By Matt.Ross

06 Apr 2011

The Home Office and Transport briefs are notorious as political minefields. But Lin Homer, who survived the Home Office’s annus horribilis, is keen to see what the DfT can throw at her. Matt Ross meets the department’s new head.

“I used to think that immigration was the single thing that everybody has an opinion on,” says Lin Homer (pictured above). “Everywhere I went, they’d pin me against the wall and tell me what they thought.” As the head of the UK’s immigration operations, Homer was pinned against an awful lot of walls and heard a very wide range of opinions. And in her new job as permanent secretary of the Department for Transport, it seems, she’ll be spending just as much time listening to the ardent views of officials, politicians and members of the public. “The second that my appointment here was announced, I was reminded that the other thing everybody has an opinion on is travel,” she smiles.

Homer smiles a lot – and she’s a good listener: no wonder she gets such an earbashing. But her sunny demeanour clearly conceals a taste for tough, controversial jobs. “I like doing things that bring me close to the public; something that the public cares about,” she says. Within months of joining the Home Office as head of the Immigration & Nationality Directorate in August 2005, she discovered just how much the public cares about immigration when the foreign prisoner deportation scandal hit – soon forcing out home secretary Charles Clarke. In May 2006, his successor John Reid notoriously damned the directorate as “not fit for purpose”. But Homer retained his confidence, and embarked on an extended period of organisational reform.

Let’s get together
The directorate became the Border and Immigration Agency in 2007, adding visas, citizenship, asylum and in-country enforcement to its role; and in 2008 it was renamed the UK Border Agency, taking over customs’ border operations and the foreign office’s visa work. “It was a constantly moving base. The last 18 months were the most stable period in the five-and-a-half years I was there,” says Homer.

Despite the inevitable disruption, she says, it was a sensible set of mergers: “There’s enormous synergy between customs and immigration: it’s amazing, when you think about it, that those two services have operated alongside each other in exactly the same space... but in completely different legislative boundaries, physical buildings, uniforms. They were getting no synergy out of the fact that they walked the same footprint; had a lot of the same skill bases and professional capabilities.”

Now, Homer believes, the public are starting to recognise UKBA as a single entity, while its staff are steadily forging a common identity and exploring the opportunities to broaden their roles: “If your skills of interviewing and investigating sometimes lead you to illegal goods and sometimes to illegal people, that’s a really satisfying outcome”, she says. But Homer is clearly glad that the pace of organisational restructuring has eased: “I was keen that the agency, having done some of that quite significant change, be allowed a little bit of time to put that into effect and reap some of the benefits,” she comments.

Here we go again
With a new government in place, though, there was always bound to be more tinkering; and the Tories’ pre-election pledge to form a border police force has now re-emerged in plans for the forthcoming national crime agency (NCA). Home secretary Theresa May has suggested that the NCA will take on some of the UKBA’s responsibilities – but the plans are not yet set in stone. Given the need for a more joined-up approach to border law enforcement, Homer says, “we saw the border police force as a great opportunity to stand alongside the UKBA some specific policing powers focused on border police issues, to add to the work that individual police forces do.

“I think the home secretary and Damian Green, the immigration minister, are still thinking that through,” she continues, “but it could be a command structure [in which] the chief constable of the NCA will seek to direct an agenda that pulls in the workforce and professionals from a number of agencies, or it could over time turn into a more specialised set of skills that stand alongside those that are already there [in the police force]. One of the exciting things is going to be working out the balance between those two things.”

Another organisational change that may yet affect the UKBA – one rumoured in Whitehall – is the loss of its policymaking functions back into the Home Office. And here, Homer takes a far stronger line: “The more interaction between the policymakers and the people who put policy into practice, the better the policy will be,” she says. “I liked the model where I had those people within a single organisation and I could require them to work together. We got some fantastic interactions between the classic bright policymaker that the civil service is so good at producing, and the other set of expert skilled professionals who kind of suck their teeth and say: ‘That’s going to be a nightmare to do, but if you did it this way…’ The policymakers liked that environment, and I think we increasingly saw an ability to produce better policy.”

If policymakers and frontline workers do end up separated by an organisational boundary, Homer argues, “you’ve got to avoid the gap where the people who come up with ideas and the people who implement them can blame each other when the project isn’t good enough. It’s got to be shared accountability all the way through. People will probably say that it’s the power-mad bit of me that liked having all that [inside UKBA], but I liked to force people to hold that accountability quite close.”

Action; cut!
The biggest changes demanded by the coalition government, though, involve cutting costs. And here, Homer already has quite a reputation: she has, after all, just spent half a decade weeding out duplication and streamlining processes in the wake of a vast merger. The UKBA has little control over demand for its services, she concedes, and many services cannot be axed without endangering the public; but there are nonetheless at least three major ways to save money.

The first is to end some kinds of work – and UKBA is, finally, nearing the end of its vast backlog of asylum cases, which reached 450,000. “At its peak, over 800 staff were working on that,” Homer comments. “It’s due to be completed before the summer.”

Secondly, she says, “there’s doing things differently: moving to electronic case management is going to save us time.” There are big potential savings from re-engineering processes “so you have as clear and simple a system as possible”, she says. However, Homer acknowledges that this can be hard to achieve – “not least because it can be hard to find the legislative time to get a simplification bill. So we had multiple legal rights to arrest people. It would be really good to have just one, but you need legislative change to get there.”

Finally, Homer emphasises the value of teaming up with external partners who can take on responsibility for aspects of the UKBA’s work. Local authority registrars are, she says, now checking some service users’ documents on behalf of the agency: “We found we could take those fairly large steps out, and provide the same service,” she comments.

Cut! Next scene
By the time she left the UKBA at Christmas, Homer believes, the UK’s immigration and border control operations were far better connected – both internally, and with external partners. “We’ve got natural groupings within the agency that are quite strong, but I do think that we’re starting to get people to learn to work across those boundaries,” she says. Partnership working with other departments has improved, “and there’s a huge interaction with all the law enforcement and policing activities. Whereas in my early days we didn’t feel we were really at that party in a very serious way, by the time I left there was a deep and growing sense of respect for the way that two sets of law enforcement powers can be used cooperatively.”

Nonetheless, Homer says with a laugh that when the UKBA chooses her successor (the agency currently has an acting chief executive, Jonathan Sedgwick), they “will probably arrive and wonder what I’ve been up to.” During her tenure the UKBA did “a lot to be better prepared for some of the tasks we undertook – but, as in most parts of the public sector, there’s still a great deal to do”. And in this field, moving forward will always be complicated: “Immigration and visas and customs are always going to be challenging areas,” she says. “It’s a job for people who like a challenge.”

People a bit like her, in fact – and Homer has found a new challenge at the Department for Transport, where she’s been catapulted into the midst of a fast-moving programme of cuts. Her predecessor Robert Devereux (now installed at the Department of Work and Pensions) and ministers had decided “that the savings expected from the administrative centre would be achieved in a pacy and fast and controlled way”, she says, getting spending down to the target levels as quickly as possible. As a result, the department has already lost 20 per cent of its staff.

The job losses have been “hugely challenging for everyone concerned”, says Homer, but from the outset Devereux and his team “told everybody what they were doing, and why, and how they were going to do it”. There’s a “strong foundation of transparency and fairness” beneath the cuts, she argues. “I won’t say that the unions love every aspect of what we’re doing, but they’ve been very closely involved and they recognise the care with which it’s been done.”

As a result, Homer says, “by the end of April, everybody will know where they stand. A number of people will have taken the option of early release, a fairly significant number will have changed their role in some way, and we think we’ll be fighting fit and ready to start the rest of the spending review period.”

High-speed policy agenda
They’ll need to be. The DfT’s current workload includes the new generation of intercity trains, the High-Speed 2 (HS2) line between London and the North, a new white paper on local transport, an alternative to Heathrow expansion, and dealing with the localism agenda – the last of which has prompted a transition from regional strategic planning to the new Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs).

Overlaying all that, says Homer, is transport secretary Phil Hammond’s enthusiasm for the coalition’s agenda: “He expects us to focus on deregulation; to be serious about saving money; to focus on partnering the rest of government, and procuring well, and thinking about growth.”
Indeed, Hammond’s focus on economic growth is clear in the HS2 consultation: “There’s as much in there about growth as there is about the movement of train carriages,” says Homer, questioning the recent transport select committee report that argued for better integration between transport and economic development objectives. “Philip Hammond is very clear that we’re part of the network of national infrastructure and we’ve got to think about how we invest in that infrastructure not just to move people around, but to generate growth.”

Even national projects, though, will only work if they’re aligned with local objectives. “Something that moves people between cities really well still isn’t going to work if you can’t then move them around conurbations,” says Homer. And the localism agenda will present challenges for the DfT, I suggest, as the department tries to kick its traditionally centralising instincts while learning to work with a new generation of local partners. “I’m sure there are some tendencies in this department to think in a centralist way,” Homer acknowledges, “but I think there’s also some fantastic experience of working with the grain of localism.”

In evidence, she cites the department’s success in fostering modal shifts to buses, rail and bicycles: “In the future, government wants us to do even more of that by encouragement and advice rather than regulation,” she adds. “There are some people here who are ready for that; there will be some who need encouragement and reminders that we’re not doing it just because we’re going to spend less money, but because it’s a good way of going about things. You don’t have to prescribe everything to get the results you want.”

Let’s get together
Homer does seem to acknowledge, though, that the DfT will struggle to develop transport strategies unless the LEPs formed by councils are both substantial and highly cooperative. “This requires local authorities to work together,” she says. “How will LEPs work with passenger transport executives? All I would say is that whatever the government does around structures like that, the local groupings must work out for themselves that they’ve got to have some size and some scope.”

Successful localism will also, she says, require LEPs and councils to learn quickly from each other and share good ideas. “Conurbations need to work together; big cities need to learn from each other; and bits of local and central government can work on an idea, project or approach that can rapidly be shared with others,” Homer comments. “If you’re going to do localism you’ve got to do quick learning as well, so that when people have good ideas they can be rolled out just as effectively as if those good ideas were developed at the centre.”

As she tries to strike a balance between pursuing the big, strategic projects such as HS2 and making the localism agenda work for transport users up and down the country, Lin Homer is set to stay in a controversial area of government work – one on which everybody has an opinion that they’re only too keen to share. And that, it seems, is just the way this apparently mild-mannered, approachable woman likes it. “I like the forms of public service that bring me into regular, if you like edgy, contact with ‘real’ people,” she says. “And I absolutely made a bid to move from one department that people have strong feelings about to another that I thought delivered an equally important and critical service”.

“If you’re in that space, the strength of opinion can make it controversial, but the passion that people feel over these services is what gives me the continuing desire to do it well,” she concludes. “I’ve been a public servant all my life, and as long as I’m working in the public sector I want to be in and around those services that really, really matter to people.” ?

CV Highlights
1957    Born in Norfolk
1980    After studying at University College London, qualifies as a lawyer at Reading Borough Council
1982    Joins Hertfordshire County Council, rising to become director of corporate services
1998    Appointed chief executive, Suffolk County Council
2002    Moves to Birmingham City Council as chief executive
2005    Joins the civil service as director-general, Immigration & Nationality Directorate, Home Office
2007    Borders and Immigration Agency founded as an executive agency, headed by Homer; later changes its name to UK Border Agency
2011    Takes up role as permanent secretary, Department for Transport

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