By Richard Johnstone

18 Jun 2021

The Home Office has embarked on a wide-ranging reform effort following the Windrush scandal. Matthew Rycroft and Hamid Motraghi tell Richard Johnstone about the need for change

Scrutiny comes with the territory in the Home Office. The department, described by its own top minister two decades ago as “not fit for purpose”, has long been subject to a high level of oversight from parliament, media and civil society groups.

And, many would say, for good reason. The Windrush scandal revealed a department that had been wrongly deporting British citizens who arrived in the UK between 1948 and 1973. A subsequent inquiry found many people from Commonwealth countries had been denied their rights due to the department’s “hostile environment” policy.

The department will be in the spotlight in the weeks and months ahead for how it responds to the review into the scandal, which set out a series of recommendations to ensure those mistakes are never repeated.

The scandal shook the department, claiming its cabinet minister and a group of senior civil servants. Current permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft acknowledges the official inquiry, undertaken by Wendy Williams, got “pretty close to saying that the department is institutionally racist”.

“She didn’t get that far,” says Rycroft, who took up the post the week after the report and its 30 recommendation were published. “But she did say the department had shown ‘institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race and the history of the Windrush generation’. That’s what she found the Home Office grievously guilty of.”

The Williams review made four recommendations specifically addressing race issues in the Home Office, including the creation of an overarching strategic race advisory board, chaired by the permanent secretary and with external experts as members.

It also called for a revised diversity and inclusion strategy, including targets for improving the number of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic officials in the senior civil service, and a detailed plan for achieving them.

These recommendations were intended by Williams to form part of “a programme of major cultural change for the whole department and all staff, aimed at encouraging the workforce and networks to contribute to the values and purpose of the organisation and how it will turn them into reality”.

Rycroft (left) tells CSW: “My instinct was to use Wendy Williams’s really compelling and really hard-hitting report as the burning platform to drive the cultural shift in the department. And how we deal with race in the department is absolutely central to that.”

This led to the development of the Race Action Programme to take on the process of culture change in the department. Programme team head Hamid Motraghi says the review put increased emphasis on issues of race in the department. “When the review was published, and when Matthew came in, we used that opportunity to really look at where we can align the thinking of the department,” he says.

The Race Action Plan launched in July 2020, following what Motraghi calls “a period of reflection”. It was compiled after consultation with the department’s 10 directorate race champions, as well as with Rycroft (who is also the overall civil service race champion) and Tyson Hepple, the Home Office’s race champion and director general for immigration enforcement.

The plan sets out a number of measures to increase the number of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people in senior roles, with the aim of matching representation in the Home Office SCS to the proportion in society by 2025.

Rycroft notes that the Home Office has more Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic staff than any other department, making up 23% of its workforce, but accepts that at “every single step up the hierarchy, the proportion falls”.

“By the time you get to the senior civil service, that proportion is down to 7-8%, a really shocking fall off,” he says. “So we are doing something right in attracting people into the Home Office, but the bad news is most of them are in the most junior grades. So we’ve got a massive job to really focus on promotion and progression, and that is one of the big things that we’ve been focusing on.”

Rycroft says one key action has been improving the performance management system, which represented “probably the biggest single thing” that came out of his conversation with colleagues on how to improve representation in the department.

Rycroft joined the Home Office from the Department for International Development, where he was perm sec from January 2018 to March 2020. He said one thing he did not expect to find at the Home Office was “a very serious concern” from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic colleagues about performance management and the way they felt the system was “biased against them”.

“If you just look at the numbers, there’s definitely something going wrong – the Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic staff were underachieving in terms of performance and pay, and were overly represented in the bottom tranches [of the department’s performance management system],” Rycroft says.

The system was based on a broader civil service system that unions and others have argued is discriminatory. Data from across departments and agencies has consistently shown that employees from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds are less likely to receive the top performance rating and more likely to receive the lowest rating compared to their white colleagues.

Motraghi (left) says the performance management regime was a “real thorn in the side for a lot of staff for several years”, so the new system represented “a huge change for the department”.

The new system, which has been put in place for the current assessment year, has removed mid-year and end-of-year performance assessment ratings, and reduced the administrative burden of performance reviews in favour of light-touch regular check-ins, with a focus on development and wellbeing. The process has also been simplified, with the goal of providing a continuous cycle of performance and development conversations, and greater consistency and fairness for all staff through increased monitoring and accountability – with director generals having additional responsibility around diverse outcomes.

“To Matthew and Tyson’s credit, they took the bull by the horns on this one and got it delivered,” Motraghi says.

The Race Action Programme has also changed the makeup of recruitment boards. To increase diversity, 800 volunteers, all of whom are from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic background or have a disability, have been recruited to sit on the panels. Motraghi says work is focused “mainly at senior executive officer and above, because that’s where our under representation is the most acute”. The department is doing “significant work” around feedback and reserve lists, and ensuring jobs have more diverse shortlists to begin with.

Staff sponsorship is another area of change, with every executive committee member – and soon every member of the senior civil service – sponsoring a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic staff member.

“Sponsorship, I think, is one of the things that has a really big impact on people from underrepresented groups,” says Rycroft. “It begins as a level the playing field, it gives them an advantage, the way that people from overrepresented groups have got that anyway, because of the networks that that we have. So it's giving people from an underrepresented group something that's much more active and proactive than a mentor – it’s giving them access to that network and to someone who works behind the scenes on their behalf.”

However, changing the culture of the Home Office is something that Rycroft acknowledges will not be a quick fix. In a letter to Public Accounts Committee chair Meg Hillier in March, he said  “transformational change is needed if the Home Office is to deliver better for the public”, adding that it should become “more open and customer-focused, more efficient and automated, more forward looking and innovative”.

He acknowledged that “this transformation journey will take time to implement fully and to embed”, a concern shared by other observers of the department.

Former independent chief inspector of borders and immigration David Bolt (interviewed elsewhere in this month’s CSW) highlights some of the barriers to change.

”There isn’t one culture in the Home Office,” he says. “It’s lots of micro cultures, because it’s spread out over so many locations.

“I know Matthew Rycroft and ministers are talking about how they’re intending to change the culture, but it’s a real challenge to achieve that across such a big department. I don’t doubt there’s a will to do it, I doubt whether there is the ability to do it.”

Chai Patel, legal policy director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, tells CSW that while he agrees many civil servants are “sincerely trying to improve things in line with some of the recommendations that were made”, the department has not improved.

“The key problems weren’t internal diversity within the Home Office or necessarily whether the staff had had enough sensitivity training. The problems were in policy and in the political culture and in the directions given by ministers,” he says.

“You have the home secretary and ministers calling for harsher measures and saying extremely hostile things to the charities and employers who raised the Windrush problems in the first place.”

The policy landscape coming from ministers around their new plan for immigration is increasingly hostile and advocating regressive policies, Patel says. “So it is difficult to talk about reform when all the reforms are to stuff that wasn’t the root cause of the problem, while there’s regression in all the policies and politics that were,” he adds.

Rycroft acknowledges that no element of the Home Office’s current package of changes will be a “single bullet” and says it will “take time” to improve outcomes for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic staff.

“I want to be honest with people that this is this is not an overnight issue, this is going to take a long period of sustained work – very unheroic and behind the scenes – but we are determined to do that,” he says.

Motraghi agrees progress is “going to be the aggregation of marginal gains”. “It’s not going to be one big bang. It will take us time,” he says.

But he hopes to reach that 2025 target for SCS representation. “I’m sure we can get there, because we are seeing improvements in terms of representation already.

“It is at the top end of the scale that we do need to do some more work and I think the focus on it will make a real difference.”

To measure progress, Rycroft says he will use “the power of data”. Having already dug into the numbers to disaggregate the department’s figures for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic representation and get a deeper understanding of representation not just by grade but by geographic location and by work type, the department will now use data to track the difference the programme makes.

“We will look by grade, by location, by job type, and see how things shift and where there are particular blockages,” Rycroft promises.

Motraghi says that this means “we really understand where the underrepresentation is within different ethnic groups” and allows the department to make plans that tie in with other areas of government policy, such as the Places for Growth programme that aims to move roles out of London. But he agrees progress is “going to be the aggregation of marginal gains”. “It's not going to be one big bang, it will take us time,” he says.

But he hopes to be able to reach that 2025 target for SCS representation. “I'm sure we can get there, because we are seeing improvements in terms of representation already,” Motraghi says.

“It is at the top end of the scale that we do need to do some more work and I think the focus on it will make a real difference.”

“It’s not going to be one big bang. It will take us time” Hamid Motraghi

The department has accepted all of Wendy Williams’s recommendations, which means it has now formed the strategic race board chaired by Rycroft. In Rycroft’s words, the board will “hold people to account and ensure we crack on with delivering our plans”, as well as revising the department’s overall diversity and inclusion strategy.

These efforts all come at a time when government action to tackle racial disparities more broadly is in the spotlight. The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report produced for the government was viewed by many equality advocates as a backwards step because it concluded that geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion have a more significant impact on life chances than the existence of racism.

Asked if the report – and the pre-briefing of the most contentious elements, which led to high-profile media coverage – harmed the kind of work that the Home Office is seeking to address, Rycroft stresses that the government has not yet responded to the report.

“We should reflect on it and see it as a contribution to the debate rather than as the last word,” he says.

“It’s definitely not going to detract us from our implementation of all of the Windrush recommendations. I think there probably have been some staff in the Home Office who have been worried about that. And I have sought to reassure them that they shouldn’t be worrying. In terms of what it means more broadly, I think we are waiting for the prime minister and Cabinet Office on that.”

Motraghi adds that the report has “got people to stop and think more about race”, but says implementing the Windrush recommendations is “what we’re focused on delivering and making a difference for our staff”. And some of the recommendations, such as disaggregating statistics about Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups to better understand the challenges faced by each, have already happened in the department.

Alongside his work in the department, Rycroft is also the civil service race’s champion, having been confirmed in the role after an initial six-month appointment.

He says his priorities are looking at recruitment, promotion and progression, and lived experiences of people from minority backgrounds in the civil service – and that he has begun to find initiatives that can be applied to the Home Office’s own efforts.

“Under each of those headings, there are things that have really opened my eyes in terms of, you know, what's going on in other departments,” he says. “So on recruitment, for instance, some departments that do big recruitment exercises like HMRC and DWP have discovered that if you recruit en masse, you are more likely to get better outcomes from a diversity perspective than if then if every competition is done as a as a one-off. So that's something I can bring back into the Home Office.”

On promotion and progression, he highlights work by the Department for Education in looking end-to-end at recruitment and promotion processes to see where the blockages are to Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic progression, which in turn has led to the Cabinet Office collating data on the subject. 

And on the third point, Rycroft says: “One thing that I personally learned was there's a lot of people who are Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic who feel that they do an awful lot of talking – they tell a story very many times, and what they really want to see is action. That was really what spurred me on over the summer, to take decisive action on that performance management issue.”

Other areas of collaboration Motraghi highlights include work the Home Office has done with the departments that share its Marsham Street HQ – the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – to put in place a shared career development pipeline for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic women.

The Home Office’s high profile means it will no doubt remain in the spotlight for its actions. But Rycroft stresses that he wants his to be the department that others learn from. “Some of our Windrush response, for instance, includes trying to get a message across the whole of the civil service about how to do policymaking in a more open and more inclusive way that is more in touch with the communities that we serve,” he says. “We are trying to break down the barriers between the Home Office and the rest of the civil service and actually go out there with constructive suggestions on some issues which we’ve got experience of.”

This has included conversations between Rycroft and his fellow permanent secretaries in what he calls “Wednesday morning colleagues format”, referring to the weekly meeting between departmental chiefs.

These have been “updating them on our Windrush response, and then specifically asking them to engage on some of these particular issues,” Rycroft says. “And there’s a whole strand of work, to follow up one of Wendy’s recommendations, that is about spreading good practice around the policymaking community.”

Like many parts of this agenda, it is now about tracking progress. But, says Rycroft, “when you put them all together, you know, this is a really strong and sustained attempt to shift the dial”.

Both he and Motraghi know the country will be watching to judge their progress.

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