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What do we do about the Home Office?

By Meg Russell

Meg Russell discusses whether the Home Office’s incompetent response to the invsaion of Ukraine represents an institution that is beyond reform.

Number 10 was lit up in blue and yellow last week. It was a nice gesture, but is emblematic of a UK Government adept at performative solidarity, while lacking in practically useful policy.

The Home Office recently announced extensions to visas for Ukrainians already living in the UK, and, under pressure, extended family visas to allow the “immediate family” of those in the UK to join them. This is still, however, subject to a convoluted application procedure and extensive paperwork (I’m on this same visa, and it took me months to organise the necessary documents), while the provision of visa centres has been nothing short of shambolic. To anyone familiar with the Home Office, the lack of a compassionate response from the UK, while shameful, is probably not a surprise. 

“To anyone familiar with the Home Office, the lack of a compassionate response from the UK, while shameful, is probably not a surprise.”

The Home Office has a sprawling remit. Its responsibilities cover policing, the fire service, terrorism, drugs policy, immigration, and border control. Broadly defined, these areas can be reduced to a core goal of ensuring public safety. Founded in 1782, the Home Office’s primary concerns have largely pertained to policing and prisons, but immigration has increasingly become a central focus since the dramatic increase of asylum applications in the 1990s. Under Tony Blair, botched bureaucratic measures resulted in a massive backlog of asylum applications, and the issue became a hot topic both politically and in the media. 

Successive Labour Home Secrataries increased the monitoring capacities of the department, while media outlets facilitated fear-mongering as they emphasised the threat of “illegal immigration”, provoking a hard-line response from the government. The UK’s capacity for immigration detention significantly expanded from the early 1990s up to the mid-2010s, when the number of people entering detention peaked at around 32,000 in 2015. While this number has dropped significantly, compensation payments for wrongful detention peaked at over £9 million just last year.

In 2012, then home secretary Theresa May introduced her hostile environment. This effectively outsourced immigration control to banks, employers, the DVLA, landlords and the NHS, who now all bear responsibility for ensuring people have the right to live in the UK. In practice, these policies are meant to make living in the UK either impossible or, hostile, for anyone lacking the necessary documents.

“In practice, these policies are meant to make living in the UK either impossible or, hostile, for anyone lacking the necessary documents.”

These hostile environment policies resulted in the Windrush scandal; the most widely known controversy associated with the Home Office. Hundreds of UK citizens, who had the right to live and work in the UK, and who had been doing so for most of their lives, were suddenly denied the right to work, stay in their homes, and access the NHS. Some were deported, while others were placed in detention, or left destitute. 

An independent review into the Windrush scandal found that it was “foreseeable and avoidable”. Unfortunately, the Windrush scandal is far from unique: small tax discrepancies and false accusations of cheating on language tests have led to wrongful deportations, threats of deportation, and people being stripped of their rights.

If mistakes are acknowledged, blame is often passed down to lower levels of caseworkers. As the Home Office has tried to streamline operations, face-to-face interviews with applicants have declined, while lower-level workers have been burdened with greater decision-making responsibilities. Applicants interact with a faceless bureaucratic machine that churns out responses based on tick-box criteria. There’s little humanity in a system that should, at its core, be about human lives. 

As well as a general outsourcing of its immigration responsibilities, the component parts of this have also been outsourced. Reports of unacceptable conditions in detention centres run by companies like Serco and G4S have allowed the Home Office to abdicate itself of the responsibility for such conditions. Alas, the hard edges of the Home Office aren’t buffed away by privatisation. It simply shifts the focus from compassion – if it ever existed in the first place – to profit. 

These controversies have prompted our current Home Secretary, Priti Patel, to speak of reform of our “broken” immigration system. This is, of course, the same Priti Patel involved in a bullying scandal. She claims that her new plan for immigration will enable the UK to “take back control of our borders” and ensure security and safety. This is, of course, the same UK that already takes far fewer refugees than many of its European neighbours. 

Patel’s proposed reforms have manifested themselves in the Nationality and Borders Bill. This piece of legislation has been widely condemned by Amnesty International and the United Nations, and has been found to breach international and domestic laws. It supposedly introduces a two-tiered approach, whereby only those arriving through safe routes will be able to apply for asylum. Alas the government has largely removed these “safe” routes, leaving only ‘unsafe’ routes, which the Bill would criminalise. Proposals which would allow the Home Office to introduce offshore processing for asylum seekers, and revoke the citizenship of individuals without forewarning, are equally troubling.

These reforms echo the immigration policies of Australia, which are largely characterised by their cruelty. Indeed, Alexander Downer, a former Australian foreign affairs minister who  played a central role in establishing both Australia’s overseas detention centres and ‘push back’ tactics used on boats in the Pacific, has recently been appointed to lead a review of the UK’s border force. This relationship is mutually reinforcing: informing the plans of theUK government, while legitimising the policies of Australia.

The Nationality and Borders Bill has recently been rejected by the Scottish Parliament (and its Welsh counterpart), but fundamentally asylum is not a devolved matter. The human rights based approach to refugees adopted by the Scottish Government will be stifled by the Borders Bill, while the Home Office, propped up by certain corners of the media, continues to say it is necessary to keep us safe. 

It’s ironic, really. Priti Patel is correct when she says that the UK’s immigration system is broken. But her strategies for addressing its shortcomings only compound its unfair and unsafe nature. An institutional framework which encourages divisive policies in the name of public safety, but where only some of us are actually safe, has been built by successive governments and media-induced fear. While the issues that the Home Office is responsible for are likely to remain politically contentious, some compassion from those at the top might begin a process of reform that is desperately needed. Perhaps the Home Office being utterly broken right now can allow it to be fundamentally rebuilt in a way that fosters safety for all. 


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