Theresa May has announced that the UK Border Agency is to be abolished. In an unscheduled statement to the House of Commons, she described UKBA as ‘a troubled organisation’ with a ‘closed, secretive and defensive culture’. She said that the agency’s size, lack of transparency, IT systems, policy remit and legal framework ensured that its ‘performance was not good enough’.
May declared that the agency will be split in two. One arm will deal with immigration and visa services, while the other tackles enforcement. May will also bring both arms back directly under the control of ministers, reversing the arms-length policy established by Labour in 2008. May also called for an IT upgrade, which will, it is hoped, help the agencies to keep track of immigration cases, some 312,726 of which are lost.
She first pursued this divide and rule approach when she split the UK Border Force from UKBA in the aftermath of the Brody Clark affair. She said that her arrangements had brought improvement to the UK Border Force, and would do so again with what remains of UKBA.
None of this will have done Mrs May’s burgeoning reputation any damage. Only yesterday, the Home Affairs Select Committee, chaired by Labour’s Keith Vaz, described UKBA as ‘not fit for purpose’. This decisive response could be seen as an example of the secretary of state taking parliament’s advice, which is smart politics where immigration is concerned, adding to the sense, expressed by the Times this morning (£), that there is something approaching consensus among the parties on the need to tighten immigration.
What the Times didn’t say was that this consensus broadly favours the Conservative viewpoint, and the Home Secretary in particular. May’s shadow, Yvette Cooper, was forced into a slightly awkward position this afternoon when she said ‘we would have some sympathy with your proposals’ before adding the mandatory criticism that immigration is getting worse ‘on your watch’; to which May can respond that she is taking direct responsibility for agencies that were established at arm’s length by a Labour party that now admits its immigration policies were ill-conceived. ‘Cleaning up Labour’s mess’ is one slogan that the government has mastered, why not riff on the theme?
May’s intervention will please Tory backbenchers, some of whom are understood to be lukewarm about David Cameron’s immigration speech yesterday and his leadership in general. All of which goes to show that Theresa May and her team, love them or loathe them, are getting very good at politics. The question is whether this approach will repair a system that is rotten to its core. Not for nothing does the Home Office have a reputation for burying political careers.