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Why the Home Office is still not fit for purpose

·12-min read
<span>Photograph: Peter Summers/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Peter Summers/Getty Images

I read Daniel Trilling’s article on the Home Office (Cruel, paranoid, failing: inside the Home Office, 13 May), and its story of delay, confrontation and the “hostile environment” echoed my experience of dealing with immigration cases as an MP. Time after time, people came to my surgeries pleading for help with the labyrinthine processes imposed on them by the Home Office, with many of them waiting months or even years for a decision.

I was therefore surprised to see the letter from permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft (14 May) claiming that the Home Office operates under new values: “compassionate, respectful, courageous, collaborative”. Mr Rycroft would have us believe that things have changed for the better in the last year. Yet on the same day we read of an EU citizen trying to visit her family in the UK, only to be locked up in a detention centre and issued with an expulsion order (Report, 14 May).

The permanent secretary may wish to convince us that the Home Office is considering “the face behind the case” but the evidence would suggest that in the case of EU citizens the face doesn’t fit and the “hostile environment” persists.
Liz McInnes
Former MP for Heywood and Middleton

• Daniel Trilling’s illuminating article on the Home Office omitted what in my opinion and experience is one important aspect: its institutional racism. As a minister of religion, I countersigned many passport applications over two decades, and the only ones which were ever sent back for checking were ones where the applicant’s name was of either Asian or African origin. When I wrote to the Home Office challenging this, I was told the computer “randomly” selects applications for checking.
Rev Paul Worsnop
Washington, Tyne and Wear

• Matthew Rycroft’s description of the Home Office is not one I recognise. My own limited involvement was of my son-in-law trying to come to the UK. A simple, straightforward case, but beset with byzantine Home Office regulations generating a file of more than 100 pages. A hostile environment indeed. The process was consistently delayed, and only expedited with the help of an MP. Our experience matches what I read in the Guardian every day. I am reminded of Douglas Adams’ description of the Vogons in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “not actually evil, but bad tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous”.
Dominic Wells
Stockport, Greater Manchester

• Your article on EU citizens arriving in the UK to search for jobs being locked up and expelled (Report, 13 May), as well as your superb long read on the Home Office’s hostile environment in action, dovetails with my own 30-year experience of clashing with the Home Office over immigration cases for Polish and other citizens.

I noticed that the modus operandi of the initial case officer was to act as judge and jury, shielding the legality of their decision by stating that they “were not satisfied as to the real purpose” of their victims’ visit to the UK. Any appeal to a higher authority in the Home Office, or even to a minister, would collapse in the face of a superior not wanting to lose face by undermining his junior officer’s decision. The evasive and careless malice of being “not satisfied” caused problems even later in the appeal courts because, in the face of such a subjective judgment by the case officer, no amount of facts or arguments could lead to the case officer eventually admitting he was “satisfied”. I soon learned that you do not mount the ladder of a career in the Home Office or Border Agency by showing yourself to be weak or indecisive.
Wiktor Moszczynski
Brentford, London

• I read with great interest your long read article about the Home Office. Little did I know the range of its cruel activity. I am Polish, came to the UK in 1978, have been married for 42 years to an English citizen, raised a family here and had a fulfilling career as a consultant pathologist working for the NHS for 33 years. Since 1980, I have been the proud owner of British citizenship and a British passport.

Last week, I received a letter from the Home Office advising me to apply for the EU settlement scheme, and, in a threatening tone, stating that I am getting benefits from the Department of Work and Pensions. Yes, this is my state pension, for which I worked for 33 years!
Dr Isabella Moore

• Mr Rycroft’s letter defending his department was understandable. His intent was laudable, to boost morale in a struggling organisation.

How ironic that it should appear alongside the description of Glasgow citizens’ impressive action blocking one of the Home Office’s disgraceful early morning snatch raids (‘A special day’: how a Glasgow community halted immigration raid, 14 May). Mr Rycroft and the Home Office can only act as instructed by politicians; the disgrace here is for Priti Patel and this government to answer to.
John Bisset
Birnie, Moray

• I note that Matthew Rycroft, permanent secretary at the Home Office, is proud of the organisation he leads. Even more of us are proud of the people of Glasgow, who so practically opposed its inhumane policies last week. Perhaps Rycroft’s pride is a logical outcome of the defenestration of senior civil servants who didn’t enthusiastically implement the extreme policies of this government.
Lawrence Waterman
Chiswick, London

• I must congratulate Matthew Rycroft for allowing politicians, from now on, never to take responsibility for their department’s (in)actions. The old premise that politicians had to take the blame as civil servants could not defend themselves, has been brilliantly undermined by his letter.
Michael Griffith-Jones

• I commend the Home Office for adopting new values – compassionate, respectful, courageous, collaborative – as outlined in the permanent secretary’s letter in response to your in-depth report.

I worry, however, that the department and its contractors are not putting these values into action. Our experience working with refugees and people seeking asylum is that too often they aren’t listened to, treated with dignity or respect. Consider the situation for those housed in military barracks or hotels. Reports by my organisation, the Red Cross and others, including the Government’s own inspectors, provide many examples of what can only be described as inhumane and degrading treatment.

Surely ministers should ensure their policies uphold the new values and drive forward a radical culture change for the department. Wendy Williams’ post-Windrush review sets out a clear roadmap of the scale of systemic shift required. There’s certainly a long way to go, given that at present the government’s approach to those seeking protection in the UK seems to be mostly lacking in compassion.
Enver Solomon
Chief executive, Refugee Council

• Matthew Rycroft’s letter should have been signed by Priti Patel. Instead it rings loud alarm bells about politicisation and unconvincing leadership.

Resettling “nearly 25,000 refugees since 2015” or “secur[ing] the rights of nearly 5 million EU citizens” were political decisions, as were carrying out 100,000 deportations in the same period or creating a “hostile environment” and extending it to EU citizens. It is for politicians to assert pride in such things.

Rycroft appears to think that his pride is non-political because “[although] some will have different views … people have voted consistently for controlled immigration that welcomes talent”. That cuts Whitehall adrift from its constitutional moorings. In a parliamentary representative democracy, civil servants don’t convert votes into policies. For 30 years until 2014, “people” consistently supported the death penalty, yet even junior civil servants in the Home Office understood what their role was.

The civil service does, and should, change. The biggest non-partisan change Whitehall is supposed to have embraced during these 30 years is more effective leadership. On this score too, Rycroft’s letter is alarming. He says: “Our new values – compassionate, respectful, courageous, collaborative – set a different path for the future.” Ten years ago the Home Office values which produced “wrongs and injustices” were integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality.

What will “make sure these scandals do not happen again”, Rycroft says, is “creating a more open culture”. Yet in February the editor of the Guardian and others accused the government of undermining transparency by ignoring or rejecting requests and cutting the budget of the Information Commissioner’s Office. The government also wishes to curb judicial review. Having lost sight of what is political, Rycroft must take pride in it all. I don’t.
Dr Douglas Board

• Having read what a marvellous place the Home Office is and what a wonderful job it is doing, I am now recovering my equanimity enough to tell you that this is not my current experience.

I have been looking after a Syrian asylum seeker who came to this country in January last year. He was an old friend of mine and didn’t realise I was back in the UK when he asked for my help. He is a victim of torture and came to the UK as he felt he had run out of safe options. In the time I have been looking after him, I have seen the dealings of the Home Office. I have found them to be incompetent on so many levels.

Four times my friend received information regarding other asylum seekers. Neither was any financial support made available, as my friend was told he had refused accommodation that he had never been offered. He was also given a date in December when his case would be sorted. That date came and went with no news at all. My friend has been in limbo since August 2012 when he was thrown into a hole in the ground and subjected to torture; the treatment of the Home Office did nothing to alleviate his PTSD. For all that he is a trained lawyer, able to speak three languages fluently, and sadly in this situation he has been treated no better than a common criminal.

I am sure this is not an isolated case of poor treatment. Perhaps the Home Office should look long and hard in the mirror. They reflect a very poor impression of humanity and justice.
Name and address supplied

• Your long read had many a familiar message. My elderly father took in a failed asylum seeker last year. They have a wonderful and mutually supportive relationship, and my father is now helping Z (I don’t want to give his name for obvious reasons) with a fresh asylum claim. The initial fee to the Home Office was £2,612, a sum way beyond the capacity of most to pay, on top of which are legal costs (the application form is far too complicated for anyone other than a specialist lawyer to understand). I don’t want you to publish my name because our family is frightened of the Home Office and fearful for our new friend.
Name and address supplied

• Matthew Rycroft might want gently to lift the lid of his Home Office echo chamber and peer gingerly out. What he claims not to recognise in Daniel Trilling’s portrait of the Home Office and its activity over decades is depressingly familiar to all who work to help refugees settle in a safe place in this country.

It is a tale of incompetence, neglect and harsh treatment of some of the world’s most vulnerable men, women and children. My own limited experience of highly threatened and persecuted asylum seekers resonates with much of what Trilling relates – making me ashamed of the country which I have served proudly through 56 years of professional public service work. The disregard for other humans and the staggering incompetence are dreadful enough to make people gasp. The claim Rycroft makes of settling 25,000 refugees over the last six years is not a credit to the Home Office, which merely linked the UNHCR with local authorities and hundreds of thousands of volunteers who did the real work, often persistently obstructed by the Home Office.

If further proof were needed of the myopic perspective of the department, it can easily be found in the miserable New Plan for Immigration the government intends to activate in the current parliament. If Rycroft is not already deeply ashamed of the supposed consultation paper presaging the legislation, he might care to study the excellent response to it by the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, which exposes it, proposal by proposal, for the vile and incompetent document that it is.

Trilling is – as am I – an outsider looking in and around. Rycroft is an insider looking in. How about the succinct prayer of Robbie Burns? “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us!”
Roger Pask
Barnham, West Sussex

• I have voted Conservative all my life and I also voted to leave the EU. What is going on in the Home Office and at border control with the detentions you report? I am flabbergasted that Europeans should be treated this way.

Is a Parisian who fancies a weekend in London and jumps on the Eurostar on a Friday evening going to be treated in a similar way? I hope my question is only rhetorical.

I voted to leave the EU because I think it is an undemocratic overarching massive bureaucracy – not because I ever had any immigration concerns. I love Europe and have lived and worked in France, Switzerland and Germany. I would love to live there and work there again. To me the removal of freedom of movement is of no consequence. If you are suitably qualified or whoever wants to employ you can justify your employment then you will get a EU visa; plus ça change, vraiment!

In respect of the people you mention in your article, I am horrified they have been treated this way.

The Home Office must change. As John Reid said in 2006 (although he later said the words were first used by a Home Office civil servant), it is just not “fit for purpose”.
David Cartwright

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