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No job in government has its path so strewn with banana skins as that of Home Secretary. A missing criminal, slippery detainee or foreign terrorist can end a ministerial career. And with tens of thousands of people going in and out of the country daily it can happen at any moment. The Home Office has become the department where political careers go to die. There is a reason for this. As John Reid famously said of the Home Office’s immigration operation, it is quite simply ‘not fit for purpose’. Five years on from that bleak assessment, the situation has not improved.
A case this summer highlighted the problem. In June the Home Secretary barred the Israeli-born Palestinian cleric Raed Salah from entering the UK, deeming his presence ‘not conducive to the public good’. But the speaking tour that Salah intended to conduct began on schedule. He had landed at Heathrow and passed without a hitch through Customs and Immigration. The Home Secretary was understandably livid. If someone who the minister herself has banned can still enter the country, then clearly there are serious flaws in the system. Indeed a subsequent official inquiry found that UK border officials had missed no fewer than six separate opportunities to turn Salah away.The fact that the UK’s borders are horribly porous was obvious long before this week.
Anyone who lands at a British airport can see the problem. The queues for passport control are massive. Theresa May was right to worry about them: for a country such as Britain, whose economic model depends on its status as a global hub, the system is an embarrassing and unnecessary deterrent to visiting businessmen. Posters blame the queues on tighter border restrictions. But it is obvious to everyone waiting that only about a third of the desks in border control are staffed. This is not,
as our immigration bureaucrats keep saying, a matter of technology. It is a matter of basic competence.
Of course this week’s revelations are worrying. Apparently, officials dealt with the queue problem by waving people through, rather than increasing the number of staff. But to watch Yvette Cooper, May’s opposite number on the Labour benches, was to observe political opportunism at its most hollow. And not just because it was under Cooper’s party that immigration doubled and the existing problems in the Home Office metastasised. It is plain that the problem is bigger
Successive governments have wanted better border control but have been unwilling to pay for it than one minister. The first step to fixing real, systemic failures is to admit to them.
In opposition Theresa May was criticised for being uninspiring: just a safe pair of hands; the opposite of what was needed for her then job, reforming welfare. But in the position of Home Secretary, her skills have proved apt. She managed 18 months without a major disaster in this most dysfunctional of departments, which must be a record. She has had to implement sharp cuts, as ministers hit the Home Office in order to protect the political sacred cows of health and foreign aid. She has done so with resolve and professionalism. She understandably made enemies in the agencies being downsized, which is why they are now out to get her. The last thing the Home Office needs now is another change of leadership. The only way that the UK border agency will be made to work is with calm, effective management.
But the task is being made tougher than it needs to be. Britain has a problem patrolling its borders, yet last year the Border Agency,
the spectator | 12 November 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk facing cuts of £200 million, reduced its staff by around 1,900. A further £600 million of cuts are scheduled. Even in the spending bonanza of the Labour years, the Home Office was neglected. Successive governments have wanted better border control but have been unwilling to pay for it.
The problem here is not whether Britain needs to cut state spending: we do, and at a faster rate than at present. The problem is where the axe falls. Osborne’s spending review ought to have been conducted according to need, not as a piece of political manoeuvring. The Department of Health, for example, was force-fed cash like a foie gras goose over the Labour years: is it really the only department from which savings could not be found? It spends more in a month than the Home Office does in a year. And yet, for mainly political reasons, it has been protected.
When May said that she did not know how many terrorists were let into Britain, she was pilloried. The truth is that no recent Home Secretary has known — May is merely the first to admit it. But honesty is a dangerous policy in politics. It is depressing to find anonymous Tory sources briefing against her this week. If there is one problem which continues to bedevil the Home Office in general, and the UK Border Agency in particular, it is the inability to match political intentions with outcomes. The Prime Minister may talk of halving Britain’s net migration — a laughably unachievable target — but unless you have the wherewithal to do it, this will remain just another promise that is impossible to fulfil. If you want a robust border agency, you need to pay for it. This is not about cuts, but a failure to match promises with resources. May has been upfront about the situation. It is high time that she is given the support she needs to fix it.