08 November 2018

A disturbing pattern of poorly-briefed Home Office ministers is emerging. Benoit Guerin says that to reverse this trend, the forthcoming review of the department’s processes needs to focus on improving advice.

First Amber Rudd, then Sajid Javid. Two home secretaries, two appearances before MPs, two sets of crossed wires.

An investigation into the advice given by civil servants to Rudd in the wake of the Windrush scandal – a saga which ended with her resignation in April – was finally published last week. It confirmed that Rudd’s incorrect statement to Parliament on the Home Office’s use of removal targets was based on poor advice from the civil service.

After the hearing despite email exchanges, a phone call with the official in charge, and a briefing from the civil service written overnight, the minister felt that several questions were left unanswered and lost trust in her officials’ advice. Those involved in advising Rudd – the Director General for Immigration Enforcement and his line manager, the department’s second permanent secretary – moved departments days after the review was announced. The (rather implausible) official line was that the moves were unrelated to the review.

Fast forward a few months and the Home Office finds itself in the news again over another case of the department acting contrary to what the minister says it is doing. After confirming in Parliament that there were no requirements to provide DNA evidence for immigration applications, Home Secretary Sajid Javid was recently forced to correct himself after it emerged that some applicants had been asked to provide DNA evidence to obtain a visa or leave to remain.

(Alongside these mis-steps, last week Caroline Nokes delivered a much-maligned performance at the Home Affairs Select Committee over employers’ checks on EU nationals’ right to work, which forced the department to issue a clarification.)

Accountability must be at the heart of the Home Office review

When correcting the facts, The Home Secretary used the opportunity to announce a review of structures and processes to ensure that the UK’s immigration system is fair and humane. To avoid future scandals, a core part of that much-needed review must be accountability.

In practical terms, this involves clarifying what advice ministers were given ahead of major decisions. The Home Office review needs to hammer home the need to publish information on the risks, and strategies for mitigating these risks, associated with the department’s larger projects.

Advice to ministers should be transparent

As early as 2015, the Home Office was aware that its immigration policy might impact individuals whose immigration records were destroyed, yet we do not know what advice on the feasibility of, or risks attached to, this policy was given at the time. This cannot happen again – advice should be transparent, and it should be possible to unpick subsequent decisions made by ministers on the basis of such advice. This will encourage the civil service to raise relevant issues with ministers before a decision is made, and ministers to carefully weigh the risks associated with their proposed approach.

Accounting Officers are already required to publish information on the feasibility and value for money of projects. This is important in clarifying the advice ministers were given before making decisions and in making Parliament’s job easier in scrutinising them; however currently this stipulation only applies to projects and not policy.

Early warning systems need to be improved

The second practical improvement that can be made is to improve early warning systems so that any issues that arise can quickly be flagged to ministers, to enable them to step in and prevent the issue turning into a crisis.

Given the looming registration of three million EU citizens after Brexit, the Home Office review needs to ensure that the proposed Independent Monitoring Authority overseeing EU citizens’ rights after Brexit is able to quickly spot instances where specific groups are being harmed. It could also recommend that the Authority’s role be extended after Brexit, to prevent the next immigration scandal.

Better informed ministers could have helped safeguard the department’s reputation by avoiding a major outcry, not to mention the added benefits in terms of better decision making. Next time, let’s hope it saves the Government from having to appoint a new Home Secretary.

Comments

It would be interesting to have the views of Norman Baker, who was a junior minister at the Dept for Transport before being moved (unwillingly) to the Home Office in 2013. The DfT is not normally regarded as the brightest star in the Whitehall constellation, but Baker is reported has having said that the quality of information and advice it presented to him in relation to decisions he was asked to take was in a entirely different (and higher) league from anything he received at the HO, despite the latter being headed by a "Great Officer of State."

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