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Resigning was right, but repair needs to start now

Amber Rudd's resignation raises questions about the quality of advice to ministers at the Home Office as well as the coherence of immigration policy.

Amber Rudd had to stand down, but the case raises questions about the quality of advice to ministers at the Home Office as well as the coherence of immigration policy. Benoit Guerin and Bronwen Maddox say her successor must sort these out.

The Home Secretary had no choice but to resign

In her resignation letter to the Prime Minister, Amber Rudd gave two reasons for her decision. The first was that she had “inadvertently misled” the Home Affairs Select Committee by saying that the Home Office did not have targets for removing illegal immigrants. The second was that since her appearance before the Committee on 25 April, she had “reviewed the advice” she had been given, and had “become aware of information provided to [her] office which makes mention of targets”. She concluded “I should have been aware of this and I take full responsibility for the fact that I was not.”

She was right to resign. That is not because either reason need on its own be a resigning matter – but together, they became one. During last week’s Home Affairs Select Committee hearing, the Home Secretary denied that her department had targets for removing migrants. When a 2015 inspection report and a leaked memo referring to immigrant removal targets promptly surfaced, she did indeed return to Parliament the next day to correct the record, the right course of action. She then said that the department had used “local targets for internal performance management”. On Friday evening she was tweeting that she was unaware of one of the leaked documents; by Sunday evening she accepted that she should have been - pointing to a busy weekend of dialogue with her officials. A further leak showed that she wrote to the prime minister early last year about her “aim of increasing the number of enforced removals by more than 10% over the next few years”.

The critical factor was not just the statement to the select committee but the acknowledgement that she should have been aware of a discussion of targets that did not just appear in a few documents but appeared to be a central principle of the department’s management.

Is this a victory for parliamentary scrutiny?

Parliament showed itself to be effective and quick to pick up the issue, channelling public interest in Windrush to get to the heart of the approach to immigration by the Government and the Home Office. It has shone a light onto wider questions about immigration policy, too – principally, whether the difficulty of meeting immigration targets set by Theresa May and David Cameron in the early years of the coalition government led ministers and civil servants to adopt a target-focussed, hard-line approach to immigration.

All the same, the resignation raises important questions about the relationship between officials and the Secretary of State. Initially, Rudd made the mistake of trying to blame her civil servants, which we have argued only leads to confusion as to who is accountable. Her unusual public criticism of her department being too focused on strategy and “sometimes [losing] sight of the individual” did not help. She, as the minister, should have picked up that the political heat behind Windrush was building up.

Is the civil service at fault?

That said, it looks very much as if the Secretary of State did not receive appropriate support from her department. First, the civil service allowed the Home Secretary to go into the Select Committee hearing insufficiently prepared.  It is unclear why they let the minister toe a line which was inaccurate given the tone of discussions on immigration at Home Office in the past months. At best, it showed a severe lack of institutional memory. The director general of Immigration Enforcement, Hugh Ind, emailed the minister’s team before the hearing to say “there were no targets”. It is possible to make a distinction – as Amber Rudd tried to do – between the targets of a government policy, and operational targets used to run a department. But this was never going to play well in Parliament – and in any case, appears to be out of spirit with the pervasive approach to immigration in the Home Office.

Second, the official accompanying the minister at the Select Committee, Glyn Williams, began by saying he was not in charge of enforcement but that as far as he knew, there were no removal targets by region. This raises questions as to whether more officials, such as Ind, should have appeared before the Committee.

Third, although she says she was not aware of documents reaching her office and accepts “full responsibility” for that, there is a question about whether that is fair or realistic. It is the job of officials and a minister’s office to make sure they are aware of sensitive and important topics. The complexity, scale and pressure of work as Home Secretary do not let her off the hook – but not her officials entirely, either.

Fourth, it appears that the most likely source of the leaks to the national press is from within the Home Office. Whatever the motives for the leak, it flies in the face of the civil service’s values and its duty to serve the minister of the day.

What should the new Home Secretary do?

Sajid Javid, the now former Communities Secretary, was chosen on Monday morning to take the helm at the Home Office. The elephant in the room is that both his predecessor and he inherited an immigration policy launched by the now-Prime Minister, with targets for net migration cited in the manifestos of 2010, 2015 and 2017 which the Government has not yet come close to meeting. However, in a minority government and following four moves among cabinet ministers in six months, Javid will be wanting to protect the Prime Minister. There is also manifest nervousness among ministers and officials about changing policies associated with Theresa May at the Home Office. Yet incoherent or impossible targets can foster a culture where goals are both pursued and denied. 

The department now also faces the immense challenge of establishing whether 3m European Union residents have “settled status” – something hard to approach with the same tactics and culture as expelling illegal migrants. That will demand a change in approach – working out how to get paperwork to those here legally as quickly as possible.

Finally, and most important, Javid and his officials need to work effectively together. He would be well advised to credit the difficult task his officials have had – but they badly need to gain his confidence. This could start with the Permanent Secretary clarifying to Parliament how a minister was so unaware of a central policy, if called to do so. It is right to blame the minister, but it is clear that the civil service had a part to play. We should hear that too.    

Benoit Guerin is leading the Institute's consultations on how to improve accountability and relationships at the top between civil servants and ministers. To comment, please contact us at:

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