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You’d be hard-pressed to find any outright fans of the Home Office. Its role is not one that naturally inspires affection, even when the job is done well, and the scandal over the mistreatment of the Windrush generation is the latest addition to the list of reasons why people dislike the organisation.

Notably the Home Office’s critics in relation to immigration policy tend to have two distinct accounts of why they dislike it so much.

The first is the impression that the department is simply incompetent. From John Reid’s verdict of “not fit for purpose” in 2006, to the repeated failures to fulfil the Government’s net migration pledge, to this week’s confession that legally-here Britons might have been wrongly deported, there’s a reasonable basis on which to think that the people and systems overseeing our borders and the legalities of who can live and work in this country are simply not up to the job. In this view the department is all mouth and no trousers, parading its “Go Home” vans in order to appear tough while failing to actually deal with the issue of illegal immigration.

The second analysis is that the Home Office is actively malicious. Again, there’s a case to make for this view: the way in which it cruelly mishandled the desperate appeals of those from the Windrush generation who feared being uprooted from their homes, the way in which it has serially divided families through unreasonable demands to fill out paperwork in person at far-flung British consulates, and the nasty habit it has of dropping life-changing news through innocent people’s letterboxes without notice, explanation or sometimes even appeal. In this alternative reading, the infamous vans and the wider “hostile environment” policy are not in fact targeted at reducing illegal immigration, but are an actively xenophobic work of intimidation towards all immigrants in the UK.

Which of these views you gravitate to might be informed by the type of treatment you have witness or experienced in your own life, or the lives of those you know. It might also, let’s be blunt, be affected by your politics.

If you’re of the view that border control is desirable, that illegal immigration ought to be challenged firmly, and that Westminster should “take back control” of migration policy, then you might be more inclined to defend against criticism of the current approach by arguing that the system is not inherently bad, but is incompetently administered. Perhaps what might sometimes appear to be cruelty is in fact just a clumsy attempt to try to fulfil the targets the system has failed to come anywhere near close to hitting.

Alternatively, if you think limiting immigration is inherently wrong, and/or that Tories are inherently racist, then you’re more likely to make the case that the Home Office is a deliberately wicked machine. That its unreasonable behaviour is a carefully calibrated policy set right from the top, motivated by a fundamental dislike of immigrants and foreigners. The idea that it might be scaring people and disrupting their lives by accident sounds to you like an excuse for being intentionally bad and unpleasant, and acknowledging the possibility might let those responsible off the hook.

The reality, sad to say, is that the output of the Home Office appears to be a disastrous mixture of both of these problems. A system that combines deliberate obstructiveness, apparently in a last-ditch attempt to massage numbers down by placing illegitimate barriers in the way of legitimate residents, with a blundering inability to administer its own systems and rules reasonable or efficiently, is the worst of both worlds.

The fact that it has held a reputation for being needlessly unpleasant to people through the medium of the immigration system for some decades suggests that at least some of the problems are far deeper than mere questions of what the government of the day might want, but evidently ministers have declined to insist that such failings be eliminated, too.

I have had some experience of dealing with the arm of the Home Office that adjudicates on British citizenship. Though I won’t go fully into the private details of the person involved, suffice to say that it was a politically uncontroversial application – accepting it would not change the immigration numbers. It was also legally clear-cut; I’m not a lawyer, but even I was able to look up and read the relevant Acts and regulations, and ascertain the individual’s status at the outset.

And yet the Home Office’s response was to turn the whole issue into a bewildering and months-long farce: it shuffled me from one team and phoneline to another; it lost previously held notes on the case, forcing me to revisit previously addressed errors; it insisted on engaging its legal advisors simply to try to correctly understand its own published advice; and, remarkably, it at one point tried to demand a form of historic documentation that would never conceivably have existed for the individual involved. In the end, it conceded what was obvious from the start only after an extensive runaround, and then on the strength of evidence that it could easily have accessed itself on day one from existing Whitehall records.

Was this incompetence? Undoubtedly; the Home Office’s officials should know its own laws and policies, and it should be able to securely hold basic data. I was dealing at times with supposed professionals who expressed fundamental misunderstandings of even basic aspects of UK immigration policy.

Was it deliberate obstruction? Again, yes; it would be easy and straightforward to cross-check the state’s own data on its own residents at the outset of such cases, but instead the system involves forcing applicants to jump through a lengthy series of hoops in order to extract from the state then resubmit to it the exact same information that it already holds. That is a choice.

Indeed, the obstructiveness and the disorganisation seemed to have become mutually reinforcing features of the system. If the former didn’t make us give up, perhaps the latter would. As it was, we were stubborn and fortunate – but it left me convinced that this toxic combination of vindictive awkwardness and misadministration can easily ruin people’s lives, and poses a serious threat to this country’s international standing and relationship with many of its own residents.

Nobody really likes to hear such a message, and most people prefer to explain it all through one simplistic analysis. If the Home Office was a well-organised work of evil then its failings could simply be fixed by changing the government in charge, or if it was simply bad at delivering a fundamentally good system then it could all be mended by just getting the Civil Service to do the job better. One worldview, and one party, or another would be satisfied in either circumstance. As it is, however, there’s just bad news for everybody – all the more reason why it merits a proper inquiry to get to the root of the problem and set it right for good.

82 comments for: Is the Home Office blunderingly incompetent, or deliberately obstructive? Bad news: it’s a combination of both.

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