The Windrush debacle – there is no word in English that does justice to its multilayered disastrousness – is some kind of apotheosis of hapless British management. First, there is the whelk-stall political version. As FT commentator Janan Ganesh notes, with its ceaseless ministerial musical chairs and unshakable faith in intellectual generalism, at the highest level the British state is unerringly ‘set up for low-key [sometimes not so low-key] shambles’.
It’s hard not to suspect that the replacement of Amber Rudd at the Home Office by Sajid Javid owes more to opportunism – smart move to have the son of an immigrant in charge of immigration policy – and the fact that, this being his fourth ministerial post in as many years, he is used to switching portfolios at short notice, than any managerial prowess. After all, with less than a year in any one job, how could anyone tell?
So day-to-day continuity is provided by civil servants, a bleakly anonymous policy inherited from previous incumbents – and the uniquely unpleasant culture of the Home Office. You could hardly invent a more favourable recipe for disaster.
It will not have escaped notice that Windrush is yet another in the UK’s unmatched line of grim targets fiascos. As usual, none of the right lessons will be learned. No matter how often it happens, ministers always dismiss the unacceptable consequences of target regimes as surprising one-offs that are the fault of bad apples, bad managers, or bad luck rather than their own management blindness. It’s true that Rudd was unlucky to be be left holding the can – it could easily have been May – when the disaster that was waiting to happen actually occurred. But nothing she has said subsequently suggests she has a clue that the trouble with targets is systemic, or that she did anything to soften the fierce target culture that reigns at her now former department.
Many of the press reports on the saga fulminate about the incompetence of Home Office case workers. Of course the episode is incompetent politically, falling flat on its face in the court of public opinion, which in timely fashion has reasserted ‘British values’ of fair play and tolerance that Whitehall officialdom has casually abandoned. In fact it is much more sinister than that. The ‘hostile environment’ for illegal immigration and a ‘deport first, appeal later’ priority that can make someone illegal for making a minor mistake on a form are the outward features of an immigration policy whose purpose is effectively to find a way of saying ‘no’. To serve this end, incompetence, whether willful or not, is an extremely effective means, and used as such along with inscrutable bureaucracy, arbitrary decision-making, excessively detailed forms and exorbitant fees charged for every form submitted. Since the purpose is to make people give up and go away, the fact that so many of the decisions are ‘wrong’ and overturned later by tribunal is beside the point. Officials have obeyed instructions and said 'no'. We know that some Home Office staff receive bonuses; we don't yet know to what extent they reflect achievement of targets set for enforced expulsions.
Of course, under austerity, saying ‘no’ has become the de facto purpose of many social services and indeed much of the public sector, including the NHS, where protecting budgets has become paramount. When Rudd admitted that a casualty of the Home Office regime was ‘the individual’ and that the process had taken priority she was right, but also stating the bleeding obvious. That was the point. As she should have realised, this is a travesty of management, management used as a force for ill rather than good. For individuals, many of them UK citizens, what they receive from their government is not just ‘no’, but a side helping of indifference to individual circumstance that splits families, destroys livelihoods and leaves others homeless and destitute. It needs hardly saying that the corruption of government is just as deep. In a truly Orwellian inversion, under this reductive regime the Home Office which ought to be the custodian of British values has become its opposite, a purveyor of fear and paranoia worthy of the Stasi, while the DWP now dispenses not welfare but illfare.
Both are simply unworthy of a civilised nation. There must be a serious case for breaking them up and reconstituting them as institutions with a positive purpose in keeping with a country which once had a history of enlightened treatment of migrants.
At least there are three cheering things to come out of the whole sorry Windrush episode. The first is the astonishingly dignified response of the Caribbean leaders to the unfolding revelations. In the face of their restraint, UK ministers’ desperate attempts to find someone to blame simply shrivelled, leaving the government looking even more shifty and contemptible than before. The second was the public outrage at the story, which only strengthened the same effect. The third was the trigger for the furore, in the shape of brave and persistent reporting by the Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman – a vindication of the values of proper journalism at a time when surveillance and restrictive legislation have pushed the UK down to 40th place in current world press freedom rankings – another British value that badly needs reasserting.