Theresa May was two years into her job as home secretary when she told the Telegraph in 2012 her aim “was to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration”.
Only May can say whether she knew then the “hostile environment” strategy – essentially empowering figures across society to become immigration enforcement officers – would evolve into to a catch-all brand for her approach to migrants, illegal or otherwise. Because “the hostile environment” came to encapsulate not just her approach to illegal immigration but to reflect a broader rancour towards migrants in the UK.
This peaked with the Windrush scandal; the hostile environment has been squarely blamed for the desperate circumstances in which people who had the right to be in the UK found themselves.
The Guardian has spoken to senior figures who worked within and alongside the Home Office – including former immigration enforcement chiefs – to seek an industry view as to what went so terribly wrong.
Scepticism from the start
Even in its infancy, the key planks of the hostile environment policy were met with scepticism within the Conservative party.
During the years of the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition, a cabinet committee dubbed Matbaps – migrants’ access to benefits and public services – was formed.
The former cabinet minister David Laws describes in his memoir a now-notorious heated discussion during a session of the Matbaps committee in 2013, during which some of what would become the central measures of the “hostile environment” policy were met with a cool response.
May, David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, Jeremy Hunt, Iain Duncan Smith and Oliver Letwin were among some of the big names in the room. But it was Eric Pickles, then the communities and local government minister, who tipped the mood from tense to sour.
Pickles told Cameron that requiring landlords to conduct immigration checks on potential tenants was a bad idea, according to Laws. He warned that “anyone foreign-looking” would face challenges accessing private rented accommodation. It was a prescient observation.
Cameron was disappointed by the less than enthusiastic response to the new approach and reportedly stormed out.
Polly Mackenzie, a former special adviser to Nick Clegg when he was deputy prime minister, recalls the incident and Cameron’s attitude.
“He didn’t like other people’s sanctimony – or what he interpreted as sanctimony rather than realistic concerns about the fact we’ve had a disorganised and chaotic immigration system for generations and we don’t have a system in which everybody has papers. We just don’t,” she said.
The hostile environment and the problems inside the Home Office developed against a backdrop in which immigration dominated the political and media agenda.
In 2010, when Cameron became prime minister and May was home secretary, the immigration debate was still being fuelled by fears over the accession of eight countries, including Poland and Lithuania, to the European Union in 2004 and Bulgaria and Romania in 2007.
Against this backdrop, a net migration target was unveiled by the prime minister, with the home secretary’s full backing, of reducing net migration – the difference between the number of people leaving and arriving – to below 100,000. It was a target that would come to haunt the party.
Ramping up the rhetoric
Also in the 2010 election, a less well known political party – frequently dismissed as full of lunatics and a single-issue campaign group – received 919,546 votes, a 0.9% rise on the previous election. They held 3.1% of the vote share. They were called Ukip.
With Nigel Farage recently re-elected as leader, capitalising on disenchantment with austerity Britain and targeting traditional working class constituencies, Ukip experienced a spectacular shift in public support. By late 2012, opinion polls placed the party at around 10% to 12%.
“It was a time of peak Ukip. Cameron was politically frustrated by a sense he needed to be tougher on immigration,” Mackenzie said.
In May 2013, the party put up a record number of candidates for the local elections and achieved its strongest everresult – polling an average of 23% in the wards where it stood and increasing its number of elected councillors from four to 147.
It was during this period that Farage ramped up the rhetoric on immigration. Comparing his 2012 conference speech with his 2013 address reveals a significant increase in time devoted to specifically talking about immigration.
In 2013, he told the party faithful: “Ten thousand a week. Half a million a year. Five million economic migrants in 10 years coming to this country. Unprecedented. Never happened before.
”The effects are obvious in every part of our national life. The strain these numbers are putting on public services. Schools. The shortage of school places in primaries and secondary schools. The NHS. The sheer weight of numbers that adds to the other problems. Demand pushes up prices. Wages are driven down by the massive over-supply of unskilled labour.”
Then he turned to Bulgaria and Romania. Temporary restrictions had been placed on their nationals accessing work and benefits until 1 January 2014 and that deadline loomed large in the headlines of the rightwing press. Farage fanned the flames. “There is an even darker side to the opening of the door in January,” he said. “London is already experiencing a Romanian crime wave …. This gets to the heart of the immigration policy that Ukip wants, we should not welcome foreign criminal gangs and we must deport those who have committed offences.”
Ukip had the Tories running scared. So they fought fire with fire. They met Farage’s tough rhetoric with their own. In May 2012, in an interview with the Telegraph, May delivered a hard message with some words that have been repeated and – by the new home secretary, Sajid Javid – repealed in recent weeks.
“The aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration,” she declared.
And she lived up to her word. The goal was effectively to make life as difficult as possible for any illegal migrant in the UK to continue living in the country.
The policies, which May started to unveil in 2012, effectively made immigration enforcement officers out of a range of citizens – from landlords being required to conduct right-to-rent checks to doctors assessing the immigration statuses of the sick before they were treated. Bank checks, driving licence checks, employment checks were demanded. Immigration controls were introduced in all walks of life.
Then there was Operation Vaken. An immigration enforcement campaign in the summer of 2013 that involved billboard vans being branded with the warning “go home or face arrest” hit the streets of London. Immigration enforcement vehicles were branded like police cars. Adverts were placed in eight minority ethnic newspapers, postcards appeared in shop windows and leaflets and posters were put up advertising immigration surgeries in buildings used by faith and charity groups.
Conflict at the heart of government
So was it Cameron or was it May behind the tough approach? Both, says Mackenzie.
“Cameron and May did not have a good relationship at all,” she says. “They had the kind of a relationship which means they both saw there was a vulnerability for the Conservative party on immigration that they both cared about. They both saw that Europe was a problem.
“But instead of collaborating on it, they would try and blame the other while coming up with ever more escalated policy ideas … a weird Dutch auction based on a not a particularly warm relationship between the two of them.”
But officials have told the Guardian that, as time went on, including to the present day, May had a tight grip on the immigration policy. Her immigration ministers, such as Mark Harper and James Brokenshire, were powerless.
“Theresa May didn’t let James Brokenshire or any immigration ministers serving under her make any decisions,” one former senior official said. “It was totally gripped by Theresa.”
Within the Home Office, officials did not see the potential problems with the policy that ultimately were highlighted several years later with the Windrush scandal that brought the “hostile environment” back under the spotlight. Members of the Windrush generation, who arrived in the UK from 1948 onwards, as well as their children, have been wrongly targeted by the policies.
Among those caught up are people forced out of work, in some cases for years, and unable to claim welfare support, as well as individuals wrongfully detained and in some cases deported.
David Wood, the director general of Immigration Enforcement from 2013 to 2015, was in position when some of the key hostile environment policies came into play.
“When the ‘hostile environment’ policy was conceived, I do not believe that the policymakers realised the potential impact of the policy and relatively small groups, like a small number of the ‘Windrush people’,” he says. “There would have been some belief that any difficulties would have been identified as the policy was implemented.”
Looking back, Wood believes the impact of austerity, which led to major budget cuts in the Home Office, can partly explain the less humane approach to visas and immigration.
“As austerity bit at the Home Office, staff reductions were viewed as necessary in the immigration service to reduce costs. Policies were thus introduced which brought in more automation, thus requiring less staff, and letters sent out may have had little human involvement. The hostile environment policy led, effectively, to the outsourcing of immigration supervision to landlords, banks, employers etc. There was less human intervention.”
Wood believes that ministers may have missed the opportunity to spot the Windrush problem at an earlier date – through MPs who must have flagged the issue as it was presented to them in their constituencies.
“It is now clear that many affected Windrush individuals raised the issues through solicitors and MPs, and letters were sent to the Home Office,” he said. “This should have raise alarm bells but these would have been allocated to different individuals and clearly not linked and thus an opportunity to identify the impact missed. Many of the replies would have been filtered through ministers but the immigration minister clearly did not pick the issue up either.”
The Guardian recently revealed that the issue of older Caribbean-born residents being wrongly classified as illegal immigrants was raised formally in 2016 by Caribbean foreign ministers with the then foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, during the biannual UK-Caribbean forum held that year in Freeport, the Bahamas. The high commissioner to one affected Caribbean country said officials alerted the Foreign Office to the problem at least half a dozen times from as early as 2013 onwards, to no avail.
Meanwhile, the government has admitted in a response to a parliamentary question that it took no action in response to a detailed 2014 warning in a research paper about the looming problem.
The issue of the removal of human interaction and discretion has been raised frequently in discussions over the Windrush scandal.
Lucy Moreton, head of the ISU, the union for borders, immigration and customs staff, said face-to-face interviews with visa and immigration applicants vanished around 2014, which she believes has a bearing on what happened with the Windrush generation.
“You could talk to them,” she said of the earlier system. “There’s a commonality of experience that someone has grown up here will have. You get a sense they’re genuine. In 2014, discretion was removed. You ended up with a checklist approach.”
The Home Office also downgraded the executive officer positions in the visas and immigration directorates to a lower role of administration officer.
But beyond ticking off criteria on a checklist and returning a visa or immigration application to the applicant to say it was incomplete, administration officers were unable to make any significant decisions. “We lost face-to-face interviewing and went to a paper-based system,” Moreton said.
The hostile environment policies were not welcomed by on-the-ground staff, either, Moreton says. Across the board, they believed they made immigration enforcement workers’ jobs more difficult as they drove illegal immigrants further underground.
“They hated it,” Moreton says. “It was very unpopular across the board. The ‘Go Home’ vans, no one liked those. The logo vehicles have never been popular.
“The increasing outsourcing of an immigration caseworkers’ work actually made our jobs harder. You’re making vulnerable people more vulnerable. You’re fuelling the grey economy. If you want human decisions you’ve to put humans back in it.”
There have been claims of a so-called “culture of disbelief” or “gotcha culture” pervading through the visas and immigration directorates. One former official denied this was rife but accepted there could be “pockets of it”, admitting: “There’s a risk in the caseworking environment that you take a too blanket approach to individuals … There’s a risk of cynicism in places and attitudes developing that need to be challenged.”
Rob Whiteman, the head of the UK Border Agency from 2011 to 2013, says the Home Office has never quite pulled off being an operational department – it’s “a policy department where policy doesn’t necessarily easily turn into policy implementation”.
“What on earth went wrong that British citizens who have been here for 50 years and have rights to be here are being deported?” he asks.
At the end of his tenure, the UKBA was mothballed as an arms-length executive body and its functions brought back within the Home Office.
But Whiteman says this has led to confusion over accountability. “Is it clear who makes decisions? Is it the ministers or officials? It’s so confused, and means there is not clear accountability for the public,” he says.
“Either operational decisions should be put more at arms-length from ministers and it’s clear that officials are making independent decisions or ministers are making them and if they go wrong they say: ‘We got it wrong.’”
Whiteman accepts that the lack of human interaction has played a part. “When there is so much work to do, you improve productivity by streamlining the process,” he says.
“I’ve been a senior manager, of course there’s a role for better data analytics, better algorithms. However, I’m in no doubt that interviewing and face-to-face interaction if there’s resourcing to do it leads to better decision making.”
John Vine, the former, and first, immigration and borders inspector, said “poor quality of decision making” was consistent that during his tenure.
“I consistently found that caseworkers were trying to cope with high workloads and that junior staff often lacked the experience and oversight by more senior staff to prevent them making errors and mistakes,” he said. “During one inspection, I recall that a case working unit had taken a couple of experienced caseworkers out of decision making to quality assure the work of others. Where this happened, the quality improved.”
The successful appeal rate at the immigration tribunal – around 50% – suggests a continued lack of quality assurance of case working, Vine says.
To serve as a reminder that immigration decisions are “about people’s lives”, Vine once recommended that refugees contribute to training programmes for case workers.
“The point is,” he says, “relatively junior caseworkers are faced with making life-changing decisions, which affect people’s lives and, in my view, every attempt should be made to remind them that real people are behind the overwhelming mass of paper on their desk.”
The Home Office says UK Visas and Immigration has an internal audit process, consisting of reviews by senior case workers and independent auditors, which assesses the application of Home Office policy.
Ultimately, the initial wave of policies appeared to do nothing to assuage the fears of immigration or to temper the debate. By the 2015 general election, Ukip received 3,881,099 votes, a vote share of 12.6%.
Another immigration act was pushed through in 2016. It was pitched and plugged ahead of the referendum on EU membership and the continued debate over immigration that provoked.
“The culture of the country changed,” Moreton says. But the government had locked itself into tackling immigration when it set the net migration target. On a quarterly basis, official figures are released that act as a reminder the government was failing to meet its own goal.
And this pressure trickled down to immigration workers – including influencing local targets for removals, the issue that ultimately toppled Amber Rudd after she wrongly denied such targets existed.
“It creates a culture in an employer,” Moreton says. “No one set out to say: ‘I’ve got to get 30 today.’ But it did change the way caseworkers think about it.
“Rather going from presumption you’re right and Home office proving you’re wrong, it moved to we don’t believe you, prove what you’re saying is right. That didn’t translate into perverse behaviour but it changed the organisation.
“When you’re dealing with thousands of applications, you’re not seeing the people you’re seeing the files. It’s inevitable that you will cease to see these people as people, you will see them as files.”
One former immigration official suggested the net migration target was not taken seriously and viewed as a triviality. “Privately there was a view that it would never be met,” he says. “It’s was bonkers. It was a bit like watching the weather forecast. You watch the weather, it was interesting, but you know you can’t affect the weather. We would watch the net migration figures going up or down, not necessarily thinking what had happened was linked with our policy.”
Another former official says: “Everyone thought it was totally crazy and undeliverable target. No one could believe when they went back to the country in 2015 and reiterated it and then again last year, in fact.”
The Home Office says it remains committed to reducing net migration to sustainable levels: “The experiences faced by some members of the Windrush generation are inexcusable. The home secretary and the immigration minister have said that they want to give the Home Office a more human face and it is a priority to right the wrongs that have occurred.
“That is why we have launched a consultation on a compensation scheme for those affected and a lessons learned review to look at what led to this occurring and ensure that nothing like it happens again, both will have independent oversight.
“We have a dedicated and hardworking team of caseworkers who are committed to providing a high level of service with often complex cases. We are committed to making sure that caseworkers receive the proper level of training, support, technology and supervision so that they can effectively do their job.”
Javid, taking on the role of home secretary, did try to strike a different tone. He disowned the “hostile environment” term in favour of “compliant environment”, vowed to prioritise the Windrush scandal and threw resources at getting it fixed.
A compensation scheme has been launched for victims of the Windrush scandal, a “lessons learned” review has been commissioned and new guidance was issued to landlords and employers among other steps taken.
But Javid has stopped short of rowing back from the meat of the hostile environment policy, insisting that tackling illegal immigration is vital.
And there is a belief that as long as May is prime minister, there will be no dramatic departure from the status quo.
“She’s very wedded to this tens of thousands target,” one former official says. “She’s wedded to the hostile environment albeit with a different name. It’s going to be difficult for any home secretary to put their own stamp on things.”
Source link Google News