The Home Office is flying blind in the Ukrainian refugee crisis, pretending as usual that there is no real problem

10 Mar

What is wrong with the Home Office? Its treatment of Ukrainian refugees seeking entry to this country has so far been shamefully incompetent.

Before answering the question, it is worth reporting what a minister in another department this week told ConHome. He questioned why Ukrainian refugees have to have visas at all, and defended the Home Office vigorously on that point.

The main cause of the blockage is, he implied, higher up, in Downing Street, where the unduly restrictive and complicated policy on Ukrainian refugees was decided.

Certainly the Home Office is not a department which can be relied on to do anything complicated in a hurry. When ConHome remarked yesterday afternoon to a former Home Office insider, “It must be a bit of a nightmare being a Home Office minister at the moment,” he replied:

“It’s normally a nightmare and that’s why it’s so interesting.”

On the failure to get on top of the refugee crisis he said:

“The Home Office sets up systems to perform tasks and unless ministers grip it, it leaves those systems in place and tweaks them. But in this crisis you need to do something completely different.

“Women and children are fleeing in fear of their lives. We should assume innocence and not guilt. We should bring them here and do the biometrics once they’re here.”

There is a culture within the department of not telling ministers when things are going wrong. This makes it impossible to take corrective action until some failure becomes headline news.

A former Treasury official told ConHome:

“The Home Office bears the imprint of a history of administrative failures.  All too often Home Secretaries have carried the can for bureaucratic errors they could not possibly have been aware of.  As a result, it is defensive, insular and resistant to change.” 

The appointment on Tuesday of Richard Harrington as Minister for Refugees, working for the Department for Levelling Up as well as the Home Office, suggests a well-founded lack of confidence in the latter department, and indeed is humiliating for the ministers already there.

On Wednesday morning, Harrington was seen having breakfast with Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up.

An adviser who until recently worked in the Home Office agreed that its ministers are at present quite unable to exercise proper oversight of the department’s multifarious responsibilities. There is almost no oversight of the security services, while the police are expert lobbyists who run rings round civil servants in their mid to late twenties.

This adviser said the department is so overtaxed by its present responsibilities that it ought to be split in two. One department would deal with national security and policing, while the other would concentrate on borders and immigration.

That proposal was discussed by policy advisers in Downing Street before the last general election, but came nowhere near being included in the manifesto.

Sir Oliver Letwin, who from 2010-16 was deputed by David Cameron to sort out some of the most intractable problems facing the Government, has written in his book Hearts and Minds about the extraordinary difficulty for ministers of finding out what was actually going on:

“The dreadful truth was that the government machine as a whole had remarkably little accurate real-time information about its own activities…

“You could find out what had gone right or wrong a couple of years ago; but you couldn’t find out what was happening now.”

This meant that when things went wrong, ministers and officials “were all too often flying blind”. He gives as an instance the Passport Agency, where after a long period of running pretty smoothly, some applicants found themselves waiting a long time for their passports, so complained to their MPs.

The Passport Agency denied anything was wrong. They said they were very close to meeting their target for processing passports, and had the figures to prove it.

An investigation by the Implementation Unit from the Cabinet Office found that each day, a few passports were put in a “to do later” pile, which grew and grew, while the rest of the passports were processed within the target time, so it seemed the Agency was doing pretty well – except to the owners of the passports which were stuck in the “to do later” pile, who complained bitterly.

Until the problem was admitted, it was insoluble. Once it was admitted, it could be solved pretty easily, by hiring extra staff with the skills and the computer terminals needed to clear the backlog.

It seems clear that in the present refugee crisis, neither the Prime Minister nor the Home Secretary has been put in full possession of the facts, which means they have uttered assurances in the Commons which are impossible to reconcile with a large volume of anecdotal evidence about the difficulties faced by Ukrainian refugees who are trying to reach Britain.

The adviser quoted above said a “pure Yes Minister” cycle of claim and counter-claim often occurs in the Home Office:

News reports appear about something which has gone wrong.

Officials deny that anything has gone wrong.

The Home Secretary and her special advisers get angry.

Officials at length concede that something has gone wrong, but insist nothing can be done about it.

The Home Secretary and her special advisers get even angrier.

Officials say nothing can be done for legal reasons.

This is plainly not an efficient way to run things. Nor does it encourage gifted officials to want to work in the Home Office.

As in other parts of Whitehall, promotion is more likely to proceed from pretending things are all right, than from telling your superiors about problems which need to be solved.

And as in other parts of Whitehall, there is a shortage of people who have studied STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), and are actually capable of supervising the introduction of, for example, the Digital Services at the Border programme, of which various versions have existed since 2003. Here are a few extracts from the National Audit Office report into this project published in December 2020:

The programme board received reports of resourcing shortages, particularly of technical staff, eight times in 35 months between July 2015 and May 2018, with the Department categorising programme resourcing risk at the highest possible level in July 2019. It struggled with technical delivery…

Until 2019, the Department lacked appropriate oversight, leadership and governance to ensure progress was made and to manage programme risks effectively. Between 2014 and 2019, external reviews and governance boards for the programme identified delivery issues which the Department did not resolve…

The decision to extend the programme’s duration by 36 months to the end of March 2022 added £191 million to the cost of delivering the systems, and the need to keep legacy systems running over this period added a further £145 million, which means that the total cost increase resulting from delayed delivery is £336 million (2019-20 to 2021-22).

The Public Accounts Committee report into the project, published in March 2021, is rather harsher in tone:

The Home Office (the Department) has presided over a litany of failure in nearly 20 years of non-delivery of digital border programmes, with significant delays introducing additional costs to taxpayers, continued dependency on contractors to maintain legacy programmes, and delayed delivery of benefits to Border Force officers, other users and passengers.

The Digital Services at the Border (DSAB) programme is crucial to delivering the Department’s overall objectives for national security at the border to protect the public from terrorism, crime, illegal immigration and trafficking, and is vital for facilitating the legitimate movement of people across the border.

Following the 2011 abandonment of the e-borders programme which it began in 2003 and despite assurances from numerous senior Departmental officials over the years, the Department has now delayed delivery of its original objective of improved information at the border by a further three years, with little demonstrable lesson learning.

The Department failed to respond to or address risks and problems flagged to the programme board earlier in the DSAB programme and false assurances about progress left the Department unable to act on accurate information.

Exactly the problem identified by Letwin: it is easy enough to find out what went wrong in the past, but virtually impossible to find out what is going wrong now.

The Ukrainian refugee problem has come about because the Home Office is flying blind. Instead of deploying substantial numbers of staff at once to the Polish border, to Warsaw, Calais or wherever else they are needed, it pretends even to itself, indeed especially to itself, that the existing meagre capacity, and restricted opening hours, in Warsaw, Paris and Brussels are sufficient, or require only modest reinforcement.

Whenever anything is done, it is too little and too late. This is plainly unfair on traumatised refugees, and on front-line staff who find themselves overwhelmed by the magnitude of their task.

Will the bright light now being shone on departmental incompetence make the slightest difference to the Home Office’s entrenched habit of insisting that problems do not exist, or that if they do exist, nothing much can be done to solve them?