Wednesday 20 September 2023

Values are reflected in actions, not words


The news that the Home Secretary’s response to critical inspection reports at immigration detention centres was to stop the inspections ought to be shocking, but in the case of Suella Braverman it is entirely in line with her general approach. The decision, taken after the last report in September 2022, and accompanied by a decision not to extend the term of office of the ‘independent’ inspector, does not augur well for the implementation of the report of the latest inquiry into conditions at one centre. Apparently Home Office officials were reported as saying that the reports were “excessively critical”. From their perspective, it seems, the purpose of an ‘independent’ report is to tell the government what a wonderful job it is doing, not to report on actual conditions.

The inquiry report, along with the undercover Panorama programme which provoked it, tells a dismal story of inhumane and degrading treatment being meted out to vulnerable people as though it were an entirely normal way to behave. The overall culture, of course, starts from the top: even if she didn’t intend (and that’s giving her an awful lot of benefit of the doubt) people to behave quite so brutally, the Home Secretary’s language and rhetoric has repeatedly suggested a degree of contempt and disregard for those people detained on her orders. And culture set from the top filters down through the ranks, and gets reflected in appalling behaviour at the level of those in direct contact with those whom she clearly regards as people without rights.

Yet there is something about this which worries me more. Those doing the degrading and the insulting are, outside of their work, probably indistinguishable ordinary citizens. People with families and friends; people who shop and socialise in the same places as the rest of us. However normal they may appear when out and about in society, in the workplace they have become brutalised and desensitized to the needs of other human beings, whom they have come to see as somehow less than human. It’s not the first time in history that it’s happened and nor is it the worst example, but here, close at hand, we can see how easy it is for inhumanity to express itself through apparently ordinary individuals. Once a culture sets in, it spreads. Most of us would like to think that we’re immune, but a famous psychology experiment in the past has shown how easy it is for people to become cruel when ‘authority’ tells them to.

‘I was only obeying orders’ (even if, in the specific case of the detention centre, it isn’t direct ‘orders’ as such, merely a question of falling in with the general culture) has always been a poor excuse. Fear of the consequences of failing to follow orders is easier to understand, although the effect is the same. But the evident and proven facility with which people can fall into cruel patterns of behaviour when encouraged to do so by those in authority places even more responsibility on those setting the culture, as well as those managing an organisation at all levels, to take care with their words and actions. It’s a responsibility which Braverman cannot even begin to comprehend. And knowing what she’s doing whilst doing nothing to stop it makes Sunak every bit as complicit. When we want to know what are those great British values which allegedly unite us, the actions, or inactions, of the government tell us a great deal more than their words.

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