By Sunder Katwala
Director, British Future
IF THE Home Office “does not make decisions based on evidence, it instead risks making them on anecdote, assumption and prejudice”.
That is the damning verdict of a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report last week, which found the department has ‘no idea’ what impact its enforcement activities have.
Whatever else people may disagree about on immigration, low trust in the competence of government to deliver spans all perspectives. The National Conversation on Immigration, conducted by British Future and Hope not Hate, found that just 15 per cent thought the government has handled immigration competently and fairly.
‘Control versus compassion’ can seem to be the theme of political and media debates about immigration. Yet, for the public, these are values that need to be combined. Most people are balancers on immigration – wanting to manage its pressures so as to secure its gains. The expectation is that control, contribution and compassion can be brought together in an effective and humane system, fair to those who come to contribute to Britain and to communities that they join.
The four years since the 2016 EU referendum – in which immigration attitudes have become more positive – have made it clear where the future common ground can be found. Yet the 2021 challenge is to move from principles to delivery across several fronts at once.
The PAC report does set out the scale of the Home Office’s imminent challenges – the delivery of a new post-Brexit immigration system for beyond the transition period; the June 2021 deadline for EU nationals to register on the EU settlement scheme; and the need to negotiate new security arrangements.
At home, the Home Office’s acceptance of Wendy Williams’ post-Windrush review recommendations commit the department to a major overhaul of its internal culture and external engagement. Yet it also plans new asylum legislation, picking a fight with ‘activist lawyers’ that could clash with its post-Windrush commitment to see the person behind the case.
If the PAC report is strong on critiques of past failures and identifying challenges ahead, it is weaker on how the department might solve them. Its focus on new targets may underestimate the scale of cultural change needed to become the ‘data-driven’ department it envisages.
However, the Home Office can shift its culture when it chooses. The EU Settled Status scheme – the largest administrative task in the department’s history – has registered nearly three million people. It is the best modern example of the Home Office showing it can combine competence and compassion. In creating new systems for this task, the policy would be to actively assist applicants in securing their status, in contrast to the ‘culture of disbelief’ perceived by many of those engaging with the Home Office.
Yet, even here, the legacy of past performance makes it impossible to know if the job is complete. The Home Office did not know how many EU citizens were in Britain when it began the scheme. The process of registration has not collected demographic data. A significant number of people could lose their legal status, yet the government will not know who or how many.
The PAC report calls for the government to produce an updated estimate of the undocumented population, last done in 2004, so as to dissuade others from offering higher estimates. That seems implausible. An official exercise would incentivise such efforts, while having to acknowledge the inherent uncertainties of trying to count those who are, effectively, uncountable.
Nor is it clear what difference producing a new total estimate would make to future policy. Whoever is in power, Home Office ministers put out tough media and political messages on illegal immigration. Yet the 7,400 removals in 2019 were the lowest on record for 15 years. No minister or official has ever believed the government will have the information, capacity or resources to remove everyone without status.
Prime minister Boris Johnson has been a long-standing supporter, since he was mayor of London, of a so-called ‘amnesty’ for long-term residents without the right papers. The political risks involved mean this is on the back burner. The government could also embark on a review and simplification of existing routes to regularisation to develop a practicable policy.
Without that, producing a new headline number would just highlight the scale of an issue to which the government does not yet have any answers.