Opinion: unfair criticism of Home Office staff over Windrush deflects blame from cuts
It is easy for politicians to blame immigration officers and other civil servants tasked with implementing immigration rules and regulations. But to do so unfairly distracts from the all but inevitable outcome of reducing the number of staff properly employed and trained to enforce immigration law
Last week, home secretary Amber Rudd told the House of Commons that civil servants in the operational arm of the Home Office “sometimes lose sight of the individual”. This criticism of staff is wholly unjust and unjustified. The position, brought to the fore by the plight of Commonwealth citizens who have resided in the UK prior to the 1971 Immigration Act, arose primarily from the “hostile environment” approach to the enforcement of immigration policies. Something that has been in place for some years and over which the home secretary has been criticised in the past.
Under this provision the Home Office relies on landlords, employers, teachers and other service providers to require individuals to prove that they have established right to rent, work, access services etc. And if they fail to do this they, the service provider, will be fined or even potentially jailed. These private individuals cannot exercise discretion or focus in any way on the individual. They either have the correct copy of a passport or other document, or they face sanction. In a survey from the Residential Landlords Association some 42% of respondents stated they would not rent to someone unless they had a British passport because of concerns over sanctions.
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The data held by the Home Office is not without criticism either. 10% of Home Office data provided to banks was inaccurate resulting in people being wrongly declared a “disqualified person”; 8% of driving license applications were wrongly refused or revoked. In evidence to Home Affairs Select Committee in November 2017 David Bolt, the chief inspector of borders, expressed concern that individuals who were in fact lawfully resident were being adversely impacted by the reliance on private individuals and other service providers to “enforce” immigration law.
None of this was in any way a fault or lack in Home Office staff.
The ability for the staff in Home Office’s operational arm to exercise any discretion has been all but entirely removed. In the wake of the “Brodiegate” issue in 2011 – in which the then chief executive Brodie Clark was dismissed for exercising too much discretion at the UK border – the ability of front line border staff to exercise discretion at was removed. Experienced staff who would once have been able to assess someone returning to the UK and endorse their passport accordingly were left to advise travellers affected to go to Croydon – and pay a significant fee – to gain their “indefinite leave to remain” endorsement to which they were entitled.
As Comprehensive Spending Review budget and staff cuts began to impact operational arm of the Home Office, and indeed many other departments, lost 25% of their headcount. This was initially disproportionately weighted towards older, more experienced staff simply because the redundancy packages were more attractive and the salary cost higher so the savings more distinct. Increasing reliance was placed on temporary, agency and other contingency staff who lacked the experience to make a well-reasoned discretionary judgement.
This short-term thinking, and longer-term erosion of skills, has impacted other areas as well. For example 47% of asylum and visa decisions made in the last quarter of 2017 were overturned on appeal. This was attributed to a lack of training, a lack of feedback on the decisions from the appellate courts and too few staff under too much pressure to deliver judgements in a fixed timeframe. The Immigration Law Practitioners Association has said that the Home Office is overburdened and lacks the capacity to anticipate changing service needs. It may seem the easy route to seek to place blame on the immigration officers and other civil servants tasked with the interpretation and management of the current morass of immigration rules and regulations, and the associated data quality concerns. But to do so unfairly distracts from the all but inevitable outcome of reducing the number of staff properly employed and trained to enforce immigration law and instead replacing them with a network of requirements and sanctions placed on service providers. In so far as there is any blame in this situation it should rest with the senior leaders who failed to appreciate the impact of the loss of experienced staff, the reliance on temporary staff and for failing to heed the warnings of their staff as to the impact of policies such as “hostile environment”; incidentally now more properly termed a “compliant environment.”
Justin Russell previously oversaw the MoJ's prisons, offender and youth justice policy
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