Hostile environment 2.0: Post-Brexit migration plans are all too familiar

"May in the Home Office gave us the 'hostile environment'. In Number 10 she is planning the same but worse, a hostile environment 2.0"
"May in the Home Office gave us the 'hostile environment'. In Number 10 she is planning the same but worse, a hostile environment 2.0"

By Russell Hargrave

One of the most depressing things about the government's post-Brexit migration plans is how familiar it all seems.

The plans, leaked to the Guardian on Tuesday, rework the essential ideas at the heart of Theresa May's approach to immigration when she was home secretary.

More powers to restrict people coming to the UK. More punitive measures which will split loved ones from their families. A bigger state with a bigger database holding details on ever more people.


May in the Home Office gave us the 'hostile environment'. In Number 10 she is planning the same but worse, a hostile environment 2.0.

The Home Office is, as Ian Dunt wrote here last month, a catastrophic department, where the dangers of enacting bad policy are amplified by the risk it will collapse under the workload it is creating for itself.

And this is where the danger really lies. New, cruel policies are about to be delivered by a department prone to bouts of incompetence.

There is a long-term pattern in the way the Home Office handles major challenges. It panics and is easily overwhelmed. The effects would be comic if they weren't so brutal.

There is a horrifying moment, for example, in House Music, Oona King's tale of life as an MP in the Blair years. In 1998, with tens of thousands of immigration claims backed-up in the Home Office, King tried to track down a constituent's application.

"This civil servant told me that they write letters to people saying the home secretary has 'seen the correspondence'. Apparently, they wheel thousands of letters past his desk on a trolley. […] When the home secretary gives the wheelbarrow a once over, they can truthfully state that he has seen the correspondence. 

"The apocryphal and the mundane blend together at the Home Office like absinthe," King admits. "It blows your mind’."

But the story rings true. Historian Robert Wilder visited the new processing centre for asylum applications in the same period and found 'almost fifteen miles of unshelved paperwork waiting to be investigated'.

Thousands of real lives, lost in a system wholly unsuited to the basics of guaranteeing a decent outcome. For the individuals involved, the hopes of a fair, quick decision were slim indeed.

Move forward to 2006 and, with the number of immigration applications still rising, MPs could now get information from a dedicated phone line to the Home Office (I know because I was one of those parliamentary staff calling it every day). The person on the other end of the line couldn't resolve anything, but they could at least confirm what the constituent might need to do next.

Wheelbarrows had been replaced with a digital database – progress, you would have thought. You would have thought wrong.

We quickly learnt that the system was totally unreliable. Details read from the database on one day would have disappeared or might even be contradictory if you tried to clarify something later. The people on the Home Office hotline didn't hide their frustration at a system which clearly didn't work. We didn't hide our frustration when we reported back to our constituents. And they, the people at the sharp end of a failing system, were really no further forward.

Zip forward yet another decade and Rohan Silva, former adviser to George Osborne, has written that EU immigration is estimated not through modern technology but by weighing the slips of paper completed by people passing into the UK. Meanwhile, a hundred EU migrants in the UK have been sent random deportation threats through the post in error, forcing Theresa May to apologise.

Twenty years in which mistakes and ineptitude have just kept coming.

In eighteen months, the Home Office is promising a swathe of new systems to try and drive down EU immigration. The idea that the department could cope is laughable.

Which leads us to the last question. When the Home Office panics this time, how much worse will things get?

Russell Hargrave is a writer and reporter with a special interest in immigration, development and government. He has written for platforms including politics.co.uk, The Guardian, Reuters and The Tablet, and has worked as a comms specialist in the charity sector.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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