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Abolish the Home Office? Scattered extra thoughts

I've written something for the blog at work about whether abolishing the Home Office would be a useful step in reforming Britain's disgraceful immigration policy. Take a look here.
If we had seen years of increasingly liberal Home Secretaries unable to stop the tide of outrageous and cruel actions in the Home Office, we could say with confidence that the bureaucratic culture was the culprit. What we’ve actually seen is the opposite: years of draconian Home Secretaries, deliberately tightening immigration policy for political ends. Without a seachange in the attitudes of politicians, reshuffling the responsibilities of the Home Office isn’t likely to achieve much.
Here are a few additional thoughts I didn't put in, either because they're slightly off-topic or because they're very much personal views not those of the organisation.

1. The British slogan, obviously, was inspired by the American 'abolish ICE', which had basically the same genesis as a way of tying together the accumulating mass of horrifying stories of overreach from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. There are big differences between the demands: ICE has a much more specific function than the Home Office, for example, which gives calls for abolition a different character. But I think the most interesting is that blaming agency culture - which in the Home Office case skips over much more important political failings - is pretty well justified. In the last years of the Obama administration, policy towards undocumented immigrants began to soften. But there were still ICE horror stories, and the employees through their union complained vociferously that the changes were stopping them doing their jobs (as they saw them.) In 2016 the ICE union endorsed Donald Trump for president and launched a largely nonsensical critique of Hillary Clinton's immigration policy as an 'amnesty' that would cost thousands of lives. Particularly for an agency that has existed for less than 20 years, before which it was part of a broader department that facilitated and welcomed immigration as well as managing border enforcement, that is striking - and the kind of thing, I think, that makes it plausible to attribute extensive blame to the agency's culture.

2. Is this kind of hair-splitting? Even if the civil service culture is not the main culprit, a reorganisation could provide a useful opportunity for a reset. Why not do it, if only for that opportunity and for symbolic value? For one thing, governmental reorganisation is stupidly expensive - there are figures in the Institute for Government report linked in the original post - so it's probably better to avoid absent a strong positive justification. But more importantly...

3. This is the kind of slogan intensely vulnerable to co-option, which makes me nervous about putting it at the centre of a push for change in immigration policy. Returning to the US, 'abolish ICE' now has a very large range of different meanings. When it was first written about (at least in elite circles) the demand was seen, roughly, as a forceful way of putting the point that the specific agency was out of control and enforcement needed to be rethought and managed elsewhere. But one of the phrase's main popularisers was, before long, pairing 'abolish ICE' with 'abolish CBP', which amounts to an ultra-radical demand for open borders.

That  - or at least the abolition of interior enforcement - seems to be what lots of Online people take the phrase to mean. But several Democratic 2020 candidates have now called for ICE abolition, by which they clearly do not mean much more than a reorganisation.

None of this is nefarious, exactly, but as the slogan gets wider traction it opens a space where politicians could position themselves as having a positive pro-migrant message, without committing to much concrete. The Lib Dem policy paper which suggests splitting up the Home Office immigration functions also includes several measures that would tighten enforcement. By modern British standards it's a pretty liberal document, but its specific proposals do not look like a radical step towards less harsh enforcement of immigration rules. 'Abolish the Home Office' runs the risk of giving them credit they don't deserve. Likewise it's easy to imagine the Labour Party, even with its current leadership, pairing its plan to close two specific detention centres with a Home Office abolition proposal and painting a quite misleading picture of radical change.

4. There is a lot of scope for specific demands here that have greater ambition than the call for a restructure. The point of my scepticism is not that abolishing the Home Office is utopian and we should take only gradual steps. There's a now-well-developed movement for a 28-day time limit on immigration detention, but there's plenty of good arguments - good not just in being intellectually rigorous, but I think actually capable of persuading MPs - for doing away with detention altogether. Automatic deportation for non-British criminals is a cruel and blatantly unreasonable policy. More of a reach, I've written previously about why I think getting rid of most interior immigration enforcement is not an unimaginable demand. I'm sure the people who are writing about Home Office abolition would support all of these things, but that's almost the point - using the slogan as a shorthand for radical specifics is tricky when it will be interpreted by politicians in a quite different way.

5. One of the pieces that got me thinking about this was Julia and Joe in the Social Review. I thought I would just flag that their argument is broader - looking also at the Home Office's other functions - and that it focuses a fair bit on what is effectively abolishing the Home Secretary. That is an interesting, slightly different way of looking at this - that the problem lies in forcing one minister to oversee security and policing, who isn't going to turn around and take an unusually liberal approach to immigration. I remain mostly unconvinced because the experience of countries with dedicated immigration ministries - even when they are also the department responsible for the 'softer' multiculturalism, citizenship and integration-type functions - suggests that you often just get a security-minded hawk of a minister anyway. (Australia is the clearest example.) Of course you do sometimes get liberal politicians in that kind of post. But that happens, as with Canada's current minister, when the government is committed to pro-migrant attitudes more broadly - and if Britain had that, as the original post argues, I don't think we have much evidence that the institutional arrangements of the Home Office would still be a constraint.