19 October 2022

Too big to fail? Why it’s time to think about splitting up the Home Office


Suella Braverman’s comments about Indian migrants overstaying their visas may have riled Indian officials enough to undermine a potential UK-India trade deal.

That would be a great pity. As I wrote for this site back in January, an agreement with India has huge potential for both countries in terms of driving economic growth. (Nor, contrary to what some would have you believe, would it involve anything even approaching ‘free movement’ with India.) 

The Home Secretary’s remarks, however, were just the tip of a very deep iceberg when it comes to problems created by the Home Office. As someone who worked on trade deals for the government I saw that before any negotiations were launched the Home Office would always raise issues around immigration, meaning that the deals were not as ambitious as they could have been. The deal with Australia, signed last December, was almost delayed precisely because of such concerns – something which risked causing real embarrassment on the UK side.

Given that having an independent trade policy is seen by the Government as one of the benefits of Brexit, it’s galling to see our own officials acting as a barrier to the ambition of creating a truly Global Britain.

There’s a deeper problem in terms of the department’s attitude to immigration. Because the Home Office is also tasked with law enforcement, it too often treats potential newcomers with suspicion and outright hostility. Given that the UK’s labour force is crying out for more workers, and that immigration is an obvious way to fill those gaps, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the Home Office is helping to hold back growth.

In her defence, the Prime Minister has been clear that she is open to liberalising the immigration system to deliver the growth the country so urgently needs. Nor is it true to say the public is overwhelmingly hostile to new arrivals. As Sunder Katwala pointed out on CapX last week, voters are very comfortable with people coming here to work, particularly in areas such as the NHS. It would be quite wrong to conflate hostility to illegal immigration – and the criminal gangs trafficking people across the Channel – with some kind of deep-seated hostility to foreigners.

If only that subtlelty of approach were shared by the Home Office itself, which has an extraordinarily chequered record of both wrongly denying people entry to the UK and deporting people who have a legal right to be here, something that was epitomised in the Windrush scandal. Then there’s the separate but related issue of the eyewatering fees we charge people both for visas and to become fully resident in the UK – including almost £2,300 for non-British dependants of members of our own Armed Forces.

It’s not just immigration either. The Home Office also pushes for counter-productive, regressive policies in other areas. Take cannabis, for example. In the same week when the US announced it was changing its classification and pardoning thousands of people for federal offences, the Home Secretary was suggesting that cannabis should be reclassified as a Class A drug. It’s hard to see how doubling down on the existing failed approach to drug enforcement, criminalising even more people in the process, would do anything to make Britain a safer, more prosperous society. 

There is, I believe, a powerful argument for doing away with the Home Office in its current, oversized incarnation and hiving off some of its functions to other departments. The department is simply too large, with the Home Secretary’s job encompassing so many different areas that one person couldn’t possibly hope to stay on top of the entire brief. And such a move is hardly without precedent, given that the department was already split during the New Labour era, when the Ministry of Justice was established. In the same spirit, both law enforcement and the wider economy would be better served by a dedicated Ministry for Immigration, tasked with managing our post-Brexit migration policy so that it both addresses public concerns and ensures we have the people we need to get the economy growing.

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Ben Ramanauskas is a research economist at Oxford University.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.