- Alan Smith considers the mistakes made by Home Office and the previous two home secretaries
With some reluctance and under considerable pressure, Amber Rudd has resigned from the post of home secretary. There were two separate problems that became entwined, not entirely by accident. The first was the Windrush problem, named for those who came to Britain in the late 1940s from the West Indies but applied generally to all those who settled in this country when possession of a British passport entitled the holder to reside in the United Kingdom. The second was the encouragement of a ‘hostile environment’ towards illegal immigrants which, in itself, could earn its adherents the epithet of ‘the nasty party,’ but could also cause resentment to be shown towards legal immigrants or even those who were born here whose appearance suggested that their ancestors had not lived in this country for centuries. Amber Rudd made the mistake of answering that she had not seen certain documents when other evidence suggested she had. In general, rather than say, ‘I have not seen such a document’ it is more prudent to say, ‘I do not recall seeing this document.’ More importantly, she broke the basic rule of politics: ‘Don’t have the parcel in your hands when the music stops!’
When India and Pakistan became independent in 1947, the right to have a British passport and to live in the United Kingdom was extended to the citizens of all Commonwealth states. As with a lot of rights, the difficulties and cost of travel meant that this did not pose an immediate problem. In retrospect, an analogy comes to mind of a convivial evening in a public house. At closing time, someone says, ‘Why don’t you all come back to my place?’ Whether this causes a problem does depend on how far away it is and whether it is in the right direction for the host’s fellow drinkers.
In 1948 a few hundred immigrants came to Britain on the MV Empire Windrush from British colonies in the West Indies, similar to those who came to join the armed forces in the Second World War. The Windrush was not the first but, perhaps, was the most famous.
As time passed, with easier and cheaper international travel, it became clear that an unconditional right of Commonwealth citizens to settle in the United Kingdom could not continue. Under the 1971 Immigration Act, those already living here were given indefinite leave to remain. However, from the passing of the Act, holders of British passports could settle in the United Kingdom only if they had a work permit and could prove that a parent or grandparent had been born here.
No doubt readers have spotted the flaw in the policy. Those Commonwealth citizens who had settled before the 1971 Act came into force were not given documents to prove their right to remain. This particularly affected those who entered the country on the passports of their parents. This error could have been put right at any time since the Act and the sin of omission is shared by home secretaries, junior ministers, and staff at the Home Office since that time. Rather than embarking on the interminable task of allocating blame perhaps efforts should be concentrated on putting things right: finding those affected, giving them appropriate documents, and paying compensation to those whose rights have been infringed. Checking the 1971 census returns would be a good start.
The present government and the previous coalition government made much of limiting the net annual immigration figure. However, to suggest that we want a maximum of, say, 100,000 net immigrants each year is not a policy. It is a target or an aspiration, but not a policy. To maintain a running total of the net immigrants each year, adding the number of immigrants and subtracting the number of emigrants, and then closing the doors when the target had been reached would be a policy. Not a very good policy, I grant you, but at least it would be a policy. What we have at the moment is a dreamland in which wishes are counted as horses, which is not a good foundation for government.
The ‘hostile environment’ policy of recent governments should have been rejected on the grounds of an offence against civilized behaviour. To have vans driving around with posters displaying the slogan, ‘In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest’ was an ill-mannered attempt to scare people, betraying the fact that the state does not know who is here illegally, otherwise they could arrest them.
It has been an accepted view among all parties that the Home Office is ‘not fit for purpose.’ One task the new home secretary should instigate with some urgency is a system survey of the Home Office to establish what it is trying to do, and whether it is best structured to carry out those policies.