May’s immigration policy seen as ‘almost reminiscent of Nazi Germany’
Comments from ex-civil service chief Sir Bob Kerslake increase pressure on PM as row over Windrush-era citizens continues
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.
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.
But the environment secretary, Michael Gove, who was education secretary for some of the time and would have been involved in aspects of the policy, dismissed the claim.
Ive never heard anyone make that comparison before Lord Kerslake. Its not for me to criticise a distinguished former public servant like Lord Kerslake but I respectfully disagree.
He added that after the Brexit vote, people felt able to be compassionate because countries that could control their borders were able to be more generous.
I think we can see in the national conversation that we have had about the Windrush generation that people are so glad that this country has had a tradition of welcoming people from abroad.
Goves remarks came as the prime minister prepared to address the opening session of the Commonwealth heads of government meeting (Chogm) on Thursday afternoon. At the gathering, the Queen will meet the heads of government of the Caribbean countries, some of whose former citizens lives have been blighted by the chaos over immigration documentation.
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. Its a culture from the top, and it has been a bit rich for the home secretary, Amber Rudd, to blame civil servants. When youve had a Conservative home secretary that long, you cannot moan when civil servants deliver those policies.
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.
Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, warned that the impact of the way people who had settled in the UK years ago could have their rights challenged could jeopardise negotiations over future rights of EU citizens.
He said the concern is that if your approach to immigration is to create a hostile environment that might flow into any post-Brexit relations with the EU and that would be a really bad way forward and it is time for the prime minister to be clear about that, he said on BBC Radio 4s Today programme.
Gove went out of his way to stress Britains open approach to migration and to praise Amber Rudds handling of the affair. He said her apology had been graceful and a model, and insisted she had taken a grip.
Mackenzie claims that Mays 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 dont have an identity management system.
This loss, Smith told the Today programme, was at the heart of problems with the hostile environment strategy.
In summary, you need an identity management strategy if you are going to have a hostile environment. You cant 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, didnt we? We did start issuing biometric residence permits to newcomers in 2008 but we didnt 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 that allowed them to 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 couldnt 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. Its about being able to talk to people sensibly with a degree of knowledge or expertise and come to a sensible conclusion.