Cruel, paranoid, failing: inside the Home Office

Something is badly wrong at the heart of one of Britain’s most important ministries. How did it become so broken?

For the thousands of people who end up on the wrong side of the Home Office each year, there is often a sudden moment of disbelief. This can’t be happening, people tell themselves. They can’t do this, can they?

For Ruhena Miah, a sales assistant born and raised in the West Midlands, this moment came when she received a letter saying that if she wanted to marry the man she loved, she would have to move to Bangladesh. For Tayjay Thompson, a young man convicted of a drugs offence when he was 17, it was when he was told he would be deported to Jamaica, a country he’d left as a toddler. For Monique Hawkins, a Dutch software engineer, it was when her application for a residency permit was rejected, despite the fact she had lived in the UK for 24 years. For Omar, a refugee from Afghanistan (who asked me not to use his real name), it was when he stepped off the plane at Heathrow and discovered that he was being taken to a building that looked to him very much like a prison.

For Sheikh Shariful Amin, a young businessman from Bangladesh, the moment of disbelief came on 5 February 2015, in the back of an Immigration Enforcement van. Amin had just been arrested in a dawn raid on his east London home. Enforcement officers told him that he was accused of cheating on an English language test. Amin was terrified and humiliated – he had needed the toilet before he was led out of his house, and had to go while a female officer looked on – but he was also baffled. Why would anyone think he had cheated on a test he had taken as a mere formality when he applied for a new visa? He had lived in the UK for nearly a decade, he had a degree from an English university, he spoke English fluently. Surely they knew they’d made a mistake?

“I asked one officer ‘Could you please tell me: do you think I can’t speak English?’” Amin told me recently. The officer agreed that Amin’s English sounded fine. “He said: ‘Listen mate, I don’t know what’s going on at the Home Office, but your name is flagged on our system.’”

What’s going on at the Home Office has become an increasingly urgent question in recent years. Something seems badly wrong at the heart of one of Britain’s most important ministries. It is the department of law and order, yet it is constantly found to have broken the law. It strains to be seen as competent and tough, yet struggles to show evidence that its policies are working. It has repeatedly been revealed to be treating people cruelly, yet it now claims that those days are behind it, even as its “new plan for immigration” is condemned by the UN’s refugee agency as inhumane. When it is criticised, the Home Office is as likely to lash out as admit a mistake: “If you are not being challenged by someone, you are not doing it right,” one official recently told the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration.

The Home Office sets policy for policing, counter-terrorism, fire brigades and border control. From the perspective of the people at the top, it has a simple purpose: keeping the public safe. It’s about “stopping bad things from happening”, says one former home secretary, Jacqui Smith. But its policy departments are dwarfed by its operational arm, which is mostly dedicated to monitoring the 6.2 million foreign citizens who live in the UK, along with the many people who visit the country each year.

Of the 33,000 civil servants the department employs, 27,000 work in borders, immigration and citizenship – a section of the Home Office that is part police state, part welfare state and part money-making scheme. This section runs its own police forces and prisons. It is in charge of housing and a benefits system for asylum seekers. It has the power to spy on people, to raid their homes, to render them destitute, to lock them up indefinitely and to deport them. It does all this on a relatively small Whitehall budget, much of which is clawed back through fees for visa, citizenship and passport applications. (On visas, the department is allowed to make a 103% profit.)

At the head of this state-within-a-state – much of which barely existed 20 years ago – is the home secretary, whose direct personal control of the immigration divisions helps make them one of the most powerful individuals in government. The Home Office’s problems today are often blamed on the current home secretary, Priti Patel. For the past 18 months, Patel has been under intense scrutiny, since a heated argument with officials on the night of a deportation flight to Jamaica in February 2020 led to an inquiry about whether she had bullied her staff. Philip Rutnam, then the Home Office’s permanent secretary – its most senior civil servant – resigned later that month, threatening to sue the government and eventually settling out of court for £340,000. “She’s a blunt instrument,” one former colleague said of Patel. “She seeks to do and say the thing that will be perceived to be the toughest thing that anyone could possibly do or say in any given scenario.”

Home secretary Priti Patel.
Home secretary Priti Patel. Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

A blunt instrument obsessed with looking tough? That, to many people, will sound like the Home Office itself. Over the past six months, I have interviewed more than 40 people, drawn from every level of the department, from former home secretaries and ministers to senior civil servants and frontline workers, as well as the judges, lawyers, campaigners and individuals who encounter the Home Office in their working and everyday lives. The picture that emerges is of a department that has long been shaped by fear, internal mistrust and paranoia. “It’s a terrifying business being a minister in the Home Office,” said a former senior civil servant who worked in the department during the 2000s. “There’s this huge back catalogue of errors and omissions, any one of which could appear on the front pages, and dominate the news.” The Windrush scandal, the biggest crisis to hit the department in years, left Caroline Nokes, the minister in charge when it broke, “always worried about what else would emerge”.

Talk to people who have worked at the Home Office over the past 20 years and you are hit by an overwhelming feeling of defensiveness. They worry about being seen as callous or racist – “like right bloody Nazis,” as one official told me – yet this is frequently outweighed by not wanting to be seen as weak on immigration. “You’re more nervous, frankly, about the Daily Mail than the Guardian,” said another. This obsession with how the Home Office is perceived – by the media, by the public, by colleagues in other departments – explains much of its behaviour.

No other department is so defined by its failures and the spectre of blame. Ministers feel they are constantly blamed for things going wrong, but never given credit for getting things right. Politicians blame civil servants for failures (David Blunkett complained to me about his reforms being “swamped by the history and practices of the Home Office”), while senior and middle-ranking civil servants feel they are given impossible demands. Both groups blame workers in the department’s operational divisions who, in turn, feel that politicians and senior civil servants look down on them. (A frontline worker who represents the Home Office in court blamed ministers and managers’ “ignorance of immigration law” for “what is clearly a broken system”.)

Almost everyone seems to agree that the Home Office is broken. How did it get like this?

* * *

The fear that drives the Home Office can be summed up in four words: not fit for purpose. The phrase, as one former civil servant put it, “has hung round the neck of the department like an albatross” ever since it was first uttered by the Labour home secretary John Reid in 2006. This damning assessment of his own department came after a media scandal – about its failure to deport foreign nationals who committed serious offences – that forced out Reid’s predecessor, Charles Clarke.

At the turn of the millennium, the Home Office was a sprawling government fiefdom, in charge of policing, prisons, probation, prevention of reoffending and borders. Founded in the 1780s after an outbreak of anti-Catholic violence in London, its primary function had always been to help the British state maintain its authority. But by the end of the 20th century, it had also become what is known in civil service jargon as a “residual” department: a place that took on jobs nobody else knew where to put. Home Office civil servants fixed the official dates for Easter, oversaw race equality laws and accompanied members of the royal family on overseas trips. For much of the 20th century, the department even ran pubs and breweries in Carlisle, to control the alcohol intake of workers at nearby arms factories.

For many years, immigration was almost an afterthought. “The main game has often felt to be elsewhere,” said one veteran manager. But that all changed at the end of the 90s, when there was a sharp rise in the number of people claiming asylum. It was never an overwhelming number – claims peaked at just over 84,000 in 2002, a fraction of the million or so refugees who arrived in Germany during 2015, for instance – but the Home Office, as a former official put it, “nearly melted down”.

Before then, most Home Office controversies had involved prisons or policing. From then on, immigration became the flashpoint. A new IT system, introduced in 1996 to speed up the processing of asylum applications, failed to work, causing a huge backlog. Case files piled so high that the Home Office had to rent out storage units to hold them all, and a chorus of rightwing voices accused the government of losing control of the country’s borders. David Blunkett, who was home secretary between 2001 and 2004, described his first impression of the department as a shambles. “They were losing the application forms,” he told me. “They were losing the passports and the documentation.”

David Blunkett at Labour party conference in 2001, when he was home secretary.
David Blunkett at Labour party conference in 2001, when he was home secretary. Photograph: Chris Ison/PA

In response, a series of Labour home secretaries attempted to modernise the department, prompting what Blunkett’s former special adviser Nick Pearce described to me as “the biggest single shift in how the Home Office operates”. For most of the 20th century, immigration control had mainly consisted of checking people’s documents at UK borders. Now, the Home Office dramatically expanded its immigration functions, introducing what Pearce described as “effectively a population control set of activities”. Ministers wanted to boost the state’s capacity to keep track of immigrants as they went about their everyday lives. Blunkett introduced biometric visas, citizenship tests and an expanded network of detention centres. The idea, he told me, was to mix “the soft and the hard”, a hi-tech set of policies designed to facilitate the kind of immigration the British state wanted, and filter out those people it didn’t.

Yet the “hard” edges of the system seemed to always win out. Frontline staff developed a reputation for a culture of suspicion summed up by the phrase “refusal shoes” – a joke among immigration officers that you could tell someone was a fraud if their footwear was too extravagant – which Blunkett regretted not being able to shift. But this culture was also shaped by political choices made by ministers keen to prove that they were no soft touch. In one notorious episode in 2003, Downing Street collaborated with the Sun on a special “asylum week”, a series of articles that began on a Monday with a piece headlined “Halt the asylum tide now” and ended on a Friday with a column by Blunkett promising “draconian” measures to clamp down on illegal immigration.

The more that ministers tried to hammer home the idea that everything was under control, the less stable their positions became. Blunkett left office at the end of 2004, amid allegations that he had asked Home Office staff to speed up a visa application for his ex-lover’s nanny. Clarke, his successor, arrived with grand ambitions to build, as he told me, a “resilient” system in which new technology, such as DNA databases and ID cards, would give the state even greater power to prevent crime, terrorism and unwanted migration – but he lasted for less than 18 months.

When Reid arrived, he decided that he would fix what his predecessors had failed to, by slimming down the Home Office and focusing it more tightly on security. He split the department in two, giving responsibility for prisons, probation and prevention of reoffending to a newly created Ministry of Justice, leaving the Home Office in charge of policing, counter-terrorism and immigration. Reid created a new uniformed force to police immigration, housed in a new independent body, the UK Border Agency, and introduced a law that aimed to make it easier to deport foreign national offenders. The Home Office also devised a new media strategy. One priority, said a former Home Office press officer who worked under Labour and coalition governments, was “taking broadcast journalists on immigration raids and to the removal [detention] centres, to show, frankly, we were getting people out of the country who didn’t have a right to be there”.

John Reid, then home secretary, in 2006.
John Reid, then home secretary, in 2006. Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA

If the aim was to neutralise one of the right’s main lines of attack, then the reforms seemed to work. As several people who served in Labour governments after 2006 told me, while immigration remained one of the most controversial political topics, the focus shifted away from the ability of the Home Office to carry out its job. “Immigration is a good thing for the country,” Jacqui Smith, home secretary from 2007 to 2009, told me. “But you can’t sell that to the public. So therefore what you have to do is convince people that you have control in order to have permission to have the type of relatively open approach to immigration … That’s why we would be super tough on deporting people.”

Something fundamental had changed at the Home Office, however. Now that responsibility for prison reform and criminal justice had passed to the Ministry of Justice, the department had lost two of the areas in which it could implement progressive policies, said a former senior civil servant who worked in the department under Labour and coalition governments. “When you’ve lost that, your focus is on security. Put crudely, it’s about stopping things happening.” One indication of the shift was the soaring use of immigration detention: in 1993 the UK had the capacity to detain 250 people; by the end of the 00s, it was detaining about 25,000 people each year. “For a civilised nation like Britain I did not expect this,” was the shocked response of Omar, the Afghan refugee, when I interviewed him in a detention centre outside Heathrow airport in 2013.

* * *

In the somewhat pompous language of Westminster politics, the job of home secretary is known as one of the UK’s four “great offices of state”. Along with prime minister, chancellor and foreign secretary, it’s a role that any ambitious minister is supposed to covet. Yet it’s a stranger, more isolated position than the others. The home secretary, who oversees the domestic security agency MI5 as well as the Home Office, is the British state’s enforcer and its snooper-in-chief. (For many years, they were personally responsible for verifying the origins of the royal heir. The last home secretary to do this was William Joynson-Hicks, at the birth of the present Queen Elizabeth II, in 1926.)

Most home secretaries, as the parade of New Labour ministers could tell you, pass relatively quickly through the role. (The department’s corridors, the second world war home secretary Herbert Morrison is reputed to have said, are paved with dynamite.) But every now and then, a politician is able to stamp his or her own personality on the department. Roy Jenkins, the Labour home secretary who oversaw the abolition of the death penalty and the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, is now lauded as a liberal reformer who led public opinion rather than followed it. More often, though, the job brings out a politician’s authoritarian tendencies. “It has an impact on the psyche, really,” David Blunkett told me, “because there’s very little joy in doing it unless you’re a masochist.” Alan Johnson said that he felt, on being appointed home secretary in 2009, that it was “like being taken into custody”. In recent years, Theresa May – who held the post from 2010 to 2016, far longer than any other home secretary in recent memory – is the prime example. May, once best-known for warning that the Conservatives needed to soften their image to avoid being seen as the “nasty party”, will now for ever be associated with the devastating immigration policy she introduced.

Theresa May, then home secretary, in 2012.
Theresa May, then home secretary, in 2012. Photograph: Tim Ireland/PA

Two years into the job, May announced in an interview with the Daily Telegraph that she planned to create “a really hostile environment” for immigrants who were living in the UK without the state’s permission. This was the coalition government’s attempt to fulfil a promise made by David Cameron to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands”. Superficially, it offered more control for a fraction of the cost: a set of policies that aimed to make life so unpleasant for unwanted immigrants that they would leave the UK of their own accord. To save money, much of this work was outsourced to the rest of society. Employers, banks, landlords, the DVLA – these would all be required to ask people to prove their right to live in the UK. Other public bodies, including the NHS, schools and the police were encouraged to share data with the Home Office on immigrants they encountered. Members of the public, in effect, would become border guards. “I want everyone in the country to help with this,” Cameron declared in a speech, “including by reporting suspected illegal immigrants.”

The hostile environment wasn’t an entirely new idea: the term, which originated in Home Office counter-terrorism policy, was first applied to immigration in 2008 by the Labour minister Liam Byrne, when he declared his intention to “flush illegal migrants out”. May took what Labour had created and intensified it, in pursuit of the new goal of reducing overall numbers. (May also tried to reduce the number of legal migrants by raising citizenship fees and minimum income requirements for visa applications.)

May exerted tighter control than previous home secretaries over the civil servants who worked for her, by abolishing the UK Border Agency, bringing its staff under her direct command, and slashing jobs. At first, this only seemed to boost her reputation, to the astonishment of her Labour opponents. “If there’s one thing the secretary of state is supposed to bloody do for the people who work there it’s to defend them,” Alan Johnson told me. Yet May “never seemed to suffer from it”, he said. (May declined to be interviewed for this article.)

As the former senior civil servant who worked under Labour and coalition governments recalled, the department “became a little fortress of its own”. For Norman Baker, a Lib Dem Home Office minister in the coalition government between 2013 and 2014, May’s personal style also filtered into the atmosphere of the department’s headquarters on Marsham Street in Westminster. “It was a cold place,” Baker recalled. May would often avoid making her views known to colleagues directly, communicating them instead through her special advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, who were known for their abrasive personal style. Baker felt that the atmosphere encouraged civil servants to “come up with ever more ridiculous ideas on immigration, in order to get promotion and get brownie points. Hardly a week passed without some sort of tweak to tighten things,” he said. A former mid-level civil servant who worked in the department during this period agreed that May set the tone. “If leadership is saying ‘We want you to treat people humanely’, you will use your initiative to treat people humanely,” he said. “If leadership is saying ‘Why is the system a mess? Why aren’t you removing people? Why are the numbers so high?’, you’re going to use your initiative and focus on reducing numbers and removing people.”

‘It was a cold place’ … the Home Office’s Marsham Street headquarters in Westminster.
‘It was a cold place’ … the Home Office’s Marsham Street headquarters in Westminster. Photograph: William Barton/Alamy

The cumulative effect of these changes, according to the former senior civil servant, “was to take away discretion from the people who were taking the decisions and insist that they follow the rules to the letter”. The problem was that “once you take away that discretion to interpret the rules, you get injustice”.

The hostile environment was presented as a way to identify people who had no right to live in the UK. But from early on, there were signs that an increasing number of people who did have that right were being caught up in it. A 2014 report by the charity Legal Action Group, which identified a number of former Commonwealth citizens who had been stripped of rights, was dismissed by the Home Office. In 2016, after a series of media reports about EU citizens wrongly told that they had no right to live in the UK – Hawkins, the Dutch IT specialist who had lived here for 24 years, was one of them – had their cases swiftly resolved.

But such responses were exceptions. I asked the former Home Office press officer, who also worked under May, how much attention they paid to criticism from liberal media outlets. “If I’m honest,” the former press officer said, “I think it was almost considered a joke. It wasn’t important.”

* * *

How do the Home Office’s civil servants in Westminster feel about the work they do? Among graduates who join the civil service each year, the Home Office isn’t considered the most prestigious department, but it is a place where an ambitious young official can show off their credentials and build a career. Several current and former civil servants told me, however, that immigration is seen as a poor cousin to other, “sexier” Home Office policy areas, such as counter-terrorism.

The Home Office has long had a reputation for being somewhat dour and confrontational. “All departments get infected by the culture of the sectors they work with,” a Whitehall veteran who worked across several departments told me. “Health is do-gooders, and education is beardy people who like to talk about education. The Home Office tended to be slightly more trad civil service – men in reasonably well-turned suits who are into prisons.” The comms team had a kind of trench mentality, said the former press officer. “It was this environment where you worked a really long day and you’re kind of a team and, you know, under attack, and then everyone would go out all night and sometimes come straight back to work the next day. That was part of what was quite enjoyable, or exhilarating about it,” the former press officer said. “It was kind of brutal and macho.”

The former senior civil servant who worked under Labour and coalition governments said that for many Home Office staff working on immigration, “it feels like a constant battle against the numbers, which, in terms of people coming in and out of the country in any year, are very large indeed”. This breeds “a nervousness that, if you relax the rules in one area, you may create a great big loophole through which everybody will rush”. The official added: “The fear is that if you relax the rules in London in the morning, they’ll know about it in north Africa or in Afghanistan by lunchtime. It goes around the world.”

As political pressure grew to reduce immigration, the Home Office would often clash with the Treasury and the business department, both of which tend to see immigration as good for the economy. “You’re in this constant fight with officials from both departments,” said the former mid-level civil servant, “who think that you’re a ridiculous, economically illiterate department.” While this tension isn’t new, the official felt that it grew more intense after the change of government in 2010. For any given policy, the former mid-level civil servant said, Labour ministers had wanted to know how they could justify it to their constituents. “For the Conservatives, it felt like it was more about the media and justifying it to the rest of government.”

The Immigration and Nationality Directorate at Lunar House in Croydon in 2006, now known as the UK Visas and Immigration department.
The Immigration and Nationality Directorate at Lunar House in Croydon in 2006, now known as the UK Visas and Immigration department. Photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

For the people at the other end of the system, the consequences were deadly serious. After Sheikh Shariful Amin was accused in 2015 of having cheated on his English language test, the message from all quarters – not just the Home Office, but even the first lawyer he contacted – was that he should go home. But in Amin’s eyes, going home was not an option, because it would have been an admission of fraud. He was from a middle-class family in Dhaka and his father had given him tens of thousands of pounds to set up an import branch of the family clothing business. “When I was young, my father would say the UK is the mother of democracy, because it has laws, a rule-based system,” Amin told me. “When I spoke to him about this situation he said: ‘No way would they do this if you hadn’t done anything wrong.’” Amin’s father had such faith in the British state that, at first, he trusted its allegations over the word of his son.

Amin stayed in the UK and tried to clear his name, aware that at any moment he could be arrested again and deported. It turned out he wasn’t alone. In 2014, a BBC Panorama documentary exposed instances of genuine cheating at two test centres run by a Home Office-approved provider, the US educational company ETS. In an apparent panic, the Home Office asked ETS how many foreign students at its wider network of test centres had cheated. ETS responded with an estimate, based on applying voice recognition software to recordings of oral exams – of 58,458 people who took their tests, 97% had either definitely or probably cheated. If that sounds like an unbelievable figure, it was: the data has since been shown to be faulty, but not before the Home Office cancelled thousands of people’s visas. It is not known how many people, mainly students from Asia and the Middle East, were caught up in the scandal, but at least 4,600 people are known to have left the UK or been deported, while an estimated 2,000, like Amin, remain in the UK.

This was just one in a series of major failures to have emerged from the Home Office in recent years, all of them connected to the department’s zeal to enforce immigration control. In 2020, after the damning conclusions of an official review into the Windrush scandal, Patel apologised for the “terrible injustices” that had occurred in wrongly stripping hundreds of Commonwealth citizens, mainly from the Caribbean, of their rights. But Windrush was not unique – it is simply better known than other recent scandals. How many people are aware that a policy of detaining asylum-seekers that a court ruled unlawful in 2015 – the policy that ensnared Omar, the Afghan refugee I interviewed – resulted in as many as 10,000 people being wrongly deported, some most likely to their deaths? Or that as many as 1,700 people, mostly from former Commonwealth countries in Africa and south Asia, were stripped of their rights for historic discrepancies on their tax returns, some amounting to as little as a few pounds?

The former senior civil servant, who had explained the dangers of removing staff’s discretion to interpret the rules, said that at the same time, officials felt a duty to reflect what they thought the public wanted. There was “a sense that people in other departments do not understand how people in the country feel about migration. Its impact on them was something we felt very strongly about.” The official added that the Home Office “was quite an outlier in Whitehall” and “didn’t have many allies in political debate”.

Some civil servants were haunted by the Home Office’s dysfunctional reputation. The former mid-level civil servant told me that when they were presented with David Cameron’s aim to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands”, they immediately knew it wouldn’t be achievable, but felt they had to manage expectations while appearing competent. “Of course, your job is to make sure it is achievable,” said the former official. “So we turned over everything to see what we could do. But also, we don’t want to look rubbish, because for too many years, the department had not seemed fit for purpose.”

* * *

When the Home Office does acknowledge a mistake, the recriminations begin. In the most extreme cases, the home secretary is forced to resign. More often, ministers and senior civil servants turn on one another. The rest of the time, the blame is usually dumped on staff who work in the Home Office’s operational divisions. The world in which most operational staff work is miles away from Westminster, a contrast encapsulated by the department’s two rival headquarters. Marsham Street, where ministers work and policy is dreamed up, is an airy, glassy building that won an architectural award in 2006. Immigration operations, meanwhile, are headquartered in Croydon, in two forbidding office blocks named Lunar House and Apollo House – a nod to the late 60s, when they were built – with satellite offices spread out around the UK, in city centres and at ports and airports.

While most public attention focuses either on the high political drama of Westminster, or the patrolling of Britain’s external borders – as in the reality TV series Border Force – casework is the real heart of the Home Office. This is where much of the actual work of immigration control takes place in the 21st century: the dry, time-consuming business of processing individuals’ biographical details, as the state tries to decide whether they’re a threat or an asset. It is unglamorous work: a typical junior caseworker, assessing asylum claims or deciding whether a prisoner is suitable for deportation, earns no more than about £25,000 a year.

“It’s sometimes assumed that [operational managers] must be policy activists preoccupied with finding new ways to make life difficult for applicants,” said a former manager who worked in the immigration divisions. “The more mundane reality is that they are consumed with managing volumes and costs, with implementing new protocols, contracts or IT systems, and with upward and outward reporting and explaining, often necessarily defensive.” Several people I spoke to with experience of casework said they felt that processes had been greatly improved since the chaos of the early 00s, but that pay and working conditions had been eroded. “The sheer weight of applications across the board,” said the former Conservative immigration minister Caroline Nokes, leaves the department “permanently struggling with a lack of people to do the job”.

Caroline Nokes, then immigration minister, in 2018.
Caroline Nokes, then immigration minister, in 2018. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA

Frontline staff have to apply rules that are often bafflingly complex – the guidance for one hostile environment policy, a surcharge for using the NHS, runs to 129 pages – and laws that were often intended to deliberately exclude people from the UK. Staff, said the former manager, “also hear the messages from their political masters, whether spoken or not. A senior manager encouraging them to be compassionate may well sound less convincing than a minister railing about ‘abuse of our laws and values’, the ‘need for firmness’ and ‘activist lawyers gaming the system’ – especially when some of the rules and processes themselves seem hardly geared to compassion.” Or, as one frontline staff member working in an immigration reporting centre put it when secretly filmed talking to a man facing deportation in 2018: “It’s my job to piss you off.”

For many people who encounter the Home Office, their experience is one of a faceless, error-prone and uncaring bureaucracy. Monique Hawkins, the Dutch citizen told to leave the UK in 2016, was so angry at her treatment that she tried to submit an official complaint. “I sat down and wrote what I thought was a very sensible complaint,” she said. “After three weeks their reply was ‘we don’t recognise your complaint as being a valid complaint’, with a link to a 35-page complaints guidance document.”

In many instances, the only time an individual will come face to face with a representative of the Home Office is if they take them to court. Ruhena Miah, a British citizen, spent two years appealing against a Home Office decision to deny her husband, who is Bangladeshi, a visa because she didn’t meet the minimum income requirement of £18,600 (a threshold that effectively excludes about 40% of the British population from marrying someone from overseas). The Home Office, Miah told me, made basic mistakes about her case: she had applied for special consideration because she has four children from her first marriage, the oldest of whom was 15 at the time, and it would be a violation of their rights to uproot the entire family to Bangladesh. The initial refusal letter stated, incorrectly, that since her children were all under five years old, a move would not disrupt their lives.

Miah decided to appeal. In an effective system, where casework decisions are made well, court appeals should be resolved quickly, and the Home Office should win most of them. In reality, about 50% of immigration appeals are successful. “In most parts of the legal system, cases where one side has no chance of winning do not go to a trial or hearing, because it is rightly seen as a waste of time and money,” Jeremy Gibb, a recently retired immigration judge, told me. “Instead they are settled or withdrawn. In immigration cases, especially at the first tier, the Home Office often continue to a hearing even where they have no case, putting forward little or no argument.” All of the immigration specialists I spoke to – including barristers, solicitors and judges – described a system in which the Home Office knowingly fought hopeless cases.

In March 2021, Miah finally had her day in court. She was surprised to find that the presenting officer – the Home Office employee who argues the government’s case – had not had time to read all of the case files: the judge allowed a 40-minute break for the officer to catch up. By contrast, Miah and her husband had taken months to document every moment of their relationship – their WhatsApp chats and family photos – and spent thousands of pounds on lawyers. (Most immigration cases have been ineligible for legal aid since 2012.) Miah was dismayed by the disparity between the effort she had made, and the apparent casualness of the Home Office. After a short hearing of just over an hour, her appeal was granted.

One presenting officer told me that their bosses often asked them to perform the impossible. Although they represent the Home Office in court, most are not trained lawyers, and they often receive details of a case just 90 minutes before the hearing. Their role, the officer said, is to “ensure fairness in the same way a barrister might defend a sex offender they personally believe is guilty”, but they did not have the necessary support. “I don’t feel as if the demands of the job are understood,” the officer said. Catriona Jarvis, another retired judge, told me: “I’ve had presenting officers break down in front of me because they can’t bear hearing about the traumatic experiences of people whose cases they’ve been told to oppose.”

Why does the Home Office insist on fighting cases it knows it will lose? According to Gibb, it all comes down to perception. “They are terrified of the thought that any concession by them that can be perceived as soft or liberal or sympathetic, might leak out and be another set of Daily Mail or Sun or Telegraph stories,” he said. “The outcome is legally inevitable, but it’s very important to them that it’s a judge who makes the decision, so they can say to the press: ‘We’re disappointed about the decision, we’re going to fight it.’”

* * *

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the UK’s immigration system is that it doesn’t do what the Home Office says it does. The hostile environment – which remains largely intact, although it has been renamed the “compliant” environment – has been in operation for almost a decade. Yet the number of people deported or who opt for “voluntary return” from the UK has been falling. In September 2020, a report by parliament’s Public Accounts Committee found that the Home Office had “no idea” what the money it spends on immigration enforcement has achieved and was making decisions based on “anecdote, assumption and prejudice”.

The current system is creating a growing population who lack legal status, or who are forced to live in forms of limbo. The UK’s “unauthorised” population – people who live in the UK without proper immigration status – is now estimated to be anywhere between 600,000 and 1.2 million. (It’s hard to know for sure, because the Home Office doesn’t make official estimates.) Many of these people have lived much, if not all, of their lives here: of 215,000 undocumented children, half were born in the UK. Even those people with some form of status face potentially crippling fees to keep it up to date. “Socially, economically, financially, educationally and otherwise,” writes the barrister Colin Yeo in his recent book Welcome to Britain: Fixing our Broken Immigration System, “migrants and their families are deliberately penalised for being migrants.” This can affect anyone, in theory, but it is very often people from black and Asian backgrounds, with roots in former British colonies, who get caught in the system’s traps.

When challenged, ministers will often defend the system by pointing to the dangerous people from whom they are keeping us safe. After the deportation flight to Jamaica in February 2020 that triggered the bullying inquiry, when around half of the 50 passengers were stopped from boarding at the last minute due to a legal challenge by the charity Detention Action, government officials briefed that activists had prevented the removal of serious criminals. In truth, as pressure to ramp up deportations has grown over the past 15 years, the Home Office has been targeting people who committed lesser offences, and who are British in all but name.

Tayjay Thompson, a 24-year-old Londoner who has lived in the UK since the age of five, was one of the people scheduled to be on that flight. Sent to prison for a drugs offence when he was 17, he has lived his entire adult life in the UK without the right to work or study. He has spent more time in immigration detention than in prison. “Everybody makes mistakes, right?” he said when we spoke recently. “I’m not the same person that I was. People change.”

Since the Windrush scandal, officials have been keen to show a more compassionate side to the department. “We have made a really decent start at responding to that cultural wake-up call,” Matthew Rycroft, the Home Office’s current permanent secretary, told a parliamentary meeting in March. The Home Office has introduced new “face behind the case” training for civil servants, “so that everyone involved in casework thinks about the individual”. The department has also launched a “transformation programme” that will embed a new set of corporate values, Rycroft said: “Respectful, compassionate, collaborative and courageous”.

Is this anything more than cosmetic? In November 2020, Alexandra Ankrah, the most senior black official working on the Windrush compensation scheme, resigned, claiming that her colleagues were “not supportive of people who have been victims”. The Home Office has also made a great effort to present an open, friendly face for its post-Brexit settlement scheme for EU citizens. But according to Monique Hawkins, who is now a campaigner for EU citizens’ rights, there is a familiar sense of frustration that officials won’t speak with them directly about problems with the scheme.

Then there is the current home secretary to contend with. Under Priti Patel, the rhetoric emanating from the top of the Home Office has taken a disturbing turn, with a barrage of attacks on “activist” or “lefty” lawyers. In October, it emerged that two of Patel’s cabinet colleagues – the lord chancellor and the attorney general – had warned her to tone down her statements. Nonetheless, Patel and Boris Johnson both went on to target “lefty lawyers” in their Conservative party conference speeches a few weeks later. The following month, when the bullying inquiry concluded that Patel had broken the ministerial code in her treatment of civil servants, Johnson refused to sack her – a decision that prompted the resignation of his ethics adviser.

Some current and former Home Office staff I’ve spoken to are unhappy with these developments. Civil servants were particularly angered by the use of the Home Office Twitter account – part of the supposedly non-political comms operation – to pursue the attack on lawyers. Several ex-ministers were scathing. “I was frustrated sometimes by what [Patel] calls activist lawyers,” Charles Clarke told me, “but if the government can’t provide sufficient legal justification for what it’s doing, then the government’s got to sort that out. If governments don’t act within the law, then the whole system collapses.” In January, Caroline Nokes broke ranks, accusing the Home Office of “inhuman” policy towards asylum-seekers and of merely “paying lip service” to the Windrush report.

In the meantime, individuals caught up in the system are left with little choice but to find ways to cope. Last year, Amin finally won an appeal against the decision to strip him of his visa in 2015. He told me that this five-year ordeal had cost him thousands of pounds – the money his father had given him to set up a business – and had ruined his mental health. Yet I was surprised to find that he wasn’t entirely angry, because he was still hopeful that the British system would give him justice, along with others he had met who had been wrongly accused of cheating. He had addressed a parliamentary meeting about the issue last year. He told me: “When I stood up in parliament, I said: ‘Thank you for giving me this space, even though right now we are counted for less.’”

Migration can mean many things, but for some people it is an act of faith in the country they choose to make their home. If the Home Office is an expression of how Britain feels about these people, can we say it has repaid that faith?

• This article was amended on 14 May 2021. The Home Office was responsible for probation and the prevention of reoffending in the early 2000s, before the creation of the Ministry of Justice, but not courts as an earlier version said. This has been corrected.

• Follow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, listen to our podcasts here and sign up to the long read weekly email here


Daniel Trilling

The GuardianTramp

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