Too big and too political? Here's how to reorganise the Home Office

After Windrush, is it time for some drastic changes at the Home Office? Whitehall expert Colin Talbot argues for a major re-organisation to tackle the long-standing problems at the department


By Colin Talbot

20 Jul 2018

The Home Office has come in for considerable criticism, in whole or in part, in recent years – most recently over the Windrush scandal and its ‘hostile environment’ policies.

Back in May 2006 the then home secretary, John Reid, famously declared that the immigration part of the Home Office was “not fit for purpose”. Judging by recent events things haven’t gotten much better in the past dozen years. So what is to be done? Rumours are swirling in Whitehall about possible changes, and a new, separate, immigration department has even been mooted according to a report in the Financial Times.

I was recently asked for some policy advice on how the Home Office might be reorganised to be more effective, especially on the migration issue – so here’s my thoughts based on over two decades observing the Home Office, sometimes from the outside in and occasionally from the inside out.

There have been two broad criticisms of the Home Office as an institution – it’s too big and it’s too political.

Too political?

The ‘too political’ point is a long-standing one. Back in 1995 Derek Lewis, a TV executive brought in to run the Prison Service by the previous home secretary Ken Clarke, was sacked by Michael Howard, the then home secretary.

The contrast between Clarke and Howard – both Conservatives in the same government – as home secretaries was a stark one. Whereas Clarke had a very 'hands off’ approach to the management of prisons, and other Home office functions, and was content with setting the policy direction alone, Howard was very different.

I was talking to a senior Home Office official, in his office, when Howard was home secretary. He had a whiteboard in his office divided into columns for days of the week. Each column had ticks in it. I asked what it was for. "It’s my Michael Howard panic-o-meter," he said. "I put a tick in every day I get a panic call from his private office about some story in the press." But why, I asked? "I’m trying to work out which days I should make sure I’m out of the office," he replied.

Howard’s hands-on approach was not only apparent in the sacking of Lewis, but in his famous refusal 12 times to answer a question from Jeremy Paxman, on the BBCs Newsnight, about whether he had threatened to overrule Lewis when he was still director general of prisons.

"Changing the culture of a new department would not be easy but a professionally led, non-ministerial, department would at least have a chance of shifting these organisations away from their tradition of punitive hostility to migrants and towards a more neutral administrative function"

There is always a tension in democratic political systems between democratic direction (and accountability) on the one hand and the need for unbiased, fair, and generally accepted action by government organisations on the other – a balance between political direction and operational independence. Theresa May tipped the balance towards political control with her hostile environment policy, which influenced the operational decisions made by officials. Amber Rudd tried, unsuccessfully, to make some minor changes only to have the Windrush scandal blow up in her face. Savid Javid is now apparently putting the hostile environment ‘on hold’.

This tension between legitimate democratic direction and fair administration is more acute in some areas – such as law enforcement, criminal justice or taxation – than in others. No one wants politicians to decide who goes to prison, or what taxes an individual should pay, for example.

In the UK several solutions have evolved to deal with this. The police, armed forces, intelligence agencies and others have a status that is removed from operational political control. Tax collection has for centuries been handled by “non-ministerial” departments established by Act of Parliament.

Too big?

The Home Office, founded in 1782, has always been a big department with sprawling responsibilities.

The current official list of responsibilities includes illegal drug use; alcohol strategy, policy and licensing conditions; terrorism; crime, and public safety; border control and immigration; applications to enter and stay in the UK; issuing passports and visas; policing and fire prevention and rescue. The department is responsible for over 30 agencies and public bodies. Until fairly recently it also included the prison and probation services for England and Wales, until they were moved to the Ministry of Justice.

Note how much these policy areas impinge on other government departments – this takes up a huge amount of Home Office time and is a source of resentment in other departments. Theresa May as home secretary famously rode roughshod over concerns from other ministries over issues like the net migration target (business department); including students in migration numbers (education); imposing duties on employers, universities and landlords to make immigration checks (DWP, education, etc) and on refugees policy (Foreign Office and the Department for International Development).

Many commentators have said this is too big and too much for a small group of ministers to effectively direct. This is one reason it has traditionally been seen as a ‘political graveyard’ because it is so easy for important things to go wrong and the home secretary to get the blame.

Time for change

So what to do? If we combine the ideas of putting a greater separation between political direction and operational management and a need to slim down the Home Office’s functions, here’s some possible changes.

Policy direction on migration

One solution is to remove control of policy on migration from the Home Office and move it into a ‘Policy Board’ in the Cabinet Office with representatives of all the departments with a significant interest in migration policy, and maybe the devolved governments too. The Home Office would have an important input, but not its current ultimate control.

Border Force

This is a joint body which carries out checks on people and goods at the UK borders. It is run by the Home Office, but with an extensive “partnership agreement” with HMRC.

One simple measure would be to reverse this and have HMRC run the Border Force. As HMRC is already a “non-ministerial department” this would remove the Border Force from direct political control immediately.

Immigration Enforcement and Visas & Immigration

Immigration Enforcement has been one of the areas that has been most problematic. Partly because of strong political direction to be ‘tough’ and partly because of weak management, poor culture and extensive out-sourcing to the lowest bidder. It needs much greater managerial control and a reformed culture and one way to help this would be to create a new non ministerial Department for Migration Management which would operate more like HMRC, or the police.

Visas & Immigration has likewise been poorly led and had a bad culture of negativity for decades. Some of what it does around visas and refugees for people outside of the UK’s borders could be transferred to the Foreign Office, or even DfID for refugees. The rest should go into the new Department for Migration Management.

Changing the culture of a new department would not be easy – the ‘hostile environment’ exists inside these two functions as well as being projected outwards. But a professionally led, non-ministerial, department would at least have a chance of shifting these functions away from their tradition of punitive hostility to migrants and towards a more neutral administrative function.

Will any of this happen? Probably not. Any home secretary will probably fight tooth and nail to retain both policy and managerial control over migration. Could it happen? Well, the transfer of prisons to the Ministry of Justice shows that major change is at least possible. It would take a home secretary, or prime minister, of exceptional courage and vision to make changes on this scale.

Read the most recent articles written by Colin Talbot - Colin Talbot: How public servants can make the machine work for them


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