Home Office culture change pledge branded 'laughable' as government considers offshore detention centres

Human rights group criticises "improvement plan" amid reports officials considered putting asylum seekers on oil rigs
Boats used by would-be refugees to cross the English Channel. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire/PA Images

The home secretary, Priti Patel, has pledged to deliver a “cultural shift” at the Home Office in the wake of the Windrush scandal – but human-rights groups called her words “laughable” following the revelation the Home Office is considering setting up offshore detention camps for asylum seekers.

Patel yesterday promised an “unprecedented programme of change to build a Home Office fit for the future”, amid a series of reports that she and No.10 had told officials to consider a range of extreme measures to deter asylum seekers from entering the UK and detain them offshore.

The “comprehensive improvement plan”, published as part of the Home Office’s response to the Windrush lessons learned review, centres on previously-announced initiatives, including mandatory training on race for all staff and a review of the hostile environment policy.

Patel said the document was “the first part of our plan to deliver meaningful change”, while perm sec Matthew Rycroft said it "sets out how we are shifting the culture to ensure our workforce is focused on people, not cases".

The document added: "The home secretary and her ministerial team, as well as the permanent secretaries and officials throughout the Home Office, are committed to making fundamental, long-term, and sustainable changes to Home Office culture and how we work."

But critics have said the plan is far from comprehensive, and that the claim that it will change the Home Office’s culture is “laughable” in light of this week's reports about some of the options being considered to reform the asylum system.

The prime minister’s spokesperson yesterday confirmed the government was considering Australian-style offshore processing centres, following a series of reports based on leaked documents and briefings from anonymous officials. They said a range of options were being considered to clamp down on the number of asylum seekers crossing the English Channel to reach the UK.

Satbir Singh, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said the plan “wilfully misinterprets the Windrush review’s recommendations, while the Home Office continues to engage in a campaign of unbridled hostility against anybody who struggles to evidence their immigration status”.

“Priti Patel’s statement speaks of regret and building a more ‘compassionate’ Home Office, while committing to no specific actions which would actually prevent an injustice like Windrush from happening again," he said.

“Her claims of striving for ‘equality and fairness’ are made all the more laughable when just yesterday, it emerged she had considered shipping vulnerable asylum seekers to an island 4,000 miles away.”

As well as training and the hostile-environment review, the Home Office improvement plan promises ongoing monitoring and assurance of training uptake and impact to ensure its “lasting impact”.

Wendy Williams, who led the Windrush lessons-learned review, welcomed the plan, but said some of the "fundamental recommendations... require greater clarity and pace if the department is to be successful in its aim to rebuild public trust”.

More detail was needed, for example, on plans to appoint a migrants' commissioner, as recommended by Williams. The Home Office said it was "consulting with the Windrush cross-government working group" on how best to do so.

The department said it was also building a central repository for recording responses to reports and recommendations to improve its work, to build a “culture of learning”. The department is now piloting software to support the platform, and a phased roll out is due to start in late 2020. “By September 2021, recommendations from key external and internal sources will be uploaded to, and managed via, this repository,” the plan said.

And the department said it was also “testing various approaches to ethical decision-making to match the different contexts in which Home Office staff make immigration decisions, from complex casework environments in offices to the UK border”.

The move is in response to a recommendation in the lessons-learned review to “develop a set of ethical standards and an ethical decision-making model, built on the civil service code and principles of fairness, rigour and humanity”.

Wave machines, blockades and oil rig detention centres

Yesterday the Guardian reported that No.10 had told officials to consider proposals to set up offshore detention centres for asylum seekers in Moldova, Morocco or Papua New Guinea.

Documents seen by the newspaper, marked “official sensitive”, also suggested asylum seekers could be shipped to centres on Ascension and St Helena Islands in the south Atlantic while their applications to seek refuge in the UK are processed.

They summarise advice from civil servants in the Foreign Office asked to “offer advice on possible options for negotiating an offshore asylum processing facility similar to the Australian model in Papua New Guinea and Nauru” to No.10. 

The Australian government processes asylum seekers in detention centres on the Pacific Islands – a model that the documents say has been criticised by the UK government, as well as human-rights groups and the UN.

The documents were leaked following reports that Patel had told officials to look at models for processing asylum seekers that were deemed successful in other countries. The home secretary had personally considered a proposal to process refugees on Ascension Island, which is more than 4,000 miles from the UK.

The Times has meanwhile reported that No.10 is giving “serious consideration” to holding people who cross the Channel with the aim of applying for asylum in the UK on disused ferries. Other ideas debated at a Home Office discussion on blue-sky ideas for reforming the asylum system included processing applicants on decommissioned oil platforms in the North Sea, but this idea was rejected, the newspaper said.

Other “blue sky” ideas that were considered included forming a barricade of boats to stop Channel crossings, or creating a wave machine to make it difficult for vessels to cross – a proposal that was rejected because it could sink boats, the FT reported.

Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said yesterday: “We are developing plans to reform our illegal migration and asylum policies so we can keep providing protection to those who need it, while preventing abuse of the system and criminality.

“As part of this work we’ve been looking at what a whole host of other countries do to inform a plan for the United Kingdom. And that work is ongoing.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: "The UK has a long and proud history of offering refuge to those who need protection. Tens of thousands of people have rebuilt their lives in the UK and we will continue to provide safe and legal routes in the future.

"As ministers have said, we are developing plans to reform policies and laws around illegal migration and asylum to ensure we are able to provide protection to those who need it, while preventing abuse of the system and the criminality associated with it."

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