Leigh Lewis: As a former Home Office perm sec, I understand the tensions the department faces

Government faces constant contradictions in public expectations – and nowhere more so than the Home Office. A more honest discussion might help us learn the lessons of Windrush

Credit: PA 

By Sir Leigh Lewis

23 May 2018

It is now well over a decade since I spent three years at the Home Office in the early-noughties as permanent secretary for crime, policing and counter-terrorism. But they were eventful years. They encompassed the 7/7 bombings as well as numerous terror-related threats. Crime was falling but immigration was widely regarded as out of control. Bitter policy battles raged over whether treatment was more effective than enforcement in reducing drug-related crime and harm. And then as now ministerial lives were precarious. Two home secretaries were forced out of office during my three years: David Blunkett over issues relating to his personal life; and Charles Clarke over the widespread failure to deport serious offenders from outside the UK who had been recommended for deportation at the end of their sentence.


Fast-forward nearly 15 years to the Windrush debacle and I know no more than what I have read and heard – CSW readers probably know far more about who did what, knew what, said what, and when. But these events have caused me to reflect, as I often did when I was at the Home Office, about the inherent tensions and contradictions which the Home Office constantly faces.

Of course, all of government faces such tensions as I know from my time at the Department for Work and Pensions. The public wants disadvantaged people to be supported but abuse of the welfare system to be stopped. They want real wages to rise but not at the cost of jobs. They want feckless parents, and not the state, to pay for their children’s upbringing but not for single parents to be hounded.

“Before we fall over each other to express indignation and outrage we might reflect on the enormous challenges facing Home Office civil servants and ministers on a daily basis”

But nowhere are the tensions and contradictions quite as acute as they are at the Home Office where they can, quite literally, be matters of life and death as well as of freedom, personal liberty and the rule of law.

All of us want terrorists to be stopped, apprehended and brought to justice but we do not want our civil liberties infringed in the process or minority communities targeted. We want knife and gun crime to be relentlessly tackled but we do not want young people, especially from ethnic minorities, to be harassed or stopped and searched unjustly. We want drug gangs and barons taken off our streets but we do not want our prisons overflowing with low-level users. And, of course, we want illegal immigrants to be found and deported but we do not want, as clearly happened to some of the Windrush generation, those with an absolute right to be in this country to be targeted and threatened.

The problem is that this is all too easy to achieve from our armchairs and from the righteous indignation of the newspaper editorial and the TV studio, but in the real world in which the Home Office and its agencies have to operate these polar opposites are never quite so clear. Separating out the guilty from the innocent, the legal from the illegal, the legitimate from the illegitimate is, and will always be, highly challenging. I remember when I was chief executive of Jobcentre Plus a secretary of state saying to me: “Leigh, I want you to give the millions of honest people using your jobcentres a far better service but to come down like a ton of bricks on the scroungers.”

“That’s fine,” I replied, “the only problem is they don’t come into our offices wearing a neat little badge saying either ‘I’m genuine’ or ‘I’m a scrounger’.”

None of this is to excuse, or attempt to justify, the Home Office’s treatment of the Windrush generation. There will, and must, be lessons learned. But before MPs, commentators, journalists and all of us as members of the public fall over each other in our rush to express indignation and outrage at their treatment we might reflect for a few minutes on the enormous challenges facing both Home Office civil servants and ministers as, on a daily basis, they grapple on our behalf with some of the most intractable challenges in government.

How to tackle those challenges, how best to try to resolve those tensions and contradictions, ought to be the grown-up conversation in parliament, the media, think tanks and within government itself. Perhaps then we will have a better chance of not seeing a repeat of the Windrush failings.

Read the most recent articles written by Sir Leigh Lewis - 'There will be many tougher days than this': an ex-perm sec's open letter to Simon Case

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