Ask a British High Commissioner or Ambassador in Africa what is the biggest impediment to Global Britain, and they will point to the Home Office’s reluctance to grant visas to visiting African academics to attend conferences. Every applicant is regarded with suspicion, a potential overstayer who will seek to exploit their visit to take advantage of the UK. Global Britain stops at the border.
A similar mindset lay behind the Windrush disaster. A lack of institutional memory, an ill-thought through policy decision to destroy all records, combined with an innate suspicion that even people who clearly had been in Britain for a lifetime were gaming the system and could not be taken at face value meant too many people faced ruination from a department that became the living embodiment of its hostile environment.
The Home Office recognised this when it set up and ran its Settled Status scheme for EU citizens: it knew that a scheme which presumed eligibility went against the grain for its normal frontline staff – and worked to distance it from business as usual. Settled status has been by any standards a huge success. But, even there, the adamant refusal to listen to EU citizens’ concerns on, for example, physical proof of identity threatens to make the worst of a good job.
The UK combines immigration control with the department that is also in the frontline of internal security. It is therefore no surprise that so much of the Home Office response to Ukraine is affected, or infected, with concerns over the implications of a more lenient policy for security. Undoubtedly they are right to fear that other people desperate to get into the UK will abuse any lowering of our border defences – whether they are other refugees already in Northern France, unscrupulous people traffickers or Russian agents.
Because taking back control of our borders was such a potent mantra in the Brexit campaign, the Home Office – and the government – apply it whatever the balance on the other side of the ledger: it appears to be the reason it rejected a mobility agreement on offer from the EU in the negotiations on the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, and seems to be the reason now they are insisting on directing desperate refugees to overworked visa offices miles from where they are. The one exception has been their generous offer to Hong Kong residents – but for them a visa route looks workable.
Government departments are often – rightly – accused of failing to understand the customer perspective – forcing people in need of help to jump through hoops and putting up barriers to assistance. And ministers might say that although now the public clamour is to “let them in”, down the line it is they who will be blamed when the inevitable evidence of some abuse emerges. The Treasury might be tempted to point to the demands in 2020 for bounceback loans to be paid quickly, with minimum bureaucracy, with the department now taking the rap for consequential fraud.
But its fair to say that the Home Office is misjudging the public mood at the moment. Even Conservative backbenchers are demanding a more humane approach – and one that recognizes that people fleeing across borders, in fear of their lives, may not have arrived with a perfect documentary record to satisfy Home Office inquisitors.
There is – hopefully – an internal post mortem underway into how the Home Office has managed to give such misleading answers to MPs. Misleading a select committee cost a previous home secretary her job, and Priti Patel is rightly on the rack for misleading parliament about whether or not there was a processing centre up and running in Calais (there isn’t – one is being set up in Lille). But this all smacks of internal disarray inside the Home Office. Are officials misleading the home secretary (that was the finding of the Allan inquiry which exonerated Amber Rudd)? Or is the home secretary not listening to advice? This is already a department with a reputation for playing fast and loose with the facts – it cannot let desperate refugees become collateral damage.
Priti Patel and her permanent secretary need to show they can grip and manage this crisis. They could and should have been planning this as intelligence reports showed the threat to Ukraine. Now they need to show they can move the systems and staff to get a humane and speedy admission process up and running in the next couple of days – and to turn that into a proper pathway to resettlement of uncertain duration. The prime minister seems to have decided to send in reinforcements and has recruited Richard Harrington as refugees minister to work across the Home Office and DLUHC – a role he played during the Syrian refugee crisis.
Becoming a department of relief will not come naturally to the department of border control. But a crisis can be a catalyst for change – and in this case it needs to be.