The horrible tale of the Windrush children and the Home Office gets curiouser and curiouser. The Government’s critics argue that their treatment is an inevitable consequence of the “hostile environment” introduced by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary in order to reduce illegal immigration. One the one hand, former Ministers in the department insist that no Windrush-related problems were drawn to their attention when serving. On the other, lawyers who support migrants point out that they have been raising concerns for over five years.
What has been going on the Home Office? Have its Ministers consistently missed a scandal taking place under their noses for years? Or has there been a recent push to apply the “hostile environment” more widely? If so, did the present team of Ministers approve it? These are the kind of questions that a top-rate Opposition front bench would be asking. Home Secretaries are peculiarly vulnerable to pressure over mistakes. David Blunkett resigned after allegations that he had helped to fast-track a work permit for his ex-lover’s nanny. Charles Clarke was fired shortly after it emerged that over a thousand foreign prisoners had been freed without being considered for deportation. He was pursued relentlessly by his then shadow – David Davis. It is the sort of work that requires experience of government, an understanding of what makes the media tick, a grasp of Commons procedure, and an eye for campaigning detail. None of these qualities are associated with Diane Abbott. This Government is lucky in its Opposition – in Parliament, anyway.
At any rate, the revelations about the treatment of elderly people who have every right to be here could scarcely have come at a worse time for the Government. First, they coincide with the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in London. Downing Street originally refused to meet with them to discuss Windrush children who are now in limbo. Second, they precede, by unhappy concidence, the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech, as it is popularly known – the ultimate emblem of Conservative problems with ethnic minority voters. And finally, they summon to mind another group of people whose status in Britain the Home Office must deal with post-Brexit – EU nationals. What an opportunity has been afforded our the Commission and other EU governments to argue that Britain cannot be trusted to act justly!
The argument of the immigration lawyers and campaigners is plausible. In a nutshell, it is that a repressive policy and a bungling department is a recipe for mass injustice. But the more one thinks about it, the more unsatisfactory this view becomes. Theresa May did not conjure up the “hostile environment” because she wants her milk to be taken for gall. She acted because of public anxiety over illegal immigration. Since no-one can be sure how many people are in Britain illegally, she would have been criticised for not having done so. It is not unreasonable to seek to ensure that people who have no right to be in the UK do not access benefits to which they are not entitled, public housing or the NHS (unless in grave need). It follows that banks, landlords and public employees have a responsibility to work with government to this end. To maintain that the Home Office is incapable of distinguishing between people who are here illegally and those who, like the Windrush children, are here no less legally than anyone else is a counsel of despair.
And so it is that Amber Rudd has announced a new Home Office team to help resolve the status of the people in question, the waiving of fees, a halt to deportations (if any have taken place) and a review of any that have taken place (ditto). The Home Secretary hopes to resolve any cases within two weeks. This looks ambitious if 50,000 people are potentially affected. The Home Office’s default position will be accept applications. Its new motto, to borrow one from Archie Norman’s days at ASDA, seems to be “happy to help”. Fearful Windrush children, without documents through no fault of their own, may still be reluctant to come forward.
If the Home Office could scramble this effort together yesterday, why couldn’t it have done so last week, when a head of steam was gathering? Why did Number Ten refuse a meeting with the Commonwealth heads of government? This takes all concerned into the territory of blame-mongering – scarcely surprisingly after the treatment of people with settled status, at the very least, as though they were illegal entrants. It is clear that Downing Street doesn’t have the bandwidth to get across two crises at once: it has been consumed by the Syrian one. But Theresa May is no longer running the Home Office day-to-day; nor, in our view, did the “hostile environment” make the Windrush injustices inevitable. This takes one to Caroline Nokes and Amber Rudd. It is a peculiarity of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet that the immigration minister has the right to attend. But although Nokes is a senior minister, and until yesterday was leading on the issue, writing in the Voice and seeking to soote anxious Tory colleagues, she isn’t in charge of the department.
Which brings us to Amber Rudd. Her predecessor was an immigration conservative, preoccupied with reducing net migration (in which she was unsuccessful). Rudd herself has liberal instincts on the issue, with a natural inclination to see it through the lens of business. She must live in the shadow of a Prime Minister who was the longest-serving Home Secretary in modern times. This is difficult for all concerned. She said yesterday in the Commons that “the Home Office has become too concerned with policy and strategy and lost sight of the individual”. A frustrated Home Secretary was taking a swipe at the Prime Minister. That doesn’t bode well.
There is no post-Brexit immigration policy yet – which makes her a target for the more distrustful Leavers. But the Windrush debacle has been less about policy than practice. Last week, we contrasted the slow-movingness of the Home Office on violent crime with the quicksilver inventiveness of the Environment Secretary. For a second week, Rudd has been caught off-balance. May kept astride the Home Office tiger through relentless, grinding work – plus the ruthless deflection of blame – and fearsome, dedicated SpAds: the Nick Timothy-Fiona Hill duo, plus Will Tanner, Alex Dawson and Stephen Parkinson. If Rudd can’t do the same, she risks being eaten.