Episode 34: Wtf is going on at the Home Office? with Daniel Trilling

It’s scandal after scandal for one of Britain’s biggest ministries and an obstacle course for immigrants who encounter it. Why is the Home Office like this?

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

Now's a great time to become a supporting member. The full, uncut version of this interview is available for members. The stuff I had to cut, it just broke my heart. If you like nerding out about politics (who doesn't?) and understanding how migrants became the enemy, it's for you! Subscribe right here and help me make Borderline happen.

There was the Windrush scandal, of course. There was a home secretary who was found to have broken the ministerial code for bullying her staff, but wasn't fired. There was confusing post-Brexit travel rules and EU citizens unnecessarily sent to immigration detention on arrival in the country. There was COVID spreading through derelict barracks, used to house detained migrants. And those are just the first few that come to mind.

How can one institution be so universally criticized, not just by the immigrants and citizens who at one point or another must use its services, but by all those who encounter it, whether lawyers, judges, activists, journalists, or even those who work there. Daniel Trilling, a journalist who has been covering immigration for a decade, spent six months investigating for The Guardian the organizational culture and history of the Home Office to answer this simple question: wtf is going on there? He talked to me about what he found.

Show notes

00:23 Intro
03:44 A common feeling of frustration among people who encounter the Home Office
05:32 Immigration control as we know it is about 20 years old
08:29 Britain has been doing what every rich nation has been doing
12:02 A massive and under resourced institution
13:59 The three levels of the Home Office
17:35 "Your job is finding ways to keep people out"
20:15 Courts are there to make the government look tough
23:58 How the executive has set itself up against the judiciary
26:01 Being seen to be in control
27:37 How the left gave up on making the case for immigration
33:33 Is the Home Office salvageable?
39:32 Outro

Sources & further reading

📰 Cruel, paranoid, failing: inside the Home Office, Daniel Trilling for The Guardian, 13 May 2021

Also on Borderline:
👀 The post-Brexit immigration scheme ends in a month. Its flaws could show up in a decade. 3 June 2021
👀 Yes, Europeans are being turned away at UK borders. Not all Europeans though. 28 May 2021
🎧 How being nasty to immigrants became law, with Colin Yeo. 13 July 2020
🎧 "We have a deeply unfeminist immigration system," with Zoe Gardner. 23 March 2021
🎧 When your passport locks you in, with Selda Shamloo. 16 March 2021


Transcript

Transcripts are published for your convenience, but they are automated and not always cleaned up. Please excuses typos and occasional nonsense, and always check the audio before quoting.

Daniel Trilling: [00:00:00] The absolute priority is to make sure that you look like you're in control. You don't want to be perceived as weak on immigration, because they're terrified that if they look like they're soft, there'll be all these stories in the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph and so on.

[00:00:13]

Intro

[00:00:23] Isabelle Roughol: [00:00:23] I Hi I'm Isabelle Roughol and this is Borderline.

[00:00:27] It's a bit like a car crash you can't look away from: the UK Home Office has more stories of dysfunction and unintentional cruelty, sometimes intentional cruelty, than any institution I've encountered in my journalistic career. You have to ask what is going on in one of Britain's largest ministries that it would just keep making headlines for various scandals, for failing to follow its own rules, to abide by even the standards and goals that it set for itself. There was the Windrush scandal, of course, and we'll get to that. There's the home secretary who was found to have broken the ministerial code for bullying her staff but wasn't fired. Recently, there was confusing. post-Brexit travel rules and EU citizens unnecessarily sent to immigration detention on arrival in the country. There was COVID spreading through derelict barracks, used to house detained migrants, and on and on and on from big scandals that cost people lives to the everyday frustrating interactions you've often heard on this podcast.

[00:01:27] How can one institution be so universally criticized, not just by the immigrants and citizens who at one point or another must use its services, but by all those who encounter it, whether lawyers, judges, activists, journalists, or even those who work there. Daniel Trilling, a journalist who has been covering immigration for a decade, asked exactly that. He spent six months interviewing dozens of current and former staffers at the Home Office, people who work opposite them and even several former home secretaries themselves to understand the culture of that most peculiar of British institutions. He wrote it all up in an excellent piece for The Guardian that I recommend you read even before listening. And it's in the show notes.

[00:02:10] I apologize to listeners outside the UK, but like I said, I can't look away. And frankly, by looking at how Britain considers immigration, you'll see a lot of parallel with politics in the US and France in Australia, wherever you are. Daniel and I talked about our attitudes to immigration relationships between government and the judiciary, government and the media, citizens and the state and why the way that we talk about immigration is really barely more than 20 years old.

[00:02:37] Oh. And because you don't listen to the very end, I'm going to tell you now. Borderline is a lot more than just this podcast. If you go to borderlinepod.com, you'll find a newsletter and you'll also find plenty of stories that just aren't in audio form. This week especially if you're interested in the UK Home Office, I wrote up several stories about what's going on there. I looked at the data, the quarterly data that the Home Office just released, to look at what is the reality of immigration in the UK, as opposed to the headlines that you might be seeing. And I also looked at the issue of European citizens turned away at the border since January, since Brexit. And it's really striking which Europeans, and you can guess, are in fact being turned away.

[00:03:23] So check that out. It's at borderlinepod.com and please sign up for the newsletter because that helps me stay in touch with you, know who's listening, know who's reading and that way you won't miss a single bit of content from Borderline. Thank you.

[00:03:38] Now here's my conversation, truly, with Daniel Trilling.

[00:03:44] A common feeling of frustration among people who encounter the Home Office

[00:03:44] You've written this fascinating long read in The Guardian about the Home Office. And I was curious what brought you to write about that particular office and its culture and what was your process getting into that?

[00:03:57] Daniel Trilling: [00:03:57] So I've been a journalist for almost 15 years now. And for the last 10 years as a writer, one of my main focuses has been on, on different aspects of migration.  Something that's been quite a constant over the last 10 years has been a general sense of frustration, or even puzzlement from people that encounter Britain's ministry responsible for immigration control, the Home Office, at the way it behaves.

[00:04:29] So that would be a kind of common feeling you pick up, not only from migrants who encounter the system in various ways, but lawyers and campaigners and people giving advice and other journalists sharing this feeling of, "well, surely they can't behave this way, or why did it, why do they behave in a seemingly nonsensical or dysfunctional way?"

[00:04:48] The minister in charge of the Home Office at the moment, the home secretary Priti Patel, is someone who stands out for a very hardline approach to immigration control, but has also made headlines in the last year or two for her personal style. you know, somebody that I interviewed for my piece, who'd previously worked with her, told me her approach is to look at any given situation and say, what's the toughest thing that anyone could possibly do or say in this situation? And then she'll do that. I suppose there's a kind of personal political story there at the top of the Home Office right now.

[00:05:21] But I think what was interesting about it is although Patel might be seen as an extreme, actually it's an intensification of these longer-term trends that have been underway for years and years.

[00:05:32] Immigration control as we know it is about 20 years old

[00:05:32] And so I just set about trying to make contact with people who either currently work at the Home Office or had previously worked at the Home Office, at all levels of the organization from the ministers and senior civil servants at the top down to frontline staff who actually have to deal with people daily or carry out policies that they're told to carry out. And also people who encountered the system from the other side: individuals who had to deal with the Home Office or lawyers who've had to face that in court and so on.

[00:06:03] The idea was to get people to make it historical. I went and tried to contact people that had been involved at relevant points in the department's history over the last 20 to 25 years. The reason for that time period being the fact that it's only really in the last two decades or so that the sort of architecture of immigration control that the UK now has was assembled basically.

[00:06:29] I suppose the easiest way to put this is how, Nick Pearce, who was an advisor to a home secretary during the Labour government of Tony Blair in the early 2000s, put it to me, which was: historically the UK was a country where immigration control happened almost entirely at the physical frontier. So at ports and airports, at the physical borders, you would have people checking the identity of people entering the UK and determining whether they had the right to enter or not. But once people were in the country, there was very little internal policing of immigration that was done historically. But that completely changed over the last two decades.

[00:07:09] And so I suppose that was the historical frame that I wanted to give the piece because a lot of the... Depends on your perspective obviously, but what I would call the horror stories that emerged from the Home Office, to do with people being mistreated, people struggling with a bureaucracy that seems completely set up to frustrate them at every level, all of that is to do with this internal policing of migration.

[00:07:31] So the Windrush scandal, to take that example, it was all about people who lived in the UK, often for many decades, suddenly finding that they were blocked from having a job or opening a bank account or accessing the welfare benefits system. So this was nothing to do with physically crossing borders. It was all about this kind of internal border system that the UK now has, but actually is a really recent innovation.

[00:08:01] And so I suppose that was part of the motivation for the piece was to say: Well, Hey, there's this thing all around us that we take for granted in British society, but actually it's really new. Much of it didn't exist 30 years ago, but now we treat it as a fact of life, but actually it's new and it was built by people who made decisions about how to build it, who, who are still around, and you can go back to and ask: why did you do that? Why did you decide to build the system in this way?

[00:08:29] Britain has been doing what every rich nation has been doing

Isabelle Roughol: [00:08:29] So why did they? How did this evolution happen from, as you mentioned, the nineties where immigration detention, for instance barely exists and, and controls are mainly at the borders, to, the situation that we know today with the hostile environment and the very hostile rhetoric that we're hearing?

[00:08:45] Daniel Trilling: [00:08:45] Yeah, well, I mean, I think there's a global context to this first of all, in that from the 1990s onwards, the sort of global patterns of migration began to change. The proportion of international migrants globally has stayed relatively steady since the 1960s or something. But the big change that sort of happened after the end of the Cold War was that the sort of direction of migration began to change. And I think, actually as the world became more unequal, you had more people choosing wealthy Western countries as destination. The pattern of people going from low-income countries to higher income countries has become much more pronounced.

[00:09:28] And so in one sense, Britain has been doing what every other rich country in the world or rich region has been doing, which is it's been responding to more migration from outside and deciding it needs to manage and police that with greater degrees of control than before. There is something like I dunno, at last count, around 80 or 90 border fences and walls established in different bits of the world today, like these physical defenses, whereas in the early nineties, there were sort of 10 to 15. So there's been this big growth in actual physical border security. And most of it is at the edges of the rich world. But the, the thing that's accompanied that physical security is the growth of much more sophisticated systems for internally policing immigration.

[00:10:21] So it's not a phenomenon confined to Britain itself. I think the thing that makes Britain a little different perhaps to some other places is the fact that the British state historically has tended to avoid the measures for monitoring internal populations that other countries have gone for. So the big thing in the UK is that we've never had ID cards. Obviously Britain has had all sorts of ways of policing particular populations, not least colonial populations during the height of the British empire, or populations within the UK that it regards perhaps as a bit suspect or in need of control, but there's been this idea that the British state leaves its citizens alone to enjoy their, their English liberties and so on.

[00:11:10] And so that contradiction with wanting to be able to control and police and manage immigration has just become more and more pronounced over the last few decades, because there's been this huge political pressure to, I mean, at the most basic level, just to be able to say how many immigrants of which sort are in the country and where, and who they are. And that's actually not a function that the British state historically has been that well set up to do with populations in the UK.

[00:11:41] So what you end up having set up is a kind of parallel system just for immigrants, with biometric visas initially, various forms of ID cards for asylum seekers and other kinds of immigrants, people who've been given leave to remain and so on, who are being monitored in a way that the native-born UK citizen population is not.

[00:12:02] A massive and under resourced office

[00:12:02] But the other really important aspect of that system, I think, is that all of that has been done in an extremely under-resourced way. And this is something that I tried to show in my description of the Home Office in the piece. It's a kind of parallel state in a way. The Home Office's immigration functions aren't just about checking people's ID and processing visas, but it runs prisons. It runs its own police force. For asylum seekers, it runs essentially a parallel welfare state with a parallel system of benefits, homes for people to live in, you know housing system, that kind of thing... But all of that is on a very small budget in Whitehall terms. The whole thing gets a budget of about 3 billion a year, which if that was a government department of its own, it would be right down near the bottom of the list of departmental budgets. But it's dealing with this huge, huge task.

[00:12:57] And at the same time, and I think this is, this is really what came through in the accounts of people that I spoke to about how the system was built, although politicians at every stage of its development would say the idea of this system was to set up something that was firm but fair, that facilitates the kind of immigration the British state would like and keeps out the people that the state would like to keep out, the kind of overriding mood to it all and the overriding ethos that filters through the entire system is, it's actually all about hostility. You know, that sort of anyone asking something of the system is automatically treated as suspect or bogus until proved otherwise, I think. And I think that's something that you could see just becoming stronger and stronger over the last couple of decades, as more power was given to the system, but also as the politics around it, the politics of immigration became more contentious and more hostile in general.

[00:13:59] The three levels of the Home Office

Isabelle Roughol: [00:13:59] So, so what is it like then working inside the Home Office? How much of it is hostility? How much of it is incompetence, underfunding, understaffed, overwhelmed? And, and what is it like for a junior caseworker in Croydon who sees I don't know how many asylum cases every week?

[00:14:18] Daniel Trilling: [00:14:18] Yeah. So I think it's useful to think of there being three levels to the Home Office and how it deals with immigration. You've got the, kind of at the top, most senior level, you've got the ministers and the senior civil servants in the department. Obviously they're setting overall policy and budgets and so on, but in a way they're trying to translate political pressures into departmental policy and structures and so on and so on.

[00:14:44] Then you've got the kind of middle level, sort of middle ranking civil servants in Westminster, whose job it is to turn that into concrete, practical, everyday policies. So if a minister or the civil service boss of the department says, "right, we need some policies for reducing this type of migration," it will be those middle rankings, civil servants that actually go and look at how do you actually achieve this, and so on, and then come up with proposals.

[00:15:11] And then the third level, it is what's called the operational side of the Home Office. So that would be everything from people who are actually patrolling Britain's borders to, as you mentioned, caseworkers who are just processing applications from individuals who want to visit the UK, or want to live in the UK, or are living in the UK and want to formalize their right to be here in one way or another.

[00:15:33] The thing about that operational level is it's huge. The Home Office employs something like 32,000 civil servants directly, almost all of them work in that operational bit of the Home Office. So, you know, I think when, when one says civil servant, the image is of a kind of elite Westminster official. But actually for the most part, civil servants are clerical and managerial staff in at least in the Home Office.

[00:16:02] And I think the factors that produce the kind of dysfunctional behavior that you repeatedly see, certainly they are to do with resources. The best way to describe the sort of modern business of immigration control is that although the images of it are all about borders and territory and, what's going on in the English Channel or what's going on in the Mediterranean --and obviously, I mean, these things are really important in their own right-- but they're actually a small part of what modern border control is all about. And I think it's, it's actually much more about states managing the sort of individual biographical details of, millions of people, or tens of thousands of people, depending on the context. And the kind of real heart of that work is the bureaucratic processing of people's details.

[00:16:57] And the success or failure of particular policies very often comes down to how efficiently an institution does that and how efficiently it keeps records. And one constant factor in the history of the Home Office is that it has done that very badly on occasions, often because they haven't been given enough resources to do the job. Things like lacking the time to consider an application properly and having to just apply sets of proforma responses to it rather than actually take the time to examine the details of a particular case and exercise discretion and so on.

[00:17:35] "Your job is finding ways to keep people out"

[00:17:35] But I think equally important is the fact that the sort of logic of the system, the messages coming from the people at the top, whether that was direct instructions to staff, or just what politicians are saying to the media was: your job is really to be finding ways to keep people out. So I think, although the resource question is really important, it's as much to do with the political priorities that are being set for staff as it is for anything else.

[00:18:02] I think what, so talking to people who've experienced the system, particularly people who've had experiences of systems in other countries, that's one of the key frustrations that sort of emerges, is that when you have to deal with Home Office bureaucracy, it's just unnecessarily difficult and hostile towards you. If you've got a difficulty with your application of one sort or another, it's really hard to speak to someone. You can't just phone someone up and say, look there there's been a mistake, how can we get this resolved? And I've had numerous people say to me, well, this is it's so bizarre because when I, when I, I don't know in the Netherlands, for example, when I need to get my residence permit, it's just a simple, quick, bureaucratic process that takes half an hour at the local government office or whatever. And you just pay a nominal fee to cover the cost of the administration, and then it's done. Whereas an equivalent process in the UK would involve these huge application forms, where you've got to prove all sorts of details about your life going back years and years.

[00:19:07] The fees are often exorbitant. I mean, that's another, this is a good example of where a political priority determines the behavior of the bureaucracy. The Home Office is legally mandated to make a profit on fees for citizenship and visa applications. To put in an application for citizenship in the UK, you know, if you want to become a naturalized British citizen before 2003 cost zero pounds. After 2003, it costs something like 200 pounds. And as if the last couple, three years, it costs 2,300 pounds or something. That's I think quite emblematic of how the system is set up to treat people that come and ask things of it.

[00:19:52] Isabelle Roughol: [00:19:52] Yeah. And there's been many stories on this podcast where it seems like it's, the default answer is no, and then you start the fight. And then, and then often the eventual answer is going to be yes, because the courts will be on your side because it so obviously should be yes, but not until you've had a fight and spent a lot of money and a lot of time and a lot of energy getting to that yes.

[00:20:15] Courts are there to make the government look tough

Daniel Trilling: [00:20:15] Yeah. And the, the role of the courts and the legal system is, is a really important part of understanding how this all works. Again, going back to our idea of this being a dysfunctional system that baffles the people that have to deal with it daily, one of the kind of most striking things that I've observed about it is just how often the Home Office is told by courts that it’s not following its own rules, you know, which considering not least this is the UK's department of law and order. The Home Office also, is in charge of policing and counter terrorism and security and so on.

[00:20:49] But, but particularly on, on areas of immigration, there's a constant stream of court decisions that tell the Home Office, you are breaking your own laws that you're setting up. And that ranges from individual applications for citizenship or asylum and so on, to very frequent decisions about structural things that the Home Office is doing wrongly. I would say there's, often there's at least one a week.

[00:21:15] In the last week before we're doing this interview, there was a court that said that the Home Office was wrong to have housed asylum seekers in these disused military barracks in the way that it did because it was told that it wouldn't be COVID safe. And they went ahead. They not only ignored the wider rules on that, but their own assessment, I think, told them it wouldn't be safe, and they went ahead and did it.

[00:21:36] And, that's the kind of classic bit of Home Office logic, I think, which is: we'll do this, eventually it will be found to have been unlawful, but by that time either we'll have done it or at least... and this is something that several interviews said to me, it's the kind of, it's how it looks to the outside world that's really important. So even if it's a court that says we've done something wrong. The important thing is that we can say, well, that's the court that decided did that, not us. We've been trying our best to exert control over immigration and our hands are tied by this court decision.

[00:22:12] In a way that's like the central political, but also psychological dynamic of the Home Office that I observed and that people who have been deeply involved within it described to me. Which is that I think politically, because of the wider politics of immigration in the UK over the last couple of decades, there's been this overriding sense that whatever your other objectives are, the absolute priority is to make sure that you look like you're in control. You know, you don't want to be perceived as weak on immigration. You don't want to lay yourself open to attacks from the right-wing press that you are too soft on border control, that you're letting in too many immigrants of one kind or another and so on. And that priority kind of has come to crowd out anything else.

[00:23:03] And that's why they're so reliant on things ending up in court. It's also a sort of inertia that allows a slow moving and unresponsive bureaucracy to work as if a form of immigration control in its own right, because if your system is by default saying no to people, a certain proportion of those people are going to give up and move elsewhere and not try and fight it. So it has, it has that sort of effect. But also when people do fight it, it becomes this thing about the courts rather than the Home Office. And as a recently retired judge who has worked in immigration tribunals put it to me, it's that they have to be seen to be saying no, because they're terrified that if they look like they're soft, there'll be all these stories in the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph and so on.

[00:23:58] How the executive has set itself up against the judiciary

[00:23:58] But I think also the role of the courts and the role of the law is also really important for understanding how things have changed politically in the last couple of years. Because I think out of that dynamic something much more, much more sinister and potentially threatening to the UK's political system overall has started to emerge. It's not only located in the Home Office. I think a lot of it's to do with Brexit and the ways that various groups of people then tried to challenge the Brexit process often using the court system, but the current government has kind of set itself against the judiciary to a certain extent. So there's been noises made about unelected judges.

[00:24:45] I'm sure, well, those listeners of yours familiar with UK politics will remember that infamous "enemies of the people" front page headline on the Daily Mail a few years ago, that was about senior judges it was aimed at because they'd made a decision about a case relating to Brexit that the Mail was displeased with. The current government's response to this kind of growing right-wing populist backlash against the legal system has been to threaten to reduce the power of the courts and to reduce the ability of ordinary people to seek legal redress through courts. And I think at the moment, there's a very concerning effort to take away people's rights.

[00:25:30] Isabelle Roughol: [00:25:30] And, and as often with attacks on the rule of law, the kind of the thin end of the wedge is starting with migrants or starting with any kind of vulnerable population. And you touched on something interesting as well, when you were talking about the Home Office's relationship with the media, is this notion of policy being made, not, not to govern, not to use the policy, but to announce the policy, right? And the communication around it is almost more important than what the policy actually does, right?

[00:26:01] Being seen to be in control

Daniel Trilling: [00:26:01] Yeah, I think it's kind of going back to that idea of being seen to be in control. You could point to a kind of list of policy initiatives going back at least 15 years, if not longer, that they... they purport to do one thing or another, and actually turn out not to have achieved the thing they say they're going to achieve but were very effective at giving the impression of control or the impression of effectiveness in the media.

[00:26:33] You know, not just in the way that newspapers or other media outlets would cover things the Home Office did, but actually the way the Home Office itself presents what it does through its media and communications teams. Somebody who had worked on the comms team for quite a number of years under both Labour and Conservative-led governments described to me how increasingly there was an effort to get images of immigration raids out into the media, you know, both by inviting journalists along, but using things like the Home Office Twitter accounts, or to tweet photographs or to put out press releases.

[00:27:08] Isabelle Roughol: [00:27:08] Priti Patel in her Home Secretary windbreaker at an immigration raid recently.

[00:27:13] Daniel Trilling: [00:27:13] Exactly. But I mean, that's a classic example of where that's actually something that the Home Office has been doing for years, but Patel has just taken it that step further. So, you know, the Home Office will have been putting out images of immigration raids or police raids on suspected smuggling gangs as I think, I think the recent images were of, but Patel has put herself right into the frame there with her own branded Home Secretary jacket and so on.

[00:27:37] How the left gave up on making the case for immigration

[00:27:37] Isabelle Roughol: [00:27:37] Yeah. Speaking of that top sort of political layer that you were mentioning before, you spoke to a few previous home secretaries and there was a quote that just absolutely leapt at me from the former Labour Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, who speaking of the way things are seen in the media, said: "Immigration is a good thing for the country, but you can't sell that to the public." And I thought it was such an admission of defeat in a way for a progressive to, to say something like that. I mean, has the left just even given up on, on making the case for immigration? Is being home secretary necessarily being tough and restrictive on immigration?

[00:28:18] Daniel Trilling: [00:28:18] Yeah, that, I mean, that quote, it's a funny one because it's one a lot of people have picked up on and have been... Yeah. A lot of people have said like yourself, they found it jaw-dropping. And what's odd is that it almost didn't make it into the piece.

[00:28:32] So I had huge amounts of material available to me to use in the piece, pages and pages of quotes from different people. And a lot of the work in writing the piece was between me and my editor working out which are the things that are going to feel new or surprising to readers and which are the things that are, you know, okay, people know that, we don't need to hear that again in detail and so on. And the quote from Jacqui Smith was one I'd looked at, I've looked at dozens of times while writing a piece and I've kind of gone, 'well, obviously everyone knows that New Labour were like.' And it was only when my editor saw it and said, "my God, it's like the bit in the movie where the criminal reveals their master plan" kind of thing. You know, she literally just said that, which is the kind of accusation that people had thrown at the left during that period, you know, the Labour government during that period. So it was I guess quite striking, particularly for people who weren't immersed in it, to see it articulated in such a direct way.

[00:29:30] But yeah, I mean, the sort of history to that is that Labour were in government from 1997 to 2010, and that project of getting into government and then, and then winning reelection was achieved by rebranding the Labour party as New Labour which involved I suppose, moving it away from its socialist and trade union roots somewhat, kind of it accepting the logic of Thatcherism, the idea that sort of the market values should be allowed this sort of dominant role in driving the economy and society and that the state should avoid intervening too much and should farm out public services to private providers and so on. I suppose the idea was that you do this, and you accept that logic, and then a Labour government will come in and be able to redistribute a bit of wealth and make things fairer than the Conservatives, than the center right would do in this, in, in the same position.

[00:30:30] The way they sought to retain political legitimacy for doing that was by making sure that they were always covering their right flank, particularly with the media., And that involved this strategy that I think came from the Clinton administration in the U S in the nineties called triangulation that, you know, if you were being attacked on immigration from the right, for not being tough enough on immigration, and at the same time, your critics from the left were saying you were being too tough and inhumane, you would sort of try and find the middle position that would, would co-opt everything and maintain consent and so on.

[00:31:05] But really, for the, I suppose, reasons I touched on earlier, it was always the sort of right-wing side of that, that dominated, partly because I think Britain's media historically has been so heavily dominated by right-wing press, that that has had a huge effect on shaping and directing discourse around things like immigration. But also led to this particularly weird way of behaving politically for Labour politicians, which was that you would have a particular policy objective in mind, but then you would have your idea about how you had to talk about that publicly and they could often be quite different.

[00:31:45] So I suppose the sort of ultimate example of that is, is EU free movement. In 2004 the EU was enlarged and countries in central and Eastern Europe joined and were able to take part in the existing freedom of movement arrangements. And the Labour government at the time chose not to impose any temporary restrictions on people coming to the UK from Poland and from other countries, as it could have chosen to do at that point under, under EU rules. Large numbers of people took up that right of free movement, and to a certain extent, the government wanted that to happen because it saw it as economically beneficial. But because of the discourse around immigration and the need to keep the right on side, it wouldn't openly say that. What it would do instead was say, well, we keep getting attacked on immigration, but we, we want to facilitate immigration. So what we'll do is we'll just keep trying and redirect people's attention to the bits of immigration that we can control. If people are unhappy about the level of immigration, we'll seek to reassure them by saying yes, but we're being really tough on the bad migrants, the people that we don't want.

[00:32:58] What I try to show in the piece was that although the, the way the Home Office behaves these days, it's very heavily blamed on --blamed or credited depending on whether you like it or not obviously-- on the role of Theresa May, the Conservative home secretary who was in charge of the Home Office from 2010 to 2016, who took a much more sort of hard line approach to immigration control, a lot of the tools that she had at her disposal were put in place by Labour immediately before she arrived.

[00:33:33] Is the Home Office salvageable?

[00:33:33] Isabelle Roughol: [00:33:33] What would it take to, to change that culture? I mean, is the Home Office salvageable, you know, provided that we even had a government in place that was interested in, in changing this, this behavior?

[00:33:46] Daniel Trilling: [00:33:46] Yeah, so that, I mean, that's obviously a question that's been asked repeatedly over the years. And there's kind of one answer to that that's I suppose to do with, with sort of resources and planning. So there's an argument that well, at least you could give people the proper resources to carry out their jobs. But obviously if the job is set as being hostile to immigrants, then what they then do more efficiently, may well be behaving in a really unpleasant way towards people. If that's, that's what the politicians want people to do, then that's what they're going to be told to do with whatever level of resources are available.

[00:34:19] There's a structural answer to the question, which is something that has been tried in the past that is actually to do with the way the Home Office is structured. So until 2006, the Home Office was a much larger government department that was also in charge of bits of the criminal justice system as well. So it also ran prisons and it ran the probation service and so on. And when it was hit by this scandal over the failure to consider foreign nationals who had committed certain serious crimes for deportation, the argument then was, "oh, it's inefficient because it's so large and it needs to be split into two." And that's what happened after 2006. So prisons and probation and so on were given to a newly created Ministry of Justice.

[00:35:05] But actually the effect that that had was to make the Home Office much more focused simply on security, although it was still in charge of all of these different things to do with immigration control, where, as a department, increasingly it was set up as the "department of preventing things," as a few people put it to me. You know, it's there to stop crime, stop terrorism and well on immigration, what is it there to do? Is it there to stop immigration? Not really. I mean, that's a certain amount of its activity, but a lot of what it does is actually at least in theory, supposed to facilitate immigration, processing people's visa applications and so on.

[00:35:41] So structurally, if you have all those functions sat within a wider department that is just there to say no, that has an effect. So there's an argument that perhaps immigration should be taken out of Home Office control or at least split off into a separate agency as it was for a few years around 2010.

[00:35:58] But I think those questions about resources and about structure don't really sort of answer the third question, which is the trickiest. It comes back to the politics. And if you have people in charge of a department believing that what the public wants, or at least what bits of the press want, is for you to be tough and hardline, then your department is going to reflect that in the way it behaves and in the culture of staff, I think.

[00:36:29] And so that kind of comes back to something that is a lot harder to argue, which is: why is there this idea in Britain that you need to behave this way to people who come and ask things of the system? And I think immigrants are a group of people who get really hit with that, but it's not only restricted to immigration. I think the way that welfare policy has developed, particularly in the last decade, has been increasingly dominated by this attitude that if you're asking something of the state, then you're sort of already at fault. And I think that that's something that has developed in the wake of austerity policies, this kind of rolling back of the welfare state, which has required this big ideological push that it's somehow wrong and shameful to be asking state support in one way or another.

[00:37:21] But I think it's also to do with wider social attitudes towards immigration in Britain, which are actually really complex. It's not a case of just there being this overwhelming hostility. Particularly in recent years, immigration as a political issue in the polling that's done has really dropped down the agenda. I mean, in terms of public attitudes, now seems to be a time when people have got more open and welcoming attitudes to immigration in the UK than ever before, perhaps because for those people inclined towards hostility, they feel that Brexit has achieved what they wanted at least for now.

[00:37:55] But then that seems to have had no knock-on effect to the way that the institutions work. There's still this belief that you have to just be as tough as possible and as hostile as possible. And I mean, yeah, this isn't really something I had space to go into in the piece, but I think there's something psychological about that, that goes beyond the reach of everyday politics. It's a question that people in Britain really need to be asking one another: how have we managed to get into this situation where even... it's almost, the bit that interests me the most, it's not where someone has got a hostile attitude to immigration personally, but it's going back to that Jacqui Smith quote that you rose. I think there's this real cultural thing, particularly people in public positions in Britain, it's like: "well, I don't think this! You and I, we're liberal, we're tolerant, but you know, there's people out there who don't like it and we need to behave in a certain way to keep them happy." Which I just think that's, that's a kind of massive national neurosis.

[00:38:55] And it's, I don't know, there's so many other things tied up in that. It's to do with Britain being a very elitist country, but wanting to think that it isn't, and the way that the elites relate to the general population, and the preconceived ideas they have about the general population, and who has access to power and so on... Good luck untangling all of that, I guess.

[00:39:17] Isabelle Roughol: [00:39:17] Yeah, we probably don't have the space in this episode to do Britain's therapy, but it's a good place to, to end on, I think, if not a, if not a completely hopeful one. Thank you so much. This was really interesting.

[00:39:30] Daniel Trilling: [00:39:30] Oh, you're welcome. Thank you.

Outro

[00:39:32] Isabelle Roughol: [00:39:34] Thank you to Daniel Trilling for his time, his expertise and his wonderful reporting.

[00:39:39] If you enjoyed this conversation, please go to borderlinepod.com, sign up for the newsletter and check out all the other content I have about what's going on at the Home Office and broader conversations about living a global life, about immigration, foreign affairs, all these nerdy things that I love, and that are part of our lives as global citizens.

[00:40:00] You can also sign up for the newsletter and make sure that you don't miss a single thing and you can choose to support Borderline. This is a hundred percent supported by readers and listeners. I do this pretty much full-time and for no money. So if you appreciate this work and want to see it continue, please consider becoming a member. I hang out with members once a week. There's a call on Wednesday where we all get to share our stories and you can ask any questions about the podcast. You also receive a longer version of this podcast. This very conversation, for instance, is available in full, uncut, unedited, about 50 minutes long for members of Borderline.

[00:40:43] So that's it. That's my pitch. Please go to borderlinepod.com and consider subscribing. And in any case, sign up for the newsletter, that's free and that helps us stay in touch.

[00:40:53] That's it for this week. This podcast is going biweekly. It allows me more time to keep a really high bar on the quality of the podcast, but also to create more content for the site, for the newsletter to write more, which as much as I love podcasting, is my first love. And so you'll see a lot more at borderlinepod.com, another reason to sign up for the newsletter and to check the website. So I'll talk to you on this podcast in two weeks... unless I change my mind and I just really want to talk to you sooner.

[00:41:20] I'm your host, Isabelle Roughol. Music is by Ofshane. Borderline is a One Lane Bridge production.

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Isabelle Roughol

Journalist. Founder & host of Borderline. Former international editor of LinkedIn, foreign editor at Le Figaro, reporter at The Cambodia Daily. Global soul, messy accent.


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