The making of the modern Home Office
18 April 2022
15 August 2022
Why this story?
From the fall of Afghanistan to the invasion of Ukraine and the Rwanda deportation plan, in the past 12 months, the Home Office has been tested and found wanting. Too slow, too bureaucratic, too defensive, too hard-hearted.
But the Rwanda policy -– the determination to wash Britain’s hands of its international duties to people seeking refuge from conflict – that felt like a new low point, the culmination of years of hostile policies that seem designed to magnify rather than solve problems.
We have told the stories of migrants many times at Tortoise, but at the back of them all is the Home Office, a monument to intransigence.
So this is a piece of work about that department. We wanted to know how it became like this: a response to public opinion, to media intolerance or to political manipulation? How was the modern Home Office made – and what is its culture today? David Taylor, Editor
Jack Shenker, narrating: I wonder whether you’ve noticed something.
That, no matter what sort of crisis is gripping Britain – Covid, climate change, the cost of living – one group of people always seem to be dominating the headlines…
News reporter 1: Huddled, frightened, and packed into border force boats, more than 100 migrants made it across the Channel today.
News reporter 2: Migrants keep arriving in the UK despite Wednesday’s tragedy.
News reporter 3: At least 430 migrants crossed the English Channel to the UK today, according to the Home Office.
Jack, narrating: And looming behind all these stories is the same massive and forbidding edifice, that’s never far away from controversy.
Person 1: This was in the realms of Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Person 2: It’s another one of the government’s crazy schemes.
Person 3: It is…despicable.
Jack, narrating: What has the Home Office become? In the last 12 months alone, policies aimed at halting asylum seekers have been labelled as cruel, unlawful, ineffective, and even ungodly – by critics ranging from the United Nations to the Archbishop of Canterbury. From the fall of Afghanistan to the invasion of Ukraine – on lots of big issues concerning refugees recently, the actions of the Home Office have been scrutinised and found wanting. But it was the unveiling of the Rwanda policy, and the idea that people seeking refuge here could simply be offshored to another country – that felt to many people like the lowest moment: the culmination of everything that had come before.
On the outside, the Home Office actually looks like some of its policies: defensive, forbidding, hostile. Is it possible that an entire government department has taken on that kind of character?
I’m Jack Shenker, and this is the Slow Newscast from Tortoise. This week: Hostile Environment, The making of the modern Home Office.
Jack, narrating: I want to know how we got here, and what it’s like on the inside. So we’re going to try and take you through the doors and inside of Priti Patel’s ministry. And that’s where Nicola Kelly comes in.
Jack: Hi, Nicola, it’s so lovely to meet you at last. How are you doing?
Nicola: Yeah, I’m good. I’m good. Very odd to be back after so long.
Jack: Right, so let’s set the scene… we’re sitting opposite the Home Office headquarters in Marsham Street, Central London, looking out at the very offices in which you used to work, right?
Nicola: I can almost see my old desk and press office, just to the right of the entrance here. I worked at the immigration and security desk, as it was known at the time in 2014.
Jack: Well, I’m very very glad that you have come over to our side, as it were, and are going to help us.
Nicola: People don’t really know what goes on inside that building, and the ways that policies are made. And all the kind of thick-of-it moments that people sort of joke about. So, I’m really looking forward to taking people inside that building.
Jack, narrating: The Home Office is unlike any other government department in Whitehall. Over the centuries, it’s ended up doing all kinds of bizarre things: setting the dates of British Summer Time, running pubs for munitions workers in Carlisle, even checking on the legitimacy of a royal birth.
But its core function is ‘keeping Britain safe and the country secure’ – and that is a magnet for scandal. Herbert Morrison, a Labour Home Secretary in the 1940s, once said that the department’s corridors are paved with dynamite, and that – according to senior ministers who have walked those corridors in the modern era – that’s still the case today.
Alan Johnson: You know, it’s not the ‘ministry of fun’… as Jack Straw used to point out, if you’re at Education, you’re dealing with people who want to see you, have a warm feeling towards you, because your constituency are teachers and people interested in education. Similarly, if you’re at Department for Health, it’s doctors and nurses. Your constituency at the Home Office are criminals and criminal gangs – and, you know, everything about it is fraught with danger.
Amber Rudd: The big difference in the Home Office compared to any other department is that things come at you fast. And I remember talking to Sajid about it afterwards and said, ‘How are you finding it?’ And he just said, ‘My God, it’s nonstop’. It’s because events come at you the whole time. There’s a crisis somewhere, there’s a terrorist attack here, there’s a police scandal there. So unlike other departments, where you’re always thinking, as a Secretary of State, how can I improve the service of the government for the better of the population – which is essentially what every Secretary of State’s trying to do – you’re firefighting.
Jack, narrating: In the course of our reporting on this story, Nicola and I have spoken to dozens of people with experience at every level of the modern Home Office. Some, such as former Home Secretaries Alan Johnson and Amber Rudd, whose voices you heard there, did so on the record. But many others wanted to remain anonymous, for obvious reasons.
There’s one thing that nearly everybody we spoke to for this story agreed upon, which is that the atmosphere inside the Home Office – its overriding focus on security, and what one former Permanent Secretary described as a ‘mindset that sees everyone as a threat’ – that atmosphere has a big impact on the way the department views people seeking to enter Britain from abroad.
But where does this culture of suspicion come from? Go back a generation – to 1997, for example, the year Tony Blair came to power – and immigration, never mind asylum, was barely on the political radar.
But throughout the 1990s, away from the public gaze, official attitudes towards asylum were changing. New trouble spots emerged, such as Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Rwanda, which drove people to flee violence and war. And the number of people arriving in the UK each year to claim asylum began to rise – from around 20,000 in the mid-’90s, to just over 30,000 in the year New Labour took office – all the way up to more than 80,000 at the turn of the millennium.
But Britain has always been different from its neighbours. Look at Spain, Italy or Germany: they’ve got their extensive land borders, where refugees could enter easily at multiple different points. British geography meant that people heading here inevitably ended up concentrated in one very particular place: Calais.
Rob McNeil: The people that are in Calais are the people who are trying to get to Britain.
Jack, narrating: This is Rob McNeil, deputy director at the Oxford Migration Observatory.
Rob McNeil: That is because Calais is how you get to Britain. There are lots, and lots, and lots of people who are not in Calais, and are in France claiming asylum. Not just in France, but in France, Germany, Italy…But the fact that you get this kind of bottleneck around the northern edge creates the impression for the British public that there is a major problem, and that everyone wants to come to the UK, because it’s a visible thing.
Jack, narrating: In June 2001, David Blunkett was promoted to Home Secretary. He came with a plan, but within months, everything changed.
Bryant Gumbel, NBC: It’s 8:52 here in New York, I’m Bryant Gumbel. We understand that there has been a plane crash on the Southern tip of Manhattan. You’re looking at the World Trade Centre, we understand…
Jack, narrating: The 9/11 attacks on the United States shook the world, and the new global focus on border security helped transform Britain’s relationship with asylum seekers.
And so did something else that happened during Blunkett’s time. In 2004, the expansion, eastwards, of the European Union, meant that millions of citizens of countries like Poland and Hungary were able to live, study and work in other EU nations like the UK.
Having decided not to impose any controls on the new arrivals, Labour was fearful that a general anti-migrant backlash would leave the party vulnerable to attacks in the media.
With asylum claim numbers on the rise, Blunkett publicly vowed to ‘get a grip’ on the so-called asylum ‘problem’ – and turned his attention to its most visible manifestation: a Red Cross camp for refugees located at Sangatte, just west of Calais…
News reporter: Sangatte is a small town in the north coast of France, very near to the entrance of the Channel tunnel. It’s got one bar, one shop, one small church, and the biggest refugee camp in France. On any given day, up to 1600 refugees, mostly Kurds and Afghans, are staying in a converted warehouse – and every single one of them is trying to make it to England.
Jack, narrating: In a high-profile move coordinated with Blunkett’s French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, Sangatte was forcibly shut down. Blunkett moved British border controls across the water and onto French soil.
And to try and make life in Britain as hard and unappealing as possible, for those that did get here, new policies were brought in.
Did it work? On one level, the answer’s yes. Asylum claims fell under Blunkett, the number of failed asylum seekers who were removed from the country jumped considerably.
But in the long run, there were three big issues with Blunkett’s approach. The first was that the whole notion of ‘deterrence’ as a policy goal is flawed.
All of that new security architecture around Calais, for example: yes, it made it harder for people to jump on the back of lorries and trains, but it also just encouraged asylum seekers to search out new, and riskier ways to reach Britain instead, such as boarding an inflatable dinghy.
The second issue is about the language used to describe asylum seekers. In 2003, he cooperated with the Sun newspaper on a special week of asylum coverage that opened with a front-page headline, reading ‘HALT THE ASYLUM TIDE NOW’.
That sort of messaging helped entrench a very specific idea in the public imagination: that asylum seekers gathered at Calais were too numerous, too bogus, too threatening… all in all, a ‘problem’ that had to be ‘solved’.
And crucially – and this is the third big issue – that idea became entrenched somewhere else too: inside the Home Office.
One very senior former civil servant at the Home Office told me – and I’m quoting directly here – “It’s a matter of fact that this started with the early years of the New Labour government. For a long time, ministers of both parties have taken the view that asylum claims are not inherently worthy. They are not sympathetic to most of those crossing the Channel, even though most of those people do qualify for asylum. There’s a general political feeling that asylum seekers are ‘trying it on’.”
Jack: Alright, Nicola. So we’ve both been having various interviews and meetings nearby. And we’re back at Marsham Street to check in. And I mean, at my end, in some ways things have gone well … But I realise more and more as I chat to people, that in some ways, all roads lead back to David Blunkett, the New Labour Home Secretary in the early 2000s. And the problem is, David Blunkett doesn’t want to speak to us. At least at the moment. And I just get the feeling that it’s not going to happen. And I think that would leave quite a big hole in our explanation of how we got here. If this was a mystery story, kind of, he’d be a key character of key revelation. And I just don’t know if we’re going to be able to get him. But how are you getting on?
Nicola: I mean, similarly, it’s really tricky to get people to speak. I mean, somebody I worked with for years across Whitehall, said, “You know, I’d love to speak but as you know, once a press officer, always a press officer, and I think that’s quite telling.”
Jack: Do you think that was a bit of a dig at you?
Nicola: Absolutely, because…
Jack: You’re the press officer who became a member of the press.
Nicola: Yeah, I went to the light side rather than the dark side.
Jack, narrating: After Blunkett left office, the Home Secretaries that followed him largely stuck with his approach to asylum. That focus – on security, borders, and stopping things – it took on new significance in 2010. Because that’s when David Cameron came to power with an eye-catching promise: to reduce net UK immigration to below 100,000 people a year.
It was an impossible target.
Because as long as Britain remained a member of the EU, it had no powers to prevent people from other countries in the bloc moving here.
But in an effort to meet it, Cameron’s new Home Secretary, Theresa May, ramped up efforts to make life in the UK as miserable as possible for anyone with an uncertain immigration status.
It was a package of measures that became known as the ‘hostile environment’ regime
David Normington: And she, understandably, had a very strong sense that this was a policy, this policy commitment to reduce below 100,000, was one of the things that had won them the election. And therefore, she as the new home secretary had to deliver it.
Jack, narrating: I managed to track down a man called David Normington, who was the most senior civil servant at the Home Office at the time.
David Normington: I think, without revealing private conversations too much, the conversation prior to the 2010 election had really been, ‘You can get immigration right down, but you have to just close the country down, basically.’ And the practicalities of that are such that you won’t be able to do it. So there had been that conversation – so in principle, you could do it, but the practicalities of it, of just stopping people coming here, are just not realistic.
Jack, narrating: Cameron’s target wasn’t the only government initiative that would impact Britain’s relationship with asylum seekers. His austerity programme hit Home Office budgets hard and slowed up asylum processing – already an area that our sources say was chronically underfunded.
Cheap, shoddy, and staffed at the sharp end by people who were overworked, underpaid, and under immense pressure from the top to bring down the number of successful asylum claims. This was a system in which it had become easy – too easy – for decision-makers to lose sight of the individual.
Some of the people I spoke to compared the attitude inside Marsham Street to that of a famous chant by supporters of Millwall football club: “No one likes us, we don’t care”.
Football crowd: No one likes us, no one likes us, no one likes us, we don’t care.
Jack, narrating: Here’s Amber Rudd, who was Home Secretary at the time:
Amber Rudd: You develop quite a thick shell, when everybody’s complaining about you the whole time, about a mistake, you’ve made here, a mistake you’ve made there, or can you help this person. And so, inevitably, you cannot look at every case, you’re going to think, ‘We must have this right, I have to rely on the system. So I’m going to just plough on rather than have a look under this shell where there might have been a bigger problem than I realised.’
Jack, narrating: By the time Rudd resigned over Windrush in 2018, it was clear that something fundamental was broken at the heart of the Home Office.
There was a big report into the culture of the department, ordered by the government itself. There was a section titled ‘Defensiveness, lack of awareness and an unwillingness to listen and learn from mistakes’. The report’s author, Wendy Williams, concluded that, ‘Given [the department’s] sensitivity to public criticism, there is the sense that priorities and decisions have been driven by an overwhelming desire to defend positions of policy and strategy – often at the expense of protecting individuals from the impact of the policies.’
This could have been the perfect opportunity to start fixing the Home Office’s structural problems. But instead, things were about to get even worse.
In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum and a fractious national debate about identity and borders, a new wing of the Conservative party was now rising to power.
In July 2019, Boris Johnson became Prime Minister. One of his first acts was to appoint Priti Patel as Home Secretary. What followed was a blizzard of front-page headlines, featuring outlandish ideas coming out of the Home Office to deal with the so-called small boat ‘crisis’… and a huge new piece of legislation – the Nationality and Borders Bill – that sought to directly criminalise unauthorised asylum seekers. It paved the way for the Rwanda deportation scheme, in which even legitimate, verified refugees who had made it to Britain could potentially be removed, permanently, to a distant nation in east Africa.
Why was this the government playbook whenever ministers wanted to change the subject or get a bump in their polls?
Andrew Cooper: Among Red Wall voters, there’s a very particular group of people who the Conservatives desperately need to hold on to who still are concerned about immigration…
Jack, narrating: Andrew Cooper is a Conservative member of the House of Lords, and founded the polling company Populus.
Andrew Cooper: So I think the thinking behind this legislation is very much about, how can we continue throwing red meat to these people. I suspect it isn’t what the country as a whole wants actually, but it’s the glue that holds together the coalition that keeps them in power. And as we know, that is the paramount criterion – I think all the evidence is – in the way this government works.
Jack, narrating: So where does that leave us today? Let’s start with the basic facts. There are 27 million refugees in the world, and 83 per cent of them are in the global south. Turkey and Pakistan alone host more than five million between them.
Of the small minority who seek refuge in Europe, only a tiny proportion ever attempt to reach Britain – far less, in fact, than most of our European neighbours.
And of the asylum seekers who do make it to the UK, the vast majority – over 80 per cent, in fact – are found to be legitimate refugees.
The total number of asylum claims granted in Britain last year was less than 15,000, and the total number of refugees here is estimated at about 127,000. For comparison, there are almost one and a half million refugees in Germany.
That new law we talked about – the Nationality and Borders Act – now makes it a crime to come to Britain in a dinghy across the Channel. But the truth is that, for most people, there are no safe and legal routes – no other routes at all – to claiming asylum in the UK.
And for those that do make it here, the asylum claims system run by the Home Office is now so complex, so fragmented, so dysfunctional, that even the caseworkers and lawyers – whose job it is to navigate it – have little idea of how it works.
Colin Yeo: If you’re an asylum seeker, you’ve got a file at the Home Office, you don’t have someone who looks after you.
Jack, narrating: Colin Yeo is an immigration barrister who wrote the book ‘Welcome to Britain’ about immigration and the Home Office.
Colin Yeo: So if you write in or something happens, then somebody is either literally or metaphorically in this computerised age, pulling your file off the shelf, doing something to it and then putting it back again and then dealing with somebody else. It’s always somebody new, who’s looking at your case. And it’s never anybody’s fault, therefore. You know, all the really bad things that we see happening to people. There’s never any individual responsibility of the Home Office, just this ‘system’ doing things to people.
Jack, narrating: We know what the Home Office says it wants to achieve with its asylum system, because it’s written its three main objectives down in a document called the ‘New Plan for Immigration’.
It wants to be fair, and to better protect and support those who claim asylum.
It wants to break the business model of the people-smugglers, and to stop asylum seekers being put into danger. And it wants to make it easier to remove failed asylum seekers from the country.
And yet, the cumulative effect of its current policies achieve pretty much the opposite outcome on every single measure.
And when I say that the Home Office itself has become not just ineffective but counterproductive on this issue, those aren’t my words! They’re the conclusion of an independent report into Border Force operations, commissioned by Priti Patel herself, which described the ministry’s performance as ‘suboptimal’ and accused it of ‘struggling to get out of a cycle of crisis management’.
And that came on top of yet another recent report, this time carried out by the Public Accounts Committee, which found that the Home Office’s immigration enforcement section had no real understanding of the job it was trying to do, and was at risk of basing its activities on ‘anecdote, assumption, and prejudice’ rather than reliable evidence.
We asked the Home Office for an interview with Priti Patel, or any minister at the department, so that they could respond to those criticisms. They declined.
Jack: So Nicola, we left each other outside Marsham Street, and your task was to try to speak to as many current Home Office staff as you could. How did you get on?
Nicola: It was really tricky! But I think I’ve got about as close to Priti Patel and the inner workings of her department as you can get.
Jack: So that’s sources within the Home Secretary’s actual private office.
Nicola: Yeah. Every morning, whenever she’s not in her constituency, Priti Patel arrives at Marsham Street at about 7:30. She goes through security and up to her office on the third floor, where a Private Secretary will have opened the door, and she’ll have a cup of tea. It’s a very impersonal place in there – so imagine a kind of corporate law firm, with a heavy mahogany desk. And facing that desk is a whiteboard with Priti Patel’s top priorities. And top of the list – number 1 – is stop the small boat crossings.
So there’s about twenty priorities. So, deporting foreign national offenders, cutting crime is on there as well – the kind of things you’d expect. And then Windrush compensation payments are in there, but towards the bottom.
Jack: And give me a sense of what it’s like up there.
Nicola: So, it was described to me as “adrenaline-fuelled”, with one former aide saying that they would deliver updates into the Home Secretary’s office, return to their desk and “wait for an explosion”. And rarely does time go by without a fire to fight – so that’s a raid gone wrong, or a grounded deportation flight, things like that.
There’s a constant sense that control is kind of slipping away, that they’re only one story away from the next scandal. And there’s a thing called the ‘Daily Mail test’ as well, where staff are told to think about whether any correspondence – so emails or internal chats, WhatsApps, anything like that – could appear on the front page of the Mail.
And then some people are walking around in police uniforms which, one person said, “makes it feel like a law enforcement organisation”. And when that sense of law and order is challenged, Ministers really react.
Jack: Not very positively, I imagine?
Nicola: No, not at all positively. So, for example, in summer 2021, Chris Philp – who at the time, was the Immigration Minister – wanted to debut what he was calling the ‘new maritime tactics’. And it was his last week at Home Office, so it was really important to him that he roll out these pushbacks before he left. So he ran this practice exercise, with two Border Force boats, or ‘cutters’, either side of this dinghy, attempting to turn it around before it reached British waters. But, the cutters got broken. And at a meeting, Chris Philp was said to be “spitting with anger” that his boats were broken. And after that, he demanded that Priti Patel, and he, and other aides, began receiving twice-daily reports into their inboxes about wave heights.
Jack: I mean, it’s like something from ‘The Thick of It’.
Nicola: Yeah, that’s exactly what somebody said.
Jack: Was there a plan before Rwanda – which we’ll come onto – to process some asylum seekers’ claims in overseas territories?
Nicola: Yeah. So notably, there was the Ascension Islands. So, a plan for the Ascension Islands was drawn up – one of my sources saw this plan. It had complete economic modelling, including the cost for a new runway, increasing school capacity, things like that. They then decided they didn’t want to do business with an overseas territory…they wanted to do business with a state, and that’s where Rwanda came in.
Jack: And that was led by the Home Office?
Nicola: No. So originally, it was led by the Foreign Office. So they drew up a shortlist of about 30 countries, and they put these plans forward to countries like North Macedonia and Brazil, who immediately said no. But countries like Ghana, Nigeria, and then obviously, Rwanda, were much more interested. One of the sources I spoke to, who was involved in putting that list together, had to draw up slide packs or presentations for each of those shortlisted countries, which included things like political instability, the economy, and human rights.
Jack: Ok. And so then, the deal with Rwanda was struck. And how was that received on the inside by staff?
Nicola: Pretty badly. And it continues to be received pretty badly. One senior official who has worked for the department for nearly two decades said morale is the lowest they’ve ever known it. And that comment related to the hierarchy and the rule of fear that seems to permeate Marsham Street and other immigration functions. And that fear prevents people from speaking out. So, they’re worried – particularly at the senior level, they’re worried they can be cut out of the loop. And, sources say, that does occasionally happen. And among those who do speak out, dissent is very quickly quashed. So, one junior member of staff told me that they tried to raise the issue of dehumanising language – so for example, asylum seekers are routinely spoken of as ‘stocks and flows’. And when she raised that with her line manager, she was told, “junior colleagues need to learn how to raise issues.” So, complaints aren’t condoned.
Jack: What about more junior staff? What are people saying on that level?
Nicola: So one person told me, “It’s like part of you dies walking in there”…and I totally got it when they said that. It’s a feeling that, every day, you are constantly morally compromised, and that weighs really heavily on some people.
Another Home Office source said they felt like they’re sort of “living under a threat”. So it’s like, if you step out of line, you’ll be punished, they said – adding that you’re “acting on behalf of a threat from higher up”. So that’s sort of insinuated, from as high up as the Home Secretary herself. So, there’s a sense of sort of powerlessness – it’s not really worth sticking your neck out – with one current insider saying, “The machine will grind on, whether you’re on top or under the wheels. You’ve got to just keep your head down and power on.”
Jack: Well, I’m just walking up towards the Palace of Westminster now for my final interview on this story, and it’s been a strange journey. You know, when we first began trying to get inside the walls of today’s Home Office, I don’t think I expected to end up here – desperate to speak to a man who’s been out of frontline politics for nearly 20 years.
And yet, the more Nicola and I have tried to work backwards and connect all the links in this chain, the more I’ve realised that to really understand the current Home Office, this is exactly where I need to be: approaching the Peers’ Entrance at the House of Lords, about to sit down with the Right Honourable Lord Blunkett.
Jack: Hi there, Lord Blunkett.
Blunkett: It’s David.
Jack: Oh, thank you so much David. And this is my producer, Matt Russell…
Blunkett: When I first walked in, in June 2001, we were in the old building at Queen Anne’s Gate. And it was almost a metaphor because the building was falling apart. Bits of the roof were coming off, the windows didn’t fit, the lifts didn’t work half the time…so, it was a rude beginning.
Jack: So when you consider the policies which really marked your tenure as Home Secretary in relation to asylum seekers, did you come away feeling that they were successful in both policy and political terms for the government?
Blunkett: In part. Political terms – it’s almost impossible to be satisfied, because you have complete opposites and a total divide, and you find yourself caught in the middle. Where on the one side – the Guardian readership, thinking that you’re far too tough, and that what you need is to be much more open. And on the right, complete unforgiveness for anything – even when you’re actually, as I did, reducing unwarranted asylum by two-thirds. You put in security measures – which 20 years later, have led tragically to people risking their lives in small boats, because they can’t any longer come through the routes that they were using.
Jack: It’s true that asylum application numbers fell during your tenure. Some say – people we’ve interviewed have said – actually, it was all the things that tried to stop people getting on lorries, getting on trains, that actually created the market for people travelling in small boats, and created the business model for the people-smuggling gangs that helped them. How do you respond to that?
Blunkett: Well, three things. Firstly, the UN gateway was, in my view, the answer to greater security in terms of unauthorised and dangerous crossing into the UK.
Secondly, the organised criminals were the ones who were trafficking people into Sangatte, in very, very large numbers – there were 3000 people in Sangatte when it was eventually closed. And although it reappeared from time to time, the measures of security have worked.
And thirdly, if you don’t have both the in-region processing facility – which does actually process asylum claims for people coming to Britain – and you have secure borders, then you simply say, ‘if you can make it, you make it’ and the corollary of that is that you get a far right government. Now, we managed to avoid that all the way through the decade from 2000 to 2010. We avoided the upsurge of the far right, as we’ve seen in the rest of Europe. And I’m quite proud of that, because the policies of balance were absolutely crucial in a democracy. Because democracy allows people to say, ‘you’re not listening to us, you don’t understand how we feel. You have no concept of what we’re doing. And if you want a free-for-all, we’ll throw you out, and we’ll put somebody in who is listening to us’.
Jack: So what do we do about all of this?
Blunkett: Well, firstly, you get rid of the hostile environment, because it causes great division and potential racial tension, and is bad for everybody. Secondly, you have systems that people have confidence in. If the processes are open and transparent, you do what I’ve described a couple of times in terms of those who are in genuine need in conflict areas, you could pick all that up and make a coherent policy. But let me be clear, so there’s no misunderstanding – you still have to be tough about those who are being exploited, and coming across Europe. And that means working with European countries, with Europol, with the intelligence agencies, to break the model. But the sad truth is, unless there’s a system across Europe, with us as part of it, in terms of an understanding of how we share the genuine asylum claims of people who are fleeing death and torture, we’ll never get it right.
Jack, narrating: Well, we got him. And like all of the Home Secretaries we’ve spoken to, it’s obvious that he still feels incredibly strongly about this issue, and is convinced that the Home Office definitely needs reform. The question is, where is that change going to come from? There have been protests in the streets against this government’s asylum policies, and multiple legal challenges in the courts. But is there any possibility that some change could come from within?
Jack: So, Nicola – the last time we spoke, you told me the attitude among frustrated staff at the Home Office has long been ‘keep your head down and power on’. And I’m just wondering, is that still the case? Are there any signs of people losing faith, standing up, speaking out?
Nicola: Yes, there is. So, I found a nascent rebellion of people working inside the department at the moment, and they’re called Our Home Office. And they’ve set up this anonymous Twitter account, and I’ve spoken to the people behind that. Obviously, they’re putting their careers at risk, so it’s still anonymous, but they’re doing things like making posters with Paddington Bear being shipped off to Rwanda, stickers that say ‘Refugees welcome’, and things like that. And they were very happy to speak, because they want more people to come forward. I think it’s completely unprecedented. I mean, I wish there had been something like that – a kind of outlet – when I was there.
Jack: And, how big is this group? I mean, give me a bit of a sense of who they are and how much of the Home Office workforce they represent.
Nicola: So there’s still a pretty small group of people actually organising things, but the support is coming from across the UK. So places like Peterborough, Liverpool, Sheffield – they’re starting to put these stickers up saying ‘Refugees welcome’ on things like printers, they’re putting posters up around the coffee room, the tea points, and things like that. So it is growing.
Jack: Incredible. And, are there other examples – you know, beyond this Our Home Office movement – of people speaking out?
Nicola: So there’s an internal messaging board as well, which is called Slido. And I’ve been sent screengrabs from this platform. And the Home Office Permanent Secretary (who is basically the most senior civil servant at the Home Office), Matthew Rycroft, hosts these sort of internal question sessions, where he takes anonymous questions from staff, and they’re pre-approved and moderated. And basically, you put forward a question. If it gets a certain number of ‘likes’, it increases in popularity and gets pushed up the board. And one of the most popular questions that I saw was talking about Ukraine, or those fleeing Ukraine. And somebody said, “Why should this not apply to people fleeing war and persecution from other parts of the world?”. And it had something like 700 likes, so he had to answer that question. And another person said, “Shame, embarrassment and anger is what I and many others feel.”
Jack: Yeah. And just amazing that you’ve been able to see these leaked screengrabs with your own eyes. Tell me if I’m wrong here, but it sounds to me like this is the beginnings of some kind of internal resistance movement within the Home Office?
Nicola: Yeah. And that’s exactly the language they use – they say they want people to ‘resist’ and to ‘bring about change’. And it feels like there’s real momentum, with more requests coming from all over the UK for these posters and these stickers. And also, senior people – the higher-ups – know about it, and they’re desperately trying to figure out and identify who is behind it. But as one source said, it takes courage to shift the status quo, so they’re gonna have to just keep on going.
Jack, narrating: Nicola’s reporting has helped me understand that, yes, within Priti Patel’s Home Office, of course there are people who are deeply troubled by all this. But the culture surrounding them, and the machinery they’re operating – that’s the thing that seems rotten. So I just want to take you back to the encounter I had with David Blunkett, when I was trying to pin down where that rot came from.
Jack: I think there was some that would say that, when you look at the monster that the Home Office has become today, some of that was created under your watch?
Blunkett: Well there are people who say that, and they are entirely wrong. I have no conscience about this whatsoever. We did what we needed to do in a humane, rational, and balanced fashion. And, you know, the policies that were adopted – it has to be said, by Theresa May – were all about saying ‘you’re unwelcome’. We never said you weren’t welcome. We said, you’re welcome, if you come through the routes that we’ve laid out. If you’re an economic migrant, there are work permits and visas for you to come legitimately. If you are in a region of conflict, we’ll help with UNHCR – not enough, but we did – and set a pattern to be able to help you not to fall into the hands of organised criminals. So I’m not having any of this nonsense.
Jack: You know, we’re doing this podcast episode about the Home Office and how the Home Office could or should change. I wonder though, if we’re asking ourselves the wrong question – in that, the Home Office and the contradictions in asylum policy that we’re talking about, really reflect deeper dynamics within British society that are unresolved: the legacy of empire, an island mentality, the way in which communities and society at large feel about those that look or sound different coming across our borders. Do we have to have a deeper reckoning to solve this issue?
Blunkett: Yes, I think it’s the most profound question you’ve asked me, because it’s not just that we’re conflicted. And, there are major, deep seated historic contradictions in the way we see this. But also, in terms of how we handle rapid change. You cannot really understand how people felt in my former constituency – how they feel about what’s happening to their lives, with rapid globalisation, with enormous change, with insecurity in their own lives. If you understand that, and we do something about the causes of their introspection – or xenophobia, if you want to use a pejorative word – then we can crack it.
Jack, narrating: We set out in this episode to discover how the Home Office became what it is today – locked in this cycle of symbolic, ineffective, and harmful policy-making on asylum, in which politicians, parts of the media, and many members of the public seem to spur each other on to ever-more draconian laws and language, based on a narrative that’s completely at odds with reality.
That story has spanned five Prime Ministers, with another one just about to enter Number 10. Do any of us really have much hope in them doing things differently?
If Johnson’s replacement really did want to ‘get a grip’ on asylum, what would it take? Well, they’d need to display some real honesty and courage. Stop using migration as an easy shortcut to sounding tough, and to polarising the electorate for political advantage.
They’d need resources to fund this broken system properly. They’d need some compassion as well – a commitment to seeing people as individuals. No more talk of ‘stocks and flows’.
Instead of sticking warships in the Channel, why not work with the rest of the world? If post-Brexit Britain is looking for a leadership role, it’s right here. Lead the way on a system to fairly share the global responsibility for hosting refugees.
And rather than making it more dangerous for asylum seekers to reach Britain, make it easier for those who need sanctuary to come here safely and legally. Now that really could destroy the business model of the people-smugglers, and increase border security along the way.
Of course, all of that means a total reform of the Home Office.
But there’s more.
The problems that afflict the Home Office – its cruelty, and dysfunction – aren’t they really a reflection of problems that run through the whole of our politics? Through our society.
Britain likes to tell a story about its noble history of providing refuge to those that need
That story, it has some truth to it – but as anyone who has ever come to the UK as an outsider will tell you, it also leaves a lot out.
My own family arrived in this country as refugees at the very beginning of the 20th century. They were poor Jews from the old Russian empire, fleeing antisemitic pogroms in Eastern Europe. They made it here just before the 1905 Aliens Act came into force. That was the UK’s first piece of modern immigration legislation, a law that was specifically designed to prevent people like them from ever reaching Britain, and making a home here.
In truth, if we want to stop asylum seekers being used by political leaders as a way of making it seem as if they’re addressing people’s real concerns about the economy, about the things that make them feel insecure, about the massive disconnection people have with our political class, then – as Blunkett said – we have to build a politics that actually does address those things.
It’s a massive task, and of course, it goes way beyond the Home Office.
But acknowledging and transforming the hostile environment that’s built up inside the walls of Marsham Street – that might be a decent start.
Jack, narrating: This episode of the Slow Newscast was reported by Nicola Kelly, and me, Jack Shenker. It was produced by Matt Russell. Sound design was by Tom Kinsella, the Editor was David Taylor, and it was presented by me. Thanks for listening, and see you next week.
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