitted it had been an “operational” decision rather than a ministerial one.
“What the Prime Minister said was that the decision was taken in 2009 when there was a Labour government. But the decision that was taken was an operational one by UKBA,” he said.
“I should also stress that at no point have we criticised that decision and nor would the Prime Minister seek to do so. The key point here is it was an operational decision taken by UKBA…part of a wider programme of work that was looking at the retention of paperwork held within the agency.”
No.10 insisted that the landing card issue was not relevant as the documents would not have had any bearing on attempted deportations or other action.
They did “not provide any reliable evidence of ongoing residence in the UK or immigration status and therefore would not have bearing on immigration cases whereby Commonwealth citizens are proving residence in the UK”.
No10 stressed that May had not misled MPs in any way and was simply stating the facts of the case.
Later, in another briefing, a No.10 spokesman said: “The position is as follows, and this is from the Home Office: in June 2009, the business case was approved by UKBA to dispose of the paper records. That work started in December 2009.
“In October 2010, the operational decision was taken in relation to the specific registry slips themselves. The Prime Minister was not involved in this process, this was an operational decision taken by UKBA.”
Asked if May had been aware of the decision in 2010, the spokesman said: “All I can say is the Prime Minister wasn’t involved...over and beyond that you need to talk to the Home Office. I don’t know if she was made specifically aware retrospectively.”
A Labour spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “The government’s story is shifting by the hour.
“First Downing Street claimed the decision to destroy the Windrush-era landing cards was made by the Home Office in 2010 for data protection reasons. Then the Home Office passed the buck to a 2010 decision by the UK Border Agency.
“At PMQs, the prime minister tried to shift the blame onto the last Labour government but was undermined by her own spokesperson minutes later, who then stated it was an operational decision, which Labour ministers would not have been aware of.
“In the confusion, one thing is already clear: the change in the law in 2014 that meant members of the Windrush generation faced deportation and the loss of their rights, including to healthcare, was made in full view of the fact that the vital information had been destroyed.”
In a point of Order, Labour’s Equalities Minister Dawn Butler seized on discrepancies between what May had said and what officials had briefed.
“Can the House, the Windrush generation, the Commonwealth leaders and the country get a clarification from the Prime Minister or the Home Secretary?
Speaker Bercow replied: “Every member of this House takes responsibility for the veracity of he or she said in it. If any member feels that he or she has inadvertantly erred that member is responsible for the correction of the record.
“if it transpires that the record needs to be corrected, I trust that it will be”.
Labour MP Paul Sweeney suggested May had misled Parliament in a bid to deflect attention from her own decisions.
Labour’s Chuka Umunna also raised a separate point of order, criticising May for her remarks about a Commonwealth constituent of his who was denied NHS treatment.
“I’m sure the Prime Minister will not want to have misled the House and will want to come here and correct the record,” he said.
“There have also been attempts to park blame for this particular situation at the door of previous Home Secretaries and the current Home Secretary when much of this flows from the decisions made by the Prime Minister during her time as Home Secretary.”
Tory MPs and others were delighted that May had appeared to wrongfoot Corbyn.
Earlier, the Prime Minister used her appearance at PMQs to apologise to those who have been wrongly threatened with being kicked out of the UK.
“I want to say sorry to anyone who has been caused confusion and anxiety by this,” she told the Commons.
Corbyn said: “This is a shameful episode, and the responsibility with it lies firmly at the prime minister’s door.”
“Her pandering to bogus immigration targets led to a hostile environment for people contributing to our country.
“It led to British citizens being denied NHS treatment, losing their jobs, homes and pensions, thrown into detention centres like criminals and even deported.”
Amber Rudd, the home secretary who succeed May in the job, has been told she should “consider her position” by Labour for the “misery” caused.