No place like the Home Office: former top officials on the department’s unique challenges
Following the Windrush scandal that felled home secretary Amber Rudd, former perm sec Sir David Normington and UKBA chief Rob Whiteman tell Tamsin Rutter what it’s like to lead the Home Office
The UK Border Agency was dismantled in 2013 following extensive criticism. Photos: PA
Theresa May, in her letter accepting Amber Rudd’s resignation, said: “As a former home secretary myself, I appreciate the particular demands of that great office of state.”
The prime minister’s role in the Windrush scandal that engulfed the Home Office has been the subject of much debate. She was the architect of many of the “hostile environment” policies that tripped up the so-called Windrush generation – Caribbean-born British citizens who were threatened with deportation or lost access to public services because of changes to the rules on documentation required to prove right to remain.
Her immediate successor, who ultimately resigned for inadvertently misleading Parliament over deportation targets she didn’t appear to know about, has faced accusations of failing to escape May’s shadow and lacking a grip on her department.
But the circumstances that led to the fall of Rudd may also reflect, as May inferred, the “particular demands” that have long dogged the Home Office and those who lead it. So what makes that department so difficult to run?
Former home secretaries of the left and right have expressed frustrations about Home Office culture. Kenneth Clarke, Conservative home secretary from 1992 to 1993, described the department to the Institute for Government as “staid, traditional and hierarchical”. Labour’s Jack Straw told the IfG the Home Office believed itself to be “a cut above most other departments”, while David Blunkett, who resigned over a scandal in his private life, has said he found it to be particularly adverse to change.
Sir David Normington, Home Office perm sec from 2005 to 2011, served five home secretaries in that time. Speaking to CSW on the day Sajid Javid was announced to succeed Rudd, Normington quotes another, Roy Jenkins, who once said: “In the Home Office, tropical storms blow up out of a clear blue sky”. The department’s range of responsibilities has since changed considerably but Normington believes the sentiment “remains true”.
Rudd’s resignation, he says, feels like a flashback to 2006 when Charles Clarke was sacked as home secretary after it emerged that the Home Office had freed over 1,000 foreign prisoners who should have been considered for deportation. “It was an administrative cock-up which no home secretary could reasonably have known about and yet Charles Clark carried the can for it,” Normington says. “My experience of good ministers stepping down because they made a mistake or didn’t know something, is that actually you lose good ministers and nothing much is usually gained by that.”
“Sometimes the people who lead the Home Office don’t remember what happened before” – David Normington
John Reid took over, and famously denounced the Home Office’s immigration operations as “not fit for purpose”. The first civil service capability review, in 2006, gave the Home Office the lowest score of all departments.
Normington presided over a series of reforms, including transferring some responsibilities to the new Ministry of Justice, setting up the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, building a strong leadership team and investing in training and development for immigration caseworkers. “Clearly some stuck and some didn’t,” he says, adding that once austerity had started to bite there wasn’t the money to continue to invest in the quality of caseworking – which may well have factored in the Windrush scandal.
“We built a very strong team but as time goes on, people move on, you lose your collective memory. I think one of the troubles for the Home Office is that sometimes the people who lead it don’t remember what happened before,” he says.
“I find it very distressing that the Home Office has perpetrated such an injustice on innocent people from the Windrush generation. It’s 12 years since we had the ‘not fit for purpose’ moment with John Reid, and I’m very sorry to see the Home Office caught up in something with people again saying it’s not fit for purpose.”
Reputation for process
One change that has impacted many in the Windrush generation was the shift from interviewing migrants to requiring them to provide documents – a system Glyn Williams, director general for border, immigration and citizenship at the Home Office, told the Home Affairs Committee was introduced from 2008. He said it was “an attempt to make the system more objective” – and Normington describes it as “understandable”. “The numbers on legal and illegal migration have gone up enormously,” he says. “You simply can’t cope with interviewing people in the way you did in the past.”
But Williams also suggested the system may have gone too far. In Windrush cases it has meant failing to recognise the status of people who don’t have the prescribed documents but do have clear memories of growing up in the UK.
“We need an honest debate on what’s possible with our immigration system” – Rob Whiteman
Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, a constituency with a high immigration caseload, tells CSW that the Windrush generation are not the only people with legitimate rights to get caught up in a system designed to deter illegal migrants. She’s dealt with many visa applicants who’ve been told to leave after making honest mistakes with their paperwork. The Home Office’s own error rate is notorious: almost half of asylum and visa decisions are overturned on appeal. The department has also been criticised for the purge of paper records that saw the destruction of landing cards, which were the only proof of UK arrival date for many Windrush migrants.
Phillips says as well as making “terrible mistakes”, the department takes months, sometimes years, to make a decision – “90% of the work I do in immigration is just chasing” – and sends “novels worth” of justifications for visa refusals, partly because “they always know they’re going to end up in court”. She adds: “The whole process is leaking efficiency.”
It isn’t a new problem: Normington says the immigration service he inherited was dogged by ineffective computer systems, with paper files still prevalent and poor record-keeping practices. “We slowly tried to put that right,” he says. “That was still happening as I left and I’m not sure it was completely successful actually.”
Lucy Moreton, general secretary of the ISU, a trade union for borders, immigration and customs staff, tells CSW that problems remain. She speaks of the poor quality data upon which staff are making decisions – having to log into multiple, incompatible, systems sequentially to access bits of data, for example – a problem the Home Office is currently attempting to address through an IT transformation programme.
The enormity of the administrative task, Normington says, makes it all the more important that immigration officers are allowed to make judgements about individuals.
But according to the ISU’s Moreton, the ability of frontline officials to exercise discretion at the border was removed after Brodie Clark was forced to resign as head of Border Force in 2011. Clark had relaxed rules on passport checks, apparently without the permission of May, his home secretary. May brought Border Force, previously part of the UK Border Agency, under Home Office control in 2012. Moreton also tells CSW that the immigration service has consistently failed to keep up-to-date the contact details for the designated people with whom staff could raise concerns about decisions or individual cases.
Normington says it’s unlikely that caseworkers were told to apply no discretion at all, and he argues that Home Office leaders had a responsibility to ensure frontline staff were able to engage their judgment and have their voices heard. “It seems very odd to me. It’s not much of a job if all you have to do is apply a tick list of rules,” he says.
He is also dismayed that the Home Office has once again been forced to conduct a leak inquiry, this time on the private communication between Rudd and civil servants that was passed to the media and contributed to her downfall. In Normington’s time he ordered an inquiry that resulted in the sacking of a junior official. “As officials we have a responsibility to provide the best possible advice, we certainly have a responsibility not to leak,” he says, adding that whistleblowers can use internal processes. “I’d want to get a grip on that if I was still there.”
Weight of old work
It has been widely speculated that the leaks that took down Rudd were a retaliation to her public comments that the department had become “too concerned with policy and strategy and lost sight of the individual”. But it’s a charge some in the department might recognise: in an interview with CSW in 2016, the then Home Office perm sec Sir Mark Sedwill outlined the need to reform its “policy-heavy headquarters”, simplify management structures and delegate more responsibilities.
Rob Whiteman, who led the arms-length UK Border Agency from 2011 to 2013, overlapping briefly with Clark’s tenure at Border Force, says the department has failed to become “an operationally focused department”. A successful operational department, he explains, is able to spot the unintended consequences of policies and effectively feed what’s happening in operations back into policy making.
Whiteman told CSW about the reforms he began making at UKBA – which was dismantled in 2013 and its functions transferred to Home Office divisions, following a particularly damning parliamentary report. Among them were efforts to make the Home Office better at operations by centralising some teams, improving data quality and applying consistent rules. He also closed down older backlogs of work, such as the Controlled Archive – “the old asylum cases kicking around from the previous government”.
But that was just “the tip of the iceberg”, he says. What struck Whiteman on joining UKBA was the sheer volume of casework “built up over decades that will probably never be resolved”. He advocates drawing a line under it, to allow the department to focus on new cases and preparing the border for Brexit. “The Home Office’s inability to become an effective operational department in the way that DWP has become is because of the weight of old work which needs to be closed down,” he says. “It may be controversial but we need an honest debate on what’s possible with our immigration system, rather than what’s ideally wanted.”
“The early signs are encouraging, with the senior leadership in the department consulting extensively with staff to help shape how the organisation responds” – Amy Leversidge, FDA
The Home Office has said its role in security and terrorism has come to the fore of border security in recent years. Normington says the department’s focus on crime, terrorism and illegal immigration “can mean it seems like a constant battle in the Home Office against the bad guys”. Staff have a responsibility to “engage your judgment and your heart” to ensure honest people don’t get caught up, he adds.
Phillips says she deals with nice caseworkers who are “not unresponsive”, but she is highly critical of the department’s culture of mistrust, its tendency to “assume bad faith in everyone”. She describes cases from her constituency where marriages are assumed to be illegitimate, domestic violence victims end up in Yarl’s Wood detention centre, and the mother of a British child is asked to fork out for a maternity test – “as if this refugee woman is just snatching babies for a British passport”.
Philips connects this to government’s pledge to bring net migration down to below 100,000. Under May, policies targeting illegal migrants were implemented and her then special advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill presided over what has been widely described as a culture of intimidation, where experienced civil servants felt it would be career-limiting to speak up.
Under the current perm sec Sir Philip Rutnam the department has mounted its response to the Windrush scandal, setting up a unit to help Commonwealth migrants with concerns about their status, and showing gratitude for the extra work volunteered by officials from across the Home Office. Amy Leversidge, assistant general secretary of the FDA, the trade union for senior civil servants, tells CSW that recent events have presented a “huge challenge” but that “the early signs are encouraging, with the senior leadership in the department consulting extensively with staff to help shape how the organisation responds”.
May, meanwhile, has announced an inquiry into the events leading up to the scandal, due to report back in July. Perhaps then we’ll have a clearer idea of which particular demands of the Home Office caused such egregious mistakes to be made in the Windrush cases, and of the best way to move forward.
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