Following his appointment, the new Home Secretary, struck a superhero pose outside number 2 Marsham Street and announced radical change. Well, as suggested by Nicholas Soames MP earlier today, here is one idea to match his Avenger scale ambitions: handover migration to another department.
In the past weeks, press reports have focused on the negative organisational culture and administrative errors within the Home Office. These are indeed big challenges. But the problems affecting immigration policy are more fundamental. Tackling them will require more than a Ministerial resignation. After all, this has achieved little in the past. We need something truly radical.
The reality is that by staying as a Home Office competency, migration will inevitably be viewed primarily as a matter of law and order. This fact dates back over 40 years, when the Home Office’s remit was established as detecting and removing ‘undesirable aliens’ (to continue with the comic book analogy). But it’s worth remembering that this was also an era when signs banning ‘dogs, blacks and Irish’ were permissible and Churches turned away newly arrived immigrant families on the basis that they were not ‘respectable’. Now, in 2018, the task of designing a visa system suitable for a diverse society living in the global age is an altogether different challenge.
Indeed, other countries do things very differently. For example, the Canadian Government puts so much at stake on immigration policy that it has created a department wholly devoted to the issue - Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada. In Singapore it’s the task of the Ministry of Manpower (also fitting for a Marvel comic), whereas Sweden has an autonomous integration department.
So if not the UK Home Office, which department should lead? Looking at the options it soon becomes clear that shifting the brief could be transformative – and invariably the outcome would be better.
For example, picture responsibility going to Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), the department where the Home Secretary cut his Ministerial teeth. The list of priorities would look very different. First would be dealing with the situation affecting international students – qualified people who by merit of coming to the UK spend money, pay high university fees and also contribute to our overall balance of trade as they are equivalent to education exports. Further, civil servants could set about designing programmes to ensure that once international students (or indeed any migrants) return home, the UK could retain links in ways that could lead to more trade and investment, as proposed in a recent report by IPPR. Next would be to ensure that citizens from emerging economies were not systematically discriminated against by visa officers – thus compromising, among other things, the trading links Britain will desperately need once it leaves the EU. Finally, getting to grips with the byzantine bureaucracy which is putting off entrepreneurs and investors from around the world, would also be looked at.
Alternatively, how about the department the Home Secretary just left - Housing Local Government and Communities? The Home Secretary will be all too aware that a new government strategy to build more integrated communities is in the works. As argued by IPPR two years ago, hostile environment policies are a major barrier for integration. By making life for migrants so difficult it has not only damaged trust and race relations but also undermined the ability of many to find their feet and settle down. For starters the issue of citizenship would need to be given priority - before the Windrush scandal an overdue Government review had been delayed by 2 years. Policies which effectively price out a large proportion of migrants from both citizenship and family reunion are also poor ways of encouraging integration.
The fact that the Home Office approach to immigration policy is opposed across the piece - from the Treasury to the Foreign Office and the Department of Health – suggests that there could be appetite for sweeping change within Whitehall. The reality is that a very different and better picture starts to form about immigration policy from the perspective of whichever other department you choose. At the very least, mechanisms should be put in place to ensure that the current monopoly that the Home Office exerts over this brief is ended. It is also worth recalling that until 2001 work visas were in fact the responsibility of the Department for Education and Employment. The fact that the public want enforcement - the polls out this week suggest that support for the current approach remains undimmed - is not enough of a reason to retain a failing status quo.
Reports of Javid’s appointment have invariably highlighted the kryptonite effect of the Home Secretary role on political careers. Indeed, for Theresa May the post could prove to be both the making and the unmaking of her as Prime Minster. Hopefully, the huge risks associated with this brief will encourage the new Secretary of State to share more of the burden of responsibility, not the opposite. Overhauling the very heart of how immigration policy is devised could be the killer punch he needs.