Measures introduced by Theresa May in 2012 with the aim of “creating a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants” have prompted criticism in recent years for wrongly targeting legal residents and preventing vulnerable people from accessing basic services.
The Windrush scandal in 2018 revealed thousands of Commonwealth nationals who had been settled in Britain for decades were being treated as illegal immigrants under the hostile environment, including more than 160 who were wrongly deported as a result.
In the wake of the fiasco, the then home secretary Said Javid said the department was looking at the best ways of evaluating the "compliant environment" – renamed in light of the scandal – to ensure the policy was “right”.
But the investigation by the National Audit Office (NAO) reveals that the Home Office admits it is still unable to measure whether they have the desired effect of encouraging people to leave voluntarily – and that it had “no specific evidence base” to support the effectiveness of the policies when they were introduced.
Lawyers and campaigners said it was a “damning indictment” of the immigration system that no assessment had been made of the policy in light of the Windrush scandal and the multiple reviews that have since been published criticising the approach.
As far back as July 2016, a report by the independent chief inspector for borders and immigration – the Home Office’s own watchdog – warned that there was insufficient hard evidence to say whether the hostile environment was achieving what the government intended, since no targets were set for the original measures and little had been done to evaluate them.
The Windrush Lessons Learned review, published in March 2020, found that ministerial pledges to evaluate the policy had not been met, and called on the Home Office to commission civil servants to undertake a “full review and evaluation of the hostile/compliant environment policy and measures”.
The NAO report reveals that the department has no estimate for how many people in the UK are undocumented, having not measured the size of the unauthorised population for 15 years, and that nearly two-thirds of people detained for the purposes of removal are later released – a figure that increased by 8 percentage points last year.
It shows the Home Office spent £14m on deportation flights that never took off within five years, with 213,000 tickets for would be deportees and escorts accompanying them cancelled, equating to 117 tickets cancelled per day.
Nick Thomas-Symonds MP, shadow home secretary, said: “This report again lays out the lack of competence and grip at the top of the Home Office. All too often the government’s mismanagement of the department results in callousness, costly mistakes and deep injustices.”
Immigration barrister Colin Yeo said he was surprised by the fact that, despite warnings, the Home Office still hadn’t evaluated whether the policy was working.
“They’ve been called out on this repeatedly. The fact that they haven’t done that kind of deep thinking is remarkable when we know that it’s done huge damage to people’s lives,” he said.
Mr Yeo added that there was a lack of evaluation of the measures from the outset: “There never really was any success criteria. There was no white paper. It was a fundamental change to the immigration system and how people live in the UK, and it was done with no consultation.
“With the Windrush scandal, and with people thinking again about their attitudes towards immigration and data sharing and so on, you would have thought it would be time for the Home Office to have a proper think about what they’re really trying to achieve with this policy. But they just don’t seem to care.”
Chai Patel, legal policy director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said: “The hostile environment, whether it works or not, causes so many other problems and needs to be got rid of, but the fact that they can’t even tell us it’s working is a damning indictment of where they are.
“We’ve had lots of reviews. Right now, there’s whole host of things that have been recommended by experts – whether David Lammy’s review or Wendy Williams’ review. All of those things have happened, and unless they start activity implementing those recommendations, it’s clear that they don’t want to do anything.”
Mr Patel said he believed the Home Office had “no desire to make the policy work”, adding: “It’s a cultural statement, that’s why it’s a hostile environment. It’s not about whether it works or not. It’s one of the things they can talk about in terms of being tough on immigration.
“Their current inaction shows more commitment to maintaining a hostile immigration policy and the racial discrimination it causes, than alleviating suffering and risk of death during this pandemic.”
Jacqueline McKenzie, a lawyer who has represented a number of Windrush victims, said the findings were “deeply disturbing” and that it was “ironic” that more is known about the impact of the policies on legal residents – as has been seen with the Windrush scandal – than the outcomes for those for whom the policies were intended.
She added: “The operation of the policy was reckless in my mind and the serious harm caused, as Wendy Williams concluded in the Windrush Lessons Learned Review, is still yet to be fully understood.”
Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “The department needs a better understanding of the impact of its immigration enforcement activity on its overarching vision to reduce the size of the illegal population and the harm it causes.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “As requested by Wendy Williams, who warned against the temptation to respond hastily, we have undertaken a period of reflection and engaged with staff at all levels to identify areas for change. The Home Secretary has committed to publish a response to the report by the end of September.”
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