Updates, commentary, training and advice on immigration and asylum law
Should the Home Office be abolished?
Back in the heady days of 2019, journalist Jon Stone started what turned out to be a very long thread on Twitter. Over and over and over again, he wrote “Abolish the Home Office”. Every tweet linked to example after example after example of appalling conduct by officials at the Home Office or the Home Office as an institution. I can’t even count how many stories Jon cited.
Many of us who have contact with the Home Office and know the terrible impact Home Office decisions can have on people’s lives would instinctively agree with Jon. Or, at least, we’d agree that something radical needs to change about the way that immigration, asylum and nationality law is handled. But would taking these functions away from the Home Office really lead to improvements? Surely the same officials, policies, laws and, ultimately, pressures would simply be transferred elsewhere. Big institutional changes within government rarely seem to have the impact hoped for, and can have unexpected side effects.
A new report by long term Lib Dem adviser Polly Mackenzie, published by think tank Demos, suggests removing asylum functions from the Home Office to create a new agency called Sanctuary UK. There is a lot that appealing about Mackenzie’s proposals. She gets a lot right. She also, I think, gets a few things wrong.
Mackenzie identifies four basic tasks for a functional asylum system:
- To judge applications for refugee status on their merits
- To support those waiting for a decision
- To help people who are granted refugee status to settle and integrate into the United Kingdom
- To ensure those who are not granted refugee status leave the country.
The Home Office is currently failing very badly at all four. The asylum backlog means that refugees are waiting years for a decision. They are very badly supported in the meantime, they get very little support to integrate and both enforced removals and voluntary departures are at an all time low.
The partial successes of the resettlement schemes for Afghans, Ukrainians and Hong Kong British Nationals (Overseas) is contrasted with the sorry state of the asylum backlog in the UK. Mackenzie deploys a few charts which I look awfully familiar to me. She observes that the success of the resettlement schemes was in large part due to the involvement of other government departments. This is definitely a lesson for government to learn; it is not necessarily a reason to end Home Office involvement entirely. Mackenzie actually seems to underestimate the eventual success of the Ukraine scheme, saying there are now 70,000 Ukrainians in the UK. The latest Home Office stats suggest the numbers may be over twice that. 145,000 have entered, although a certain number will also have left as well.
Concrete and very sensible proposals are made for dealing with the existing asylum backlog. Outstanding asylum claims by nationals from countries with a 90% or more grant rate should simply be granted asylum, subject to security checks. The same should happen to all applicants who have been waiting for one year or more. This would, at a stroke, hugely reduce the backlog and enable Home Office caseworkers to get new asylum claims decided promptly. Mackenzie also suggests a review of all outstanding asylum appeals. I’m not quite so sure that would be an easy ‘win’, however, as it creates more work in the short term. Also, the chart on asylum appeal outcomes is wrong. The true number is now 50%, which is still an historic high, but not as high as Mackenzie suggests.
Mackenzie suggests rejoining the Dublin system and establishing safe routes from within EU countries. As I explain in my long briefing on Dublin, rejoining Dublin would in fact involve re-establishing exactly such safe routes, and it is an idea I favour.
Where I think Mackenzie arguably goes wrong is in proposing a grand solution to what at heart is a management problem. She repeatedly calls out the ‘culture of disbelief’ at the Home Office while also citing a success rate for asylum claims of well over 75% once appeals are taken into account. There was a culture of disbelief at the Home Office when Mackenzie was in government. There isn’t now. Things have moved on. And the success of the Ukraine and Kong Kong schemes show that the Home Office is capable of making things work when it works with other departments. The reasons for the abysmal failure of the Afghan scheme need to be properly deconstructed and understood so that it never happens again.
It is true, as Mackenzie argues, that the level of support available to refugees waiting for decisions is miserly and punitive. It should be increased and improved. But if asylum claims were made much more quickly, the poor accommodation and support would be a lot less punishing, although certainly not justifiable. The most severe problem is the backlog and the time it takes for decisions to be made. That is not a reason to abolish the Home Office. It is a reason to abolish the backlog.
There is nothing in the report on Mackenzie’s final act of a functioning asylum system: ensuring those who are not granted refugee status leave the country. We don’t like to talk about this in the immigration and asylum sector. Ultimately, we don’t have to. It’s not our job. But I think Mackenzie is right to say that this is one of the functions of an asylum system. Mackenzie does touch on the the Dublin system, but this is not about removing those whose claims are rejected back to their country of origin, it is about removing people who are often genuine refugees back to their entry point into the European Union for their claim to be assessed there.
Enforced removals are currently at an all time low; just 113 failed asylum seekers were removed in the whole of 2021. These removals, as they have been conducted by the Home Office in the past, are violent and expensive. Dawn raids, physical coercion, prolonged detention and even deaths are features of the system. I’m not sure it has to be that way. I would like to see some proposals on how failed asylum seekers might be persuaded to depart. Jonathan Thomas wrote an interesting report on the case for reform of the Assisted Voluntary Return scheme, for example. The work that Mackenzie and others put into ending child detention and finding alternatives could be another way to explore more consensual removals. Swifter decision making should be recognised as being a prerequisite to the possibility of removals, because forcing a person to leave after they have lived in the country for many years becomes ever harder and more cruel. If short periods of detention are part of the process, the Home Office should recognise that prolonged detention of people who are never really going to be removed is not just expensive, pointless and cruel but also counterproductive because it amounts to a form of “bed blocking”.
Mackenzie is highly critical, and rightly so, of the institutional mindset at the Home Office. Civil servants have, though, shown they can change. The massive recent rise in the asylum success rate is evidence of this, as is the effort that has gone into the resettlement schemes. We like to criticise civil servants at the Home Office, and in previous years it was not hard to find abundant examples of cruel and absurd decisions. I have blamed officials myself on numerous occasions.
These days, I wonder whether the problem is really with ministers. I am suspicious of the relationship between senior civil servants and ministers and I suspect there is an institutional mindset at work. I agree with Mackenzie that a ‘set of cultural beliefs about who asylum seekers are’ is ingrained at the Home Office and that senior officials lack imagination and evidence. But ultimately the blame lies with ministers. Differently managed and instructed, I now think the Home Office might be capable of operating a more rational and humane asylum system.
Finally, Mackenzie’s proposals only suggest removing asylum functions from the Home Office. That’s fine, but I am equally anxious about a range of appalling immigration policies. Many of Mackenzie’s criticisms of thinking on asylum apply equally to thinking on immigration. As things stand, there is huge interplay between the asylum and immigration systems, although I can certainly see an argument that there shouldn’t be. The terrible treatment of migrant families and British citizens with migrant members, the mindset that economic migrants are an exploitable and expendable resource, the barriers to integration deliberately erected by various policies, the absence of routes to regularise status and more all need urgent reform. Creating a separate asylum agency might make immigration reform harder rather than easier. It is the whole approach at the Home Office that needs to change, not just the approach to asylum.
Interested in refugee law? You might like Colin's book, imaginatively called "Refugee Law" and published by Bristol University Press.
Communicating important legal concepts in an approachable way, this is an essential guide for students, lawyers and non-specialists alike.