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The Home Office is Whitehall’s ultimate hostile environment

30 April 2018

8:25 AM

30 April 2018

8:25 AM

Theresa May’s tragicomic run of rotten luck continues. Amber Rudd has self-deported to the backbenches and the Prime Minister will have to find a credible replacement at a moment of acute strife. Why anyone would want the job is a mystery to most of us, but then we lack that combination of ambition and self-delusion essential to political life. The Home Office is where potential is thrown on the rack and brutalised, where careers go to die slow, ignominious deaths; it is Whitehall’s ultimate hostile environment. (Ministers disagree and began speculating about a Rudd return with unseemly haste. They may be right but they could at least feign a bout of reflection and contrition.)

Home Secretaries enter the office with one of two mindsets. Either they believe it can be managed effectively and their predecessors just lacked their innate abilities or they know it’s a £9bn trashcan fire but reckon they can keep the flames under control long enough to be reshuffled to safety. Either way, they both get burned in the end. Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first send to Marsham Street. 

The Home Office is not a government department; it’s a nervous breakdown minuted by civil servants. It is too big, too unwieldy, and too overstretched. It is an uber-bureaucracy of overlapping remits and contradictory objectives, at once sclerotic and dementedly populist. Tony Blair recognised this and hived off courts, prisons and probation to the Ministry of Justice. It was a good start but the decade since has proved that more radical restructuring is needed. 

Here is one possible solution. Replace the Home Office with three smaller departments. The first, which we will call the Public Safety Department, would be responsible for law and order, policing, serious and organised crime, and drugs. The second, the National Security Department, would be charged with counter-terrorism, counter-espionage, and cyber-warfare, and wrest control of civil contingencies from the Cabinet Office. Lastly, the Citizenship, Borders and Population Growth Department would run customs, nationality and naturalisation, immigration, asylum, passports, visas, integration, and counter-radicalisation. 

The changes should not end there. The flaws of the Home Office are cultural as well as structural and so the culture would have to change too. The Citizenship Department would balance the economic potential of inward migration with the social and infrastructural challenges. Immigration would go from being seen as a burden and a threat to a source of wealth generation, upskilling, and demographic security. Targets and caps would go but border enforcement would be enhanced and integration prioritised. It would be an immigration system the public could have confidence in but one weaned off the current Home Office’s addiction to headlines and numbers. 

That is just one way to reorder things. There are others. What matters more than the precise division of the Home Office is the recognition that it is no longer fit for purpose and must be broken up. The Windrush abomination – ‘scandal’ is too mild a descriptor – has brought the spotlight to bear on this department’s various dysfunctions but these predate deportation targets and even Theresa May’s tenure as Home Secretary. The Home Office’s problems are endemic and will not be solved by a safe pair of hands or a review or any of the other cliches that follow in the wake of ministerial resignations. The Prime Minister needs to appoint a reformer and instruct them to oversee the break-up of this discredited ministry and the restoration of confidence in Britain’s citizenship and immigration systems, to say nothing of our sense of fundamental decency. 


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