Lens Blog

Psychological insight on current affairs


posted on 3rd May 2019 by Fergus Peace

If you spend much time following immigration issues on social media, you may have come across a new slogan: “Abolish the Home Office”. Usually attached to a news article documenting another immigration policy outrage, it’s a demand that these injustices aren’t treated as isolated incidents but as signs of a rotten culture.

The phrase had been floating around earlier, but has taken off in the UK since Jon Stone, a journalist at The Independent, started a Twitter thread of news stories about scandalous behaviour at the Home Office in January. It is regularly updated with new examples – with rarely more than a few days between them.

It’s valuable to remember that these scandals have emerged from deliberate government choices – like the steadily expanding hostile environment – and aren’t isolated mistakes, as ministers would have us believe. So to some extent, the slogan is understandable. But we should be sceptical about whether abolishing the Home Office would really do much to improve immigration policy in the UK.

Focusing on immigration, there are broadly two reasons to think the Home Office needs to be broken up, or at least lose its immigration policy responsibilities. One is that a ministry which also manages policing and intelligence will inevitably, because of its departmental culture, see immigration primarily in terms of its risks and the need to control them, rather than its benefits or migrants’ rights. The second is that the Home Office immigration bureaucracy, taken on its own, gives every indication of having developed an internal culture of distrust and hostility that is beyond reform.

So what would a world without the Home Office look like? The Liberal Democrats have said they would divide up different immigration functions, giving control of student visa policy to the Department for Education, work visas to BEIS, and asylum seekers to the Department for International Development. A report from the Institute for Government suggested this kind of cross-government working as one model, alongside others such as a separate Immigration Department.

Total decentralisation of the government’s immigration operations is not on the table. Different visa types have obvious commonalities in their implementation: it would be absurd for DfE and BEIS to run separate biometric verification schemes or overseas application centres. Instead you’d expect an agency to manage those functions, as well as the actual border, and for them to work closely with related organisations like the Passport Office. That is roughly what the Lib Dems have suggested. Immigration enforcement – unless it was effectively abolished, which doesn’t seem to be what advocates of this machinery-of-government change have in mind – would presumably end up in the same or a sister agency.

These sound like minor logistical details, but they have a tendency to undermine the entire argument about Home Office culture. It’s easy to overstate the unity of the Home Office. It already has a second permanent secretary – relatively rare in the civil service – responsible exclusively for the ministry’s immigration functions. And most of the implementation functions are based in a dedicated building in Croydon (Lunar House), away from Home Office headquarters.

Not everything comes down to office layouts, of course. But in all likelihood a newly hived-off immigration implementation agency would inherit most of the same staff, a broadly similar organisational structure – perhaps without its asylum determination teams – and probably the same physical premises. This does not sound like a recipe for abolishing the existing institutional culture and starting from scratch.

So is the answer just that Home Office abolition needs to be more radical, sweeping away the existing leadership or completely rethinking how we implement visa and border policy? Perhaps. But we shouldn’t rush to that conclusion without asking a different question first. Is the Home Office’s culture actually beyond reform?

The simple answer is that we don’t know, because nobody has tried. As proponents of abolishing the Home Office are the first to point out, the rot in immigration policy comes from the top.

Theresa May, of course, has spent years making false and inflammatory claims about immigration, and spearheaded repeated crackdowns in pursuit of the government’s “tens of thousands” target for net migration. The New Labour governments, while more liberal on labour migration, were not exactly outspoken defenders of pro-migrant values. Tony Blair promised in 2003 to halve the number of asylum seekers, and his Home Secretary David Blunkett referred to schools being “swamped” by immigrant children. Gordon Brown pledged “British jobs for British workers” as he tightened rules on non-EU immigration.

If we had seen years of increasingly liberal Home Secretaries unable to stop the tide of outrageous and cruel actions in the Home Office, we could say with confidence that the bureaucratic culture was the culprit. What we’ve actually seen is the opposite: years of draconian Home Secretaries, deliberately tightening immigration policy for political ends.

Without a seachange in the attitudes of politicians, reshuffling the responsibilities of the Home Office isn’t likely to achieve much. With one, it seems far less necessary. A report published yesterday by the Independent Chief Inspector for Borders and Immigration, David Bolt, found a radically different culture in one part of the Home Office – the EU Settled Status scheme – where politicians actually have taken a positive attitude in their public approach. More broadly, those intimately familiar with the system highlight a stark divide between the bureaucratic but broadly welcoming attitude of the economics-focused teams, and the refusal-oriented approach of those working on asylum and family migration.

All of that matches quite closely with the expressed views of political leadership about which migrants are ‘good’ and which are worthy of suspicion. It suggests that a consistently pro-migration government might not find itself stymied by the bureaucracy after all.

None of that means a machinery of government change is necessarily a bad idea. As the Institute for Government points out, immigration policy will need a more robust link to economic analysis after Brexit if EU citizens – the majority of labour migrants to the UK – are required to apply for visas. And reuniting migrant integration with other immigration functions, as is the case in Canada and Australia, might well make sense for largely technocratic reasons.

But abolishing the Home Office is neither necessary nor sufficient for ending the reprehensible mistreatment of migrants at the hands of the government. It’s completely right that activists should keep a laser focus on highlighting the routine abuses of the Home Office – but they should do that in pursuit of a truly pro-migrant political leadership, not a superficial change in the civil service.