When the UK wanted to roll out a welcome mat for highly skilled foreign workers in 2002, it was quickly decided that the existing visas and immigration headquarters in Croydon, south London, was not the best place to deal with applicants.
There was a feeling, according to several people involved, that the culture at Croydon encouraged immigration officers to catch people out and reject applications if possible.
This was not the signal the UK wanted to send, so the new programme was set up in Sheffield instead.
Nick Pearce, a former special adviser to David Blunkett, the home secretary at the time, said the move was designed to remind immigration officers that their mindset should not be “just about control”.
The episode is just one illustration of how the Home Office has become antagonistic and sceptical of the rights of immigrants to the UK, against a background of public pressure to deal with the numbers of people arriving in the country.
From the mid 1990s, immigration into the UK, both from the EU and the rest of the world, has risen rapidly and the Home Office has been overwhelmed by the asylum, citizenship and immigration applications it has to process.
The consequences were clear this week, as it emerged that the Home Office had threatened to deport large numbers of longstanding British residents from the Caribbean, a group known as the “Windrush generation”.
As many as 50,000 people from this group, who came to the UK between the late 1940s and the early 1970s, have never obtained formal documents, leaving them a target of a new approach introduced by Theresa May when she was at the Home Office that sought to introduce a “hostile environment” for undocumented migrants.
One official who was at the Home Office when it first had to deal with a surge in political asylum applications in the late 1990s blamed the culture partly on the pressure on officials to spot bogus applicants.
“If you’re sitting at an immigration desk day in day out, your job is to find people who you think are trying to deceive you,” the former official, who like most involved asked not to be named, said. “That cannot fail to have an impact eventually on your world outlook.”
The culture grew especially harsh, former officials said, during Mrs May’s time as home secretary from 2010 to 2016. Mrs May and her top advisers, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, sought to respond to political pressure for more rigorous control over immigration and to avoid the political disasters that had befallen previous home secretaries.
“They did see enemies everywhere and people were very afraid of stepping out of line and a number of officials were ousted,” one figure who was in a senior Whitehall position at the time recalled. “The turnover rate was very quick at the top.”
But while all those involved deplored the harshness that has led to the mistreatment of the Windrush generation, many veteran officials expressed understanding of the pressures that shaped the approach of the Home Office.
Mr Pearce, now professor of public policy at the University of Bath, said the UK until recent years carried out nearly all its immigration control at its borders. Traditional levels of immigration required little of the large-scale processing of asylum and immigration claims after entry that has become necessary in recent decades.
“A lot of what has happened has been about the Home Office just trying to get the cases right in conditions where they have tried to do more and more,” he said.
He blamed the “hostile environment” policy — under which employers, the health service and landlords are all obliged to check people’s immigration status — partly on an effort to shift the burden of policing immigration.
“One part of the hostile environment is you’re trying to push costs out of the Home Office because its own budgets are being cut,” he said.
Day to day spending at the Home Office fell by nearly a fifth between 2010 and the 2016-17 financial year, with more cuts to come, according to the Institute for Government think-tank.
The problems have been exacerbated, according to a former Home Office official, because civil servants have grown fearful of using their discretion. Mrs May in 2011 forced Brodie Clark, head of the UK border force, to resign after he relaxed passport checks to deal with queues of up to three hours at Britain’s airports.
“If you were a junior official at the Home Office, you could see what happened if you did not apply the rules to the letter,” the civil servant said. “You got sacked.”
The key question for the Home Office is whether officials can change. Amber Rudd, home secretary, called for such a shift in parliament on Monday when she said the department’s culture sometimes lost sight of the individual.
The 1990s official suggested such political leaders’ stances could produce change. Attitudes hardened, he pointed out, when Mrs May was using tough anti-immigration rhetoric.
“In any culture, you have people who are vulnerable to behaving badly,” the former official said. “The messages you send from the very top either give those people heart or discourage them.”
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