Shami Chakrabati: Home Office offers too much politics, not enough policies

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The Independent Online

I am very disappointed with yesterday's statement in the House of Commons by Charles Clarke, but I am not surprised that yet more asylum-bashing legislation might be the solution dreamt up by the Home Office to deal with this issue. This is a typical example of an old maxim: that when powerful people are in trouble, they reach for their chequebooks, but when home secretaries are in trouble, they reach for the statute book.

In my experience, one of the biggest problems with the Home Office for at least a decade has been that there is far too much politics and not enough sensible policies; far too much legislation and not enough good administration.

Good administration may not excite the headline writers of the News of the World or produce a boost in the local elections today, but it is ultimately what the Home Secretary is in the job to do.

The truth is, governments have long enjoyed very broad powers to deport foreign nationals and the maladministration evident in this affair should not be an excuse for more legislation. If the Home Office becomes nothing more than a legislation factory it will become even less equipped for the difficulty of managing individual cases. While there are good arguments for and against dividing up some of the responsibilities of the department, that should not be used as a quick fix. Then there is the fear that civil servants have of delivering bad news to their political masters. This requires a change of a culture that is led from the very highest levels of government.

What also greatly concerns me about this statement is that, just a couple of weeks ago, one of Mr Clarke's colleagues, Margaret Hodge, was warning of the risk posed by the British National Party. It worries me that democratic politicians appear to be playing a bit too close to the BNP's turf on the eve of the elections. It is one thing to admit to mistakes about cases which could always properly have been considered for deportation on their merits, it is quite another to talk about asylum in the same speech.

One thing to be grateful for, however, is that the statement doesn't talk about automatic removals and appears carefully drafted to leave room for discretion in individual cases. This is vital for ensuring that no one is deported to face death or torture and for ensuring that people are not deported where this would be plainly disproportional to their offending. It is one thing to say deportation is always an option - it is another to break up a family or expose someone to the risk of torture or worse. No one is asking for special treatment for foreign nationals, but for individual cases to be considered on their merits. While he is right to look at case management, Mr Clarke could have reminded us that British nationals are just as likely to commit serious crimes.

Tough talk and tough legislation is a distraction from the serious business of the Home Office and Mr Clarke has wasted an opportunity to stop the rot. That kind of leadership was sorely lacking on both sides of the House yesterday.

Shami Chakrabarti is director of Liberty