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The Home Office always was a graveyard for aspiring ministers

The Home Office always was a graveyard for aspiring ministers
3 min read

Google “Home Office” and “failings,” and a long list will emerge of failures of every description: staff allegedly not caring; new IT systems delayed and inadequate; the Home Office castigated by senior judges for failures to disclose documents.

On the list goes. Would that these alleged failings have occurred only when the Conservatives were in power. Inconveniently, for me, a trawl through those halcyon days before May 2010 shows the Home Office and its incumbent secretaries of state suffered plenty of tricky headlines.

When I was home secretary, I had 20 months with nothing much going wrong. Inevitably, my luck turned. In a single week in February 1999, things started to go wrong, and went on and on in this vein. My opposite number, shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe, nicknamed me “Calamity Jack”. 

One of my successors, John Reid, who served in this post for 13 months from 2006, declared after only six weeks that his department was “not fit for purpose”. But John was wrong about that. The inherent, timeless problem with the Home Office is not its fitness, but its purpose. 

Its purpose is to keep the country safe from those whose interest and intent is to undermine its safety – terrorists, criminals, those who have entered the country by unlawful means and have no plausible case for asylum, those who have overstayed and then stay out of sight to avoid detection.

The inherent, timeless problem with the Home Office is not its fitness, but its purpose

It is this singular purpose that makes the Home Office different from almost every other government department. The health, education, transport, housing, and social security departments are not without their difficulties. But, broadly, there is an alignment of interest between the “customers” of those other departments, and what the departments and their ministers want. 

Parents want a decent education for their children, patients want to get better, travellers want the road and rail systems to work, and so on. But there is no alignment of interest between the Home Office’s “customers,” and what that department and its ministers want. 

Terrorists seek to do their lethal work undetected, criminals to avoid arrest, immigration overstayers not to be picked up. Their determination to avoid the law is what makes running the Home Office so inherently difficult, despite the fact its staff are overwhelmingly dedicated and professional at their jobs.

It is, however, easily possible for the home secretary to implement policies which make life much more difficult for staff – especially if any policy failings are then blamed unfairly on the staff. 

The Conservative Party made a choice to cut 20,000 police officers, and many immigration staff. Alongside a completely botched privatisation of the probation service and major cuts in prison staff, it’s not surprising that anxiety about public safety is so high. 

As for the Rwanda proposal, I will be amazed if it does deter Channel crossings in any numbers. A recently retired pilot told The Times that when he transported detainees back to Nigeria, there had to be two security guards for every deportee. 

Sir David Normington, former permanent secretary at the Home Office, pointed out the cost of this scheme (£120m) could be more effectively used by employing more staff to process applications, building more detention centres, and working better with France. There’d be fewer headlines from such a sensible investment, but it would work.

Jack Straw was Labour home secretary from 1997 to 2001.

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