Amidst the chaos of her Premiership, it’s all too easy to forget Theresa May’s shambolic record as Home Secretary, says Will Singh.
Theresa May’s stock has plummeted to zero and keeps on falling – it’s clear that her record as Prime Minister is one of historic failure. But we are in danger of overlooking her real legacy: six poisonous years at the Home Office.
When the inevitable biographies are written, hers should not be one, like Alec Douglas-Hume and Anthony Eden, of a competent minister out of their depth in the top job under trying circumstances. Quite the opposite: bad Prime Minister, worse Home Secretary. At least there is a limit to the harm one PM can do in a 12-month stint sandwiched between the really important Brexit decisions. May’s legacy on immigration and human rights will haunt this country for much longer unless parliamentarians of all parties are prepared to call out and correct the abuses that seemingly unshakable governments so often succumb to.
To be clear: throughout her time in the post, there was a clear political consensus that net migration numbers should come down, and all Home Secretaries face tough decisions on balancing rights with new security measures which are bound to be scrutinised through circumstance-dependent lenses. I am not making a principle objection to either of these attempts; but the Prime Minister’s policies failed on her own terms, and were punitive and damaging in the process.
Take immigration. May knew that it was impossible to meet the Tory manifesto commitment to reduce yearly net migration to the tens of thousands. The figure remained solidly between 200 and 300 thousand throughout her tenure as Home Secretary. Around half of that on average was EU migration. That’s over one hundred thousand per year that we could never have denied even if the government had wanted to. But a roughly equal number came from non-EU countries. We didn’t bring that number down to the close-to-zero required to meet the manifesto target simply because it would have been absurd to do so. The lack of substantive overall rule changes demonstrated quite clearly that the government knew all along that this country needed migration to function in certain areas of the workforce, and that closing the borders unnecessarily was as over-the-top pandering as it was economically illiterate.
But she also knew the political cost of appearing ‘soft’ on immigration. The result? A series of pathetically punitive policies that put political appearance above human compassion. 2012’s changes to family migration rules quietly snuck in a minimum income threshold – £18,600 – that excludes 41 per cent of the population from sponsoring a foreign spouse to come to the UK and live together as a family. The Supreme Court ruled in February that such guidance unlawfully failed to protect the rights of children. No replacement guidance or policy change has yet seen the light of day.
New Immigration Acts in 2014 and 2016, too, served their primary purpose – enabling Conference speeches and vote-winning manifesto commitments, but doing little else constructive. Fines and criminal offences were introduced for landlords housing those without the right to live in the UK, leading to the inevitable reluctance to lend property to anyone who ‘seems foreign’, for example. New rules entering force this year introduce another threshold – a minimum £35,000 income to remain in the UK, even for those living and working here for more than five years, outside of certain exempted occupations. We end up with a labyrinthine series of rule changes that achieved nothing more than political point-scoring: being seen to be playing an immigration numbers game she knew was never winnable. Numbers, by and large, continued to rise – it’s time to accept that punitive rule changes were never worth the suffering and anxiety inflicted on families and workers making their home here.
At the same time, the Home Secretary sat in her job – allegedly one of the most powerful offices in the realm – harbouring a resentment of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act that enshrines it into domestic law. Seven years and one job later, the UK’s human rights commitments remain. There is no positive way to spin this. The staunchest opponent of human rights legislation can see that seven years of cruelty brought us no closer to its removal, her explicit aim – that’s a failure. And those of us who believe the government should be legally required to meet stringent human rights commitments watched a Home Secretary trying every conceivable way to find loopholes and workarounds, seeing just how many of our rights she could violate while getting away within the scope of the law.
Much has been written, too, about the consequences of decisions on police and emergency service budget cuts, which need not be repeated here.
With the unknowable spectre of Brexit looming on the horizon, we can be almost certain that there will be a new Immigration Bill in the works, and the UK’s relationship with EU human rights bodies is written bold-type in the ‘to be determined’ column. Media narratives of a Prime Minister’s hubris plunging the country into Brexit chaos will surely abound – but we’re better off leaving them to the docudrama scriptwriters. For parliamentarians and commentators of all stripes, there is serious, common-sense work to be done undoing the legacy of a Home Office given license to lack compassion. In a few short months, we’ll all be able to ignore that Theresa May the Prime Minister ever happened, but her true legacy will take years in the committee rooms to repair. The sooner the better.