May's immigration policy seen as 'almost reminiscent of Nazi Germany'

The hostile immigration environment Theresa May set out to create when she was at the Home Office was regarded by some ministers as “almost reminiscent of Nazi Germany” in the way it is working, the former head of the civil service, Lord Kerslake, has said.

Who are the Windrush generation?

They are people who arrived in the UK after the second world war from Caribbean countries at the invitation of the British government. The first group arrived on the ship MV Empire Windrush in June 1948.

What is happening to them?

An estimated 50,000 people face the risk of deportation if they never formalised their residency status and do not have the required documentation to prove it. 

Why is this happening now?

It stems from a policy, set out by Theresa May when she was home secretary, to make the UK ‘a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants‘. It requires employers, NHS staff, private landlords and other bodies to demand evidence of people’s citizenship or immigration status.

Why do they not have the correct paperwork and status?

Some children, often travelling on their parents’ passports, were never formally naturalised and many moved to the UK before the countries in which they were born became independent, so they assumed they were British. In some cases, they did not apply for passports. The Home Office did not keep a record of people entering the country and granted leave to remain, which was conferred on anyone living continuously in the country since before 1 January 1973.

What is the government doing to resolve the problem?

On Monday, the home secretary Amber Rudd announced the creation of a new Home Office team dedicated to ensuring that Commonwealth-born long-term UK residents would no longer find themselves classified as being in the UK illegally.

Photograph: Douglas Miller/Hulton Archive

Kerslake, who was speaking on BBC Newsnight, was the senior official at the Department for Communities and Local Government until 2014, a job that put him at the heart of Whitehall. He was commenting on the decision to scrap thousands of landing cards that was taken in 2010, which he insisted would have been referred to ministers.

The latest development in a highly damaging row comes as the prime minister prepares to address the opening session of the Commonwealth on Thursday afternoon. In the gathering with the Queen there will be the heads of government of the Caribbean countries, some of whose former citizens’ lives have been blighted by the chaos over documentation that immigration officials now demand.

Kerslake came to Whitehall from a highly successful career in local government, and rose rapidly to the top. But he later fell out with the Cameron administration. For two years from 2012 he was joint head of the civil service, sharing the running of Whitehall with Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, before departing abruptly after two years.

The job was then reunited under Heywood, in what was widely regarded as a political move.

Permanent secretaries like Kerslake meet every week to discuss and coordinate government business, and he would have been very familiar with problems in other departments.

Former Liberal Democrat ministers in the coalition and some special advisers have been speaking out about their fight to try to soften the policy.

Sarah Teather, who was minister for children and families, revealed in 2013 that an internal working group on immigration was initially named the “hostile environment working group, with its name only changed following Lib Dem objections.

Teather, who is now the director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, said: “Theresa May was determined to transform things. She was proud of wanting to generate a really hostile environment.

“The Home Office has a culture of enforcement and disbelief which runs deep into the walls, but it is politically led. It’s a culture from the top, and it has been a bit rich for the home secretary, Amber Rudd, to blame civil servants. When you’ve had a Conservative home secretary that long, you cannot moan when civil servants deliver those policies.”

And a Lib Dem special adviser at the time, Polly Mackenzie, tweeted on Tuesday night that the “hostile environment” mission started with an inter-ministerial group set up on “migrant access to benefits and public services”.

Mackenzie claims that May’s mission was to make it systematically difficult to get by without papers, even though the Home Office had no firm evidence of the scale of the alleged abuse.

Work checks, school registration, hospital and GP appointments, bank accounts and credit were all among the everyday activities where proof of status could be required.

“I saw endless papers claiming the system was ‘unsustainable in the current economic climate’ but no evidence to back it up,” she tweeted.

A former head of the UK border force said on Thursday that something had gone “badly wrong” at the Home Office with the loss of experience and knowledge of immigration as a result of departmental reorganisations.

“Corporate memory and expertise has been lost with the abolition of the immigration service and subsequently the abolition of the UK Border Agency now as well,” said Tony Smith, a veteran official in immigration enforcement who was the interim director general of the UK Border Force between 2012 and 2013.

“A lot of people were let go who had that experience and we have tried to codify all that experience on the basis of documents that people may or may not have, and we don’t have an identity management system.”

This loss, Smith told the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, was at the heart of problems with the hostile environment strategy.

“In summary you need an identity management strategy if you are gong to have a hostile environment. You can’t have one without the other,” he said.

He said: “We did not back the hostile environment with an identify management strategy. We thought about identity cards, didn’t we? We did start issuing biometric residence permits to newcomers in 2008 but we didn’t offer those to people who were already here, like a green card system in the US.”

Smith mourned changes to the traditional culture among officials working in immigration, who followed a career path which saw them accumulate expertise at home and abroad in various roles.

“I was called out regularly to police stations to talk to people who had been arrested for something or other and the police couldn’t tell whether they were allowed to be here or not. We were allowed to take pragmatic decisions based on what they told us – whether or not an enforcement decision could be taken.”

Smith described the controversy over the destruction of landing cards recording the dates of arrival in Britain of members of the so-called Windrush generation as a red herring, saying that there would have been other ways to carry out necessary checks.

He added: “All this blame culture about whether or not these landing cards would have made a difference is a complete red herring to me. It’s about being able to talk to people sensibly with a degree of knowledge or expertise and come to a sensible conclusion.”

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