The only way around the Home Office’s cruelty is to get your story in the news

Cutting. Bureaucratic systems can fail common sense:

There are eight words in the English language that, read together, trigger a unique combination of fury, despair and laughter familiar to anybody with experience of the UK border and its gatekeepers at the Home Office: “Each application is considered on its individual merits.”

Like a caterer talking about its commitment to hygiene the day after a front-page splash about some photogenic couple’s wedding-day E coli disaster, you usually only find these words stuck to the end of a press release in which the Home Office is admitting that it’s been caught out, having not done its job very well. Instead, it has upended somebody’s life for no good reason, ignoring or misjudging the facts of their case or the basic requirements of the law, bowing to the political goal of saying no wherever possible. And now, after an intervention from the press has drawn attention to somebody’s shocking mistreatment, the Home Office has miraculously conceded.

We have all read the stories. In the past few weeks alone, we’ve read about the academic who was told her children couldn’t live here with her. The NHS doctor threatened with removal because of a small mistake on her application form. The singer told to leave the countrydespite being born here. Each decision lacked basic common sense and respect for the individual. Each and every one was overturned after it hit the headlines.

It’s a great outcome for those who are able to get their story in front of a journalist, but I worry every day about the thousands of people who have the same right to justice but will never have that kind of luck. People who don’t have the wherewithal or the networks to demand justice. Or those who are vulnerable and therefore fearful of media attention. People forced to submit to the whims of a system that has been designed to break them. No system can ever be considered fair if your access to justice within it is based on your ability to win a popularity contest.

And despite mounting evidence that the department responsible for the Windrush scandal needs to be rebuilt from the ground up, this well-documented sticking-plaster strategy of quickly responding to high-profile cases serves to shield the Home Office from the kind of scrutiny that will lead to deeper reforms; reforms that have been called for in the leaked Windrush Lessons Learned review that the government is yet to publish. Reforms that even the staff of the Home Office believe are necessary for the system to be able to genuinely respond to and respect the merits and dignity of every applicant. But the fish rots from the head. And as long as it is politically convenient to mistreat those who were not born here, one of the great offices of state will remain synonymous with scandal and cruelty.

So, in this particular episode of Black Mirror, if you are one of the thousands of people unlucky enough to be served with a poorly worded rejection letter on the basis of what you are certain is an incorrect decision, unless you can get your story to go viral within 28 days, your journey to justice will be long and fraught. It doesn’t matter if the decision maker has made clear and obvious mistakes, such as telling you that Iran is a safe place for a lesbian to live or that you aren’t in a genuine relationship with the father of your children. Your only way out of this bureaucratic nightmare now is to tunnel your way through it by hand. You must file an appeal within 28 days. And with no legal aid available for most immigration cases, you either have to do this on your own or find a way to shell out for a lawyer to protect you from an army of suits on the government’s payroll. This is after paying thousands in Home Office fees for the pleasure of having your application thrown on a pile for weeks before being rejected in error.

The average wait for an appeal to be heard is now at least a year. And that period of limbo, during which your rights are limited while you wait for a judge to decide your fate can be incredibly painful. It is not uncommon for people to be driven deep into depression. Just like the tens of thousands forced to undergo personal independence payment assessments, or appealing against flawed welfare decisions, it’s dehumanising by design, the hope being that you will simply give up. It’s why so many members of the Windrush generation had, so tragically, given up altogether, hounded into submission or “self-deportation”.

Ultimately, in most cases that do make it to appeal, courts find that the Home Office was wrong. That equates to months and years of unnecessary suffering that could have so easily been avoided if the Home Office just committed to making quick, fair and correct decisions the first time around. There’s no publicly available data on how much money the Home Office spends defending decisions it knows are flawed but it is likely in the tens of millions of pounds. That’s money that could be spent on training and support for Home Office decision makers and caseworkers, or on legal aid.

For every person who manages to make it through the appeals process, there are many more who can’t afford it and give up, leaving an unwelcoming Britain behind, or staying here and becoming undocumented because, whatever the law says, they equally cannot be expected to leave their families and their homes. We see the cost of this ever-growing scandal every day, in lost lives and lost potential, and in the acceptance that it’s OK to treat people like this. And with the rollout of artificial intelligence and racial profiling algorithms into decisions that must, by their nature, be focused on the complexities of the human, this crisis will only get worse.

A lot will be said about immigration in this election campaign: about points-based this and Australian-style that. But a year and a half after the lid was blown on the Windrush scandal, the “hostile environment” policy and the deep failings of the Home Office, no party and no candidate should be allowed to get away without answering the question: how are we going to fix this? How are we going to ensure that justice is afforded to everybody, not just those who catch the spotlight?

Source: The only way around the Home Office’s cruelty is to get your story in the news

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

One Response to The only way around the Home Office’s cruelty is to get your story in the news

  1. Robert Addington says:

    H.M. Home Office is unfit for purpose. As Amelia Gentleman of the Guardian (a sister-in-law of Boris Johnson) has shown in her recently published book, the Home Office’s treatment of the Windrush people is a toxic mix of incompetence, cruelty and institutional racism.

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