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11 March 2023

The Home Office cannot be saved

It isn’t just that the Home Office has no respect for human life, as appalling as that is: it simply doesn’t work.

By Jonn Elledge

There was a long, baffled pause before the Home Office press officer spoke again. “Sorry, I’ve not heard of any of this,” he eventually replied. “Could you say that again?”

So I said that his department was facing criticism for both the cruelty of its policies and the competence with which it delivered them; that the informal campaign against it could now point to support from both left and right; and that a significant political party had just tweeted that campaign’s slogan. And so, I was wondering, did the Home Office have anything to say to those people who were calling for its abolition?

There was another long pause. I said I’d put it in an email.

It would not be quite true to say that Home Office policies have been much in the news this week: more accurately, it’s a much-loved football commentator’s views about Home Office policies and what the expression of those views means for the BBC that have been much in the news this week. But Suella Braverman’s ultra-authoritarian approach to refugees – curtailment of the right to appeal against decisions, the removal of the protections offered by modern slavery laws, and other equally appalling moves – has been driving the news agenda. So on Tuesday the Scottish Greens tweeted a graphic showing the Home Secretary’s face, with a slogan superimposed beneath it: “Abolish the Home Office”.

Such a move, which I’ve written about in the past, is not quite as radical as it may first sound. As far back as 2006, the home secretary at the time, John Reid, said that the immigration directorate of the department he led was “not fit for purpose”. He then broke up the Home Office and spun its responsibilities over the legal system off into the new Ministry of Justice. Go back far enough and there were only two government departments (plus the Treasury) – home and foreign. Much of the modern government has sprung out of the Home Office at some point.

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The modern Home Office, though, still doesn’t work. It’s horrendously cruel, of course, treating refugees appallingly as a matter of policy, in a misguided attempt to make seeking asylum from war or disaster on these shores very slightly less appealing. But it’s also deeply incompetent.

[See also: Don’t assume that migrant-born politicians should be pro-immigration]

Last year it was painfully slow to create proper paths to the UK for Ukrainian refugees – absurdly demanding a baby receive biometric scans in Warsaw, for example, before allowing her to enter the country – despite a public outcry in favour of compassion. It has threatened to deport a heavily pregnant rape survivor to Rwanda. Its staff have been accused by the Refugee Council of amending the birth dates of child refugees, so that it could classify them as adults. As for those it did classify as children, it has paid a fortune to house dozens of them, unaccompanied by adults, in hotels in Hove owned by the family of the notorious businessman Nicholas van Hoogstraten, once jailed for paying a gang to attack a business associate. As of last December, police said more than 70 of these children had gone missing.

Every one of these examples comes from the last 12 months. They are the barest of samples of the Home Office’s incompetence and cruelty – or at least, of the things we know about.

Little surprise, then, that the Scottish Greens were not the first to call for the abolition of the Home Office. In 2019, in light of failures such as the Windrush scandal, in which the department had managed to deport British citizens who happened to be black, the co-leader of the English and Welsh Greens, Jonathan Bartley, called for it to be broken up. His proposal was for it to be split in two: a ministry of the interior, which would deal with law and order; and one dealing more compassionately with immigration, which he called the ministry of sanctuary.

Such proposals are not the exclusive preserve of the left. The non-aligned Institute for Government recently held an event asking whether the department as currently constituted was fit for purpose; Dominic Cummings has argued that “a serious regime would immediately close” the department.

And last October the Adam Smith Institute published a paper by Henry Hill, deputy editor of Conservative Home, which also said that it was time for the Home Office to be broken up into an immigration department and a security one. This, the paper argued, would create two departments with more coherent responsibilities, and twice the staff to address them. It would also remove the bottleneck created by a home secretary who receives daily briefings on the many, terrifying threats facing the nation on their watch, and thus sees everything – not least immigration – through the lens of national security. It’s striking that Hill and Bartley have approached this problem from different directions, yet come to the same conclusion about how to solve it.

It seems unlikely that the Sunak administration, running down the clock with limited political capital to spend, will make any such fundamental change to the architecture of government. More than that, the enthusiasm with which the Prime Minister has been pushing Braverman’s hard right rhetoric about refugees shows it doesn’t want to. The next Labour government, though, should consider radical reform. It isn’t just that the Home Office has no respect for human life, as appalling an indictment as that is: it also simply doesn’t work.

The Home Office spokesperson did eventually come back to me with a statement, by the way. “The department plays a vital role daily in keeping citizens safe and the country secure,” it claimed. “There are no plans to break up the department and we are immensely proud of the work which we have delivered, including tackling illegal migration, cracking down on crime, restoring trust in the police, and protecting the country from terrorist threats.”

Or to put it another way: Home Office is good, says Home Office. In retrospect, I’m not really sure what else I was expecting.

But they’re wrong. The department should be abolished. Doing so would make that poor, beleaguered press officer’s day easier, too.

[See also: This immigration bill isn’t just illegal – it’s dangerous]

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