UK Home Office a curious model for Malcolm Turnbull’s Home Affairs Ministry

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Nick Miller

London: The UK’s Home Office isn’t the product of ground-up design, but rather the end product of decades of scandals, splits, forced mergers and half-baked reforms.

This makes it a courageous choice of model for Australia’s new super ministry.

We’re copying the battered, bandaged survivor of a hundred political fights and failures, not a gleaming modern governance machine.

Though you could also argue the Home Office is a super-evolved organism, pared​ down and honed by Darwinistic pressure into the fittest, best-adapted version of itself.

But it is a little left-field to look for inspiration on managing national security to a country that, so far this year, has suffered three domestic terror attacks and a horrific towering inferno (however unfair a criticism this is) – and before that went through a tortuously chaotic, expensively stop-start attempt to establish a national inquiry into institutional child sexual abuse.

A respected UK government expert expressed surprise to Fairfax Media that the Home Office was a benchmark for a foreign government (Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull explicitly made the connection).

Julian McCrae is deputy director of the Institute for Government (IfG), the UK’s leading think-tank specialising in the machinery of government, researching and analysing the workings of Whitehall. He was the former deputy director of the prime minister’s strategy unit under Gordon Brown.

He emphasises that the Home Office has “just ended up” in its current form, gradually winnowed​ down over decades and centuries.

It literally used to be half the government – known in the 17th and 18th centuries as the Southern Department, the opposite number to the Northern Department which later became the Foreign Office.

Gradually, bits and pieces of domestic governance calved​ into their own departments. The Home Office is what’s left over.

Though the modern focus on anti-terrorism makes sense out of linking domestic intelligence to national policing, the connection to immigration is “much more tenuous”, McCrae says. Immigration is basically a big “transactional processing” operation.

Despite public perception that it’s a security operation, it’s almost entirely not that. Former Conservative minister for immigration Damian Green compared it to a supermarket chain in terms of size, with the impossible job of trying to keep 99.5 per cent of its customers happy while arresting the other 0.5 per cent.

Green, in an extended interview for the IfG, said the Home Office was essentially “a department for saying ‘no'”.

“It’s what any interior ministry is, you know: ‘We want to stop you committing crime, we want to stop you from coming in if you’re an illegal immigrant, you know, we want to stop you from behaving in a disorderly fashion on a Saturday night’, that sort of [thing] and so ministers get like that.

“… you’ll realise that whatever you want to liberalise, the Home Office will always have an argument for why it’s a bad idea, because somebody will exploit it to commit a crime or do something anti-social.

“I think it’s inherent in the system; interior ministries will always be slightly antipathetic to other parts of the government machine”.

Many former Home Office ministers say it was a magnet for emergencies and scandals – some internally generated, some external. Baroness Featherstone, when asked about unexpected events or crises that affected her work, said it happened “every morning, really”.

Labour’s Liam Byrne, the Home Office’s former minister for police and counter-terrorism, said “the Home Office is basically Britain’s risk management business”.

On his first day in the office, Tony Blair’s first Home Secretary Jack Straw was told to forget blue-sky thinking – his permanent secretary told him the only thing likely to fall from the sky was trouble.

“At any moment in this department an Exocet [missile] will come out of nowhere and land just there and you have to deal with it because this is the Home Office.”

And Liberal Democrat Jeremy Browne, minister of state for crime prevention, said the department had a “slightly discouraged and quite a defensive mindset” where “success constituted getting to the end of the week without being blamed for anything”.

He also complained that this one department generated about a third of all government legislation, which meant long hours in parliamentary committees.

If Australia had copied the Home Office five years ago, it would have modelled itself on a department with an oversight role over national police forces, the domestic security service MI5, and an independent UK Border Agency.

But the latter was a bureaucratic disaster, and Prime Minister Theresa May, then home secretary, May was forced to bring immigration and border services back in-house under her direct control, after a scandal involving the secret relaxation of passport checks and a backlog of more than 300,000 asylum and immigration cases.

Before that, in 2006, prisons and probation responsibilities were carved off the Home Office into a new Justice Ministry after another scandal involving violent foreign prisoners being freed into the community rather than deported.

Nevertheless, despite this gradual trend of slimming down, the Home Office is one of the most powerful places in government and Home Secretary is one of the three big jobs in Cabinet.

“Whoever is in that role has got to be a senior politician who can command authority,” McCrae says.

It is now second only to the Treasury in power and influence. This helps attract the best and brightest of the civil service, McCrae says.

But he says the history of government department mergers in the UK suggests that policy-driven mergers rarely work out.

“The case for designing the Home Office and putting all these thing together in policy terms is probably more of the moment, with the combination of the terror threat, policing and immigration,” he says.

But it’s not a good idea to combine policy areas just because they sound good in a speech together.

“Be very sceptical about changes to government that try to bring areas together or try to split them apart for some policy logic reason. They seldom actually work.

“The really successful mergers are all driven by operational necessity not policy reasons.”

Finally, don’t expect any benefit from the merger to appear overnight.

Department mergers also have to work through culture clash over five to ten years before they behave like a single organisation, McCrae says. And employees will be distracted by human resources issues: pay scales, promotion routes, workplaces, employment security.

“I doubt very much that’s what Theresa May told Malcolm Turnbull, but that’s what the evidence would suggest,” McCrae says.

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