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The Home Office – is it fit for purpose?

9 min read

The Home Office is rarely out of the headlines, with perceived failings enraging campaigners and providing constant material for opponents and journalists. The question remains: is it fit for purpose? Georgina Bailey investigates

The job of an immigration caseworker, says former immigration minister Caroline Nokes, is not a pleasant one. “It’s difficult and gruelling and, quite frankly, hideous to sit listening to people’s horrific stories of persecution, torture, violence, rape, day after day… At one point, the average length of time somebody would stay working on asylum claims was 18 months. There’s a huge challenge of how you keep staff motivated to stay and to process those claims more quickly.” The difficulties of the job, says Nokes, contribute to a large staff turnover. And this in turn slows down the processing of claims and creates risks around bad decision-making. 

It’s an almighty, perhaps unsolvable, managerial challenge – one of scores faced by whoever happens to be home secretary at the time. In the face of them, there is a growing school of thought that Whitehall might be better off carving up the HomeOffice and starting again.

The question of whether or not the department is fit for purpose has hung around its neck since 2006, when incoming homesecretary John (now Lord) Reid declared it was not, following a “tidal wave of scandals”. The serious foreign offenders scandal had ended Reid’s predecessor Charles Clarke’s cabinet career after just 18 months leading the department. Nearly 12 years later, another immigration scandal – Windrush – claimed the job of then-home secretary, Amber Rudd.

The incumbent Home Secretary Priti Patel’s personal popularity currently stands at 19 per cent according to YouGov, down from 30 per cent in early 2021. She is facing criticism from across the political spectrum over her management of a range of policies, including the small boats crisis, plans to offshore asylum seekers to Rwanda, delays in getting visas for Ukrainian refugees, a record backlog of more than 80,000 asylum claims awaiting processing, plus ongoing concerns about racism in policing and low arrest and prosecution rates for crimes including sexual violence and burglary. 

In April the Home Office was warned that, without improvements, it would be a matter of time before another scandal arose, as Wendy Williams published her 18-month progress report on her 2020 Windrush Lessons Learned Review. Although the department accepted all 30 recommendations in 2020, Williams found that only eight had been fully implemented. 

Despite two recent home secretaries, Theresa May and Sajid Javid, going on to serve as prime minister and chancellor respectively, some regard taking charge of the department as something of a poisoned chalice. Six former home secretaries either declined to speak to The House or did not respond to requests for interview. With 38,000 employees and responsibilities ranging from immigration to victim support to security and terrorism, the department is a behemoth – one insiders say is littered with opportunities for things to go wrong. 

“If you’re in the Home Office you know that, given the nature of the work that the [department] does, at any point in time someone could do something that you have absolutely no control over. It might be a member of your staff, it might be a terrorist, it might be an illegal immigrant; something might happen that can end your career immediately,” says Will Tanner, a Home Office adviser from 2014 to 2016 who was later May’s deputy head of policy in Downing Street and now runs the influential Conservative think tank Onward. 

“You’re responsible for a system that deals largely in risk. That’s why the Home Office has that reputation. But I do think it is possible with the right political leadership to manage that and to benefit from it.”

It it is immigration above all that keeps the Home Office in the headlines. Marley Morris, migration associate director at the IPPR thinktank, identifies a number of major challenges, including Covid’s impact on operations and primary and secondary legislative changes coming through “thick and fast” in recent years. 

There are also concerns about operational decision-making and policy-making. “The Home Office has struggled since facing the critiques by the Wendy Williams review,” says Morris. “It was clear from that, and from the recent follow up, that there are some serious structural problems within the Home Office cutting across a number of different areas, whether it’s about having a strong evidence base for policy development, through to operational decision making.” 

Although Williams stopped short of calling the Home Office racist in her report, she did note “really serious concerns” about racism in the department, including a “thoughtlessness” and “ignorance on race”. (Tanner says that in his time at the HomeOffice he “never came across any cultural issues which would suggest that they had anything like institutional racism” – although he acknowledges there were “clearly issues” around Windrush.)

Nokes, who was immigration minister from January 2018 to July 2019, says most of the Home Offices issues around immigration are down to resources and political will. “The Immigration Directorate is so enormous and so complicated that it just takes up an enormous amount of bandwidth and an enormous amount of cash. That’s one of the huge challenges: immigration is a really big political issue, which isn’t backed up with enough resources to tackle it effectively.”

There have been examples of the Home Office managing immigration schemes effectively, such as the EU Settled Status Scheme, which Nokes says benefitted from immediately following the lessons of the Windrush scandal and high levels of investment. “There was real determination and commitment with that scheme to find reasons why people could stay, and it all came down to investment in [staff], training and the will to find ways that we can facilitate granting people the right to stay. It was almost a flip because this was a positive attitude: what can we do to make this easy as opposed to what can we do to stop people coming,” Nokes says. 

There are issues with the Home Office’s computer systems, which both Tanner and Nokes agree are slow, old, and difficult to replace because of the inherent risk of data loss. However the rigorous nature of checks which also slow down asylum claims is necessary, they say, for the safety of the country. Tanner adds that given the Home Office’s responsibility for security, it is naturally risk-averse, which he says explains some of the delays in the Homes for Ukraine scheme. “Ultimately, you’re trying to ask a very risk-averse department to forget all of its learned instincts and just wave people through, which ultimately I don’t think the Home Office could ever do.” 

Nokes, however, puts some of the recent difficulties down to a “lack of determination across government to give [the HomeOffice] enough resources” to bring down the asylum backlogs and invest in processing claims. 

This is compounded, she says, by the fact the Home Secretary is often being pulled in several directions across the department’s brief. “It’s hard to keep focusing attention on any one part of it, because it is so huge, and every part of it is difficult.” Meanwhile, “different government departments are pulling and pushing on immigration as a lever to solve their problems”.

For Nokes, a solution is to split immigration – which accounts for more than three-quarters of the Home Office’s workforce – out of the department and create a new cabinet secretary portfolio, as Reid did with responsibility for justice and prisons, creating the Ministry of Justice in 2007. 

“It needs a secretary of state who can argue the case around the cabinet table, [and ask] actually what are we trying to achieve? Is it about numbers? Or is it about having a system that works? Is it about making sure that sectors of the economy have the people they need coming in? And shouldn’t that be about more joined-up thinking with the Departments for Education and BEIS [Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy] so that you’ve got the right skills in the right places at the right time, rather than an easy fix sticking people on the shortage occupation list?”

Morris and the IPPR have also long argued that immigration should be separated from the Home Office. “One of the critiques of the Home Office is that it often operates very independently of other departments, and it doesn’t necessarily reflect the wider needs of government.”

“One of the issues is… where does [immigration] go? You could create a separate department specifically for migration and take integration out of Levelling Up, and create a department for immigration and integration, a bit like what Canada has. But it’s probably not a silver bullet. Ultimately, the issues within the Home Office are issues that could easily be replicated in another government… You need to combine a change of structure with institutional change to ensure that you embed practices to tackle some of the issues that Wendy Williams has shone a light on.”

Tanner disagrees with the idea of separating out immigration, arguing that it fits in well with the security-focused nature of the department. “The democratic underpinnings of government’s role in immigration policies are about control and verification of the people that come here and ensuring that that we’re balancing the number of people who come in with the needs and the demands of the public, which is partly about bringing in skilled labour.”

Tanner continues: “Bringing together the labour market and immigration controls function of government within a single department seems to me to be largely a way for the more labour market-focused bits of government to gain more control over immigration policy, rather than necessarily making immigration policy better.”

Both Nokes and Labour’s Diana Johnson, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, warn that under the current government, the Home Office is at risk of “over promising and underdelivering” on immigration. Johnson is critical of the lack of detail over recent plans for offshoring asylum seekers in Rwanda, and a lack of preparedness for the Homes for Ukraine scheme, even when it seemed clear there would be refugee implications many months ago. Nokes points out that if 500 asylum seekers are sent to Rwanda, and there are expected to be 65,000 boat crossings this year, that is only a one in 129 chance, which may seem like good odds for those making the journey.

Johnson is also concerned about staff morale in the Home Office, with reports recently showing that Home Office staff were discussing going on “strike” on internal message boards over the Rwanda plans. Tanner says it is the constant questioning on whether the Home Office is fit for purpose that has the most damaging effect on the ability of the department to do its job. 

He adds: “The one thing that I fear about the Home Office at the moment is that it is trying to manage a system rather than reform a system. 

“And ultimately, Theresa May succeeded over six years because she was constantly trying to make the system better and improve it. Whereas some of the policies that have recently come out of the Home Office have been more about just managing their score, not trying to make the system massively better.”

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