Rishi Sunak’s decision to re-appoint Suella Braverman as Home Secretary only days after she was forced to quit means that the first weeks of his premiership are set to be dominated by controversy. Stepping back from the news cycle a little, however, the real scandal about the Home Office isn’t its boss but its performance.
At this point, it really doesn’t matter where you stand on the left-right spectrum – you’re probably sick to the back teeth of this particular department. Depending on one’s politics the Home Office might be a byword for cruelty or incompetence. Perhaps both, even. But never neither.
I first got a proper idea of the scale of the problem last year, when I worked with the citizenship rights campaigner Andrew Yong to co-write Global Britons: A Fairer Pathway to British Citizenship for the Adam Smith Institute. Drawing on Young’s work campaigning on behalf of those unfortunate enough to own second-class UK passports (of which there are multiple types), we described a litany of ways in which the Home Office had either abrogated the rights of British citizens or introduced usurious charges and labyrinthine procedures to squeeze cash out of people trying to access their full rights as citizens.
As many problems as there are with how the Home Office handles immigration, that’s not the end of it. The urgent need for reform of the Metropolitan Police, among other policing challenges, highlights again how important work is simply not getting done.
I set out to find out why. After talking to current and former special advisers and officials who have served in the Home Office, I think I have at least part of the solution. In A Broken Home: Why It’s Time to Split Up the Home Office, I suggest dividing it into (at least) two new departments: one focused on immigration, the other on policing and national security functions.
Time and again it was put to me that the political team at the top of the Home Office is too small to properly oversee such a sprawling department. Even in the best of circumstances sustained reforming energy can only really be applied to one part of the machine at a time, with ministers and advisers fighting huge institutional inertia and trying to keep tabs on a dizzying array of directorates and other sub-divisions.
This is exacerbated by the understandable tendency of successive home secretaries, wary of the numerous career-ending landmines strewn in their path, to become control-freak centralisers, with junior ministers not allowed the sort of leeway they normally have in other departments to take decisions. This produces a bottleneck at the top which, given the sheer volume of reactive work that crosses the secretary of state’s desk, makes positive change extremely difficult.
The problem of scale is reflected on the parliamentary side, with just one select committee responsible for overseeing the Home Office’s vast area of responsibility. Their work is further hindered by the fact that the ministers and senior civil servants they call to give evidence may not themselves be properly familiar with whatever it is they are being questioned about – as the downfall of Amber Rudd, who resigned after she “inadvertently misled” the committee, attests.
Given the way the current department is divided up, splitting it in two ought not to be too challenging on the organisational side, and it would at a stroke double the strength of the political side, both in terms of the government team trying to implement policies and the MPs holding them to account.
Would this be a silver bullet? Of course not. Policy would still ultimately depend on the priorities of the government and the personnel decisions made by the prime minister of the day. But it would give Downing Street two chances to get it right, and increase the odds of getting an effective reformer in charge of either immigration or security even if there was an ineffective tub-thumper in command of the other.
During his first Conservative leadership campaign Sunak pledged to explore serious reform of the Home Office as part of his plan for immigration. Unfortunately, since taking office his team have been saying that the time for making changes to the “machinery of government” is past.
Given that the government has at most a very challenging two years until the next election, this is understandable; departmental reorganisations excite only the geeks. But in the case of the Home Office it would be a mistake. Updating the machinery of government is about getting policies implemented; the current arrangements have consistently failed to deliver on two areas – immigration and policing – that are normally central to the Conservative Party’s offer to the voters. The cost-of-living crisis is obviously priority one, but the party can’t afford to neglect its reputation on law and order and border control.
A new department for each would send a powerful signal that Sunak takes both as seriously as they deserve. He could also task two new secretaries of state with getting some victories 2024, and use each as a platform for a more ambitious programme to take into the next election.
The existing Home Office is a holdover from when departments were fewer and the scope of government much narrower. There seems scant reason to expect the existing arrangements to turn things around, certainly not in two years. It’s time the Tories bit the bullet, and broke it up.