Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Changing the culture, not just the policy

I noted yesterday that the current and previous incumbents at the Home Office (Amber Rudd and Theresa May) are those who should first and foremost be held responsible for the way in which members of the Windrush generation have been treated.  They, after all, set the rules and oversaw their implementation.  Creating a “hostile environment” in which the starting point was that individuals had to go through an onerous process to prove their right of residence, with little or no help from the state, was a deliberate act of policy. 
The state presumably has access to the tax and national insurance records of those who have lived and worked here all their lives, but instead of seeing those as evidence of legitimate and continuous residency, the Home Office chose to withdraw people’s right to work at all if they could not independently prove their residence rights.  And it wasn’t only their right to work that was withdrawn – it was also their right to hold a driving licence, their right to proper healthcare, and even their right to liberty, with some being held in detention centres.
Attempts by the ministers concerned trying to shift the blame onto officials and civil servants rather than accepting the responsibility themselves are as shameful as the Prime Minister’s mealy-mouthed apology for the effects, but not for the policy.  Having said that, we cannot, and should not, overlook the actions of the officials either.  I touched on that yesterday, referring to the fact that ‘simply following orders’ is not an adequate defence.  Should we not expect better from officials tasked with implementing a policy which, it must have been obvious to them, was trampling on the rights of people who’ve lived in the UK for all, or nearly all, their lives?
I find the inflexibility and obvious lack of empathy of the officials who were ‘processing’ the affected individuals more than a little chilling.  There they were, demanding that people produce reams of documentation which either never existed or else had long since been destroyed, and ordering the detention and/or deportation of those who failed to comply.  There seems to have been no intelligent thought or consideration given to the individuals impacted by their decisions, just a mechanistic implementation of rules and procedures.
We know from history how easy it is for a mindless bureaucracy to become inured to the impact on people of what they do, and to embark on a spiral in which they increasingly block out any idea that the subjects of their processes are people with lives and aspirations rather than simply numbers and files.  It’s the road to an unpleasant type of authoritarianism.  A government and bureaucracy which can reduce one group of people to numbers and statistics can do the same with other groups as well.  The "hostile environment" already did that in the case of illegal immigrants; what the Windrush issue has shown is that it has been extended to a group of citizens who never fell into that category at all. 
What I’m not seeing in the government’s belated attempt to respond to a situation which has been developing over some time is any sense of a need to change that culture and approach.  Instead, it seems to be about attempting to define and distinguish more clearly between different groups of people.  What history tells us is that the time to stand up against this is when they come for the first group, not the last.  There is a dehumanising culture at work at the UK level, and we need to resist that.


Gav said...

The phrase I think is "overzealous officials". On a par with "the Minister was badly advised" as civil service gallows humour.

The behaviour of the civil servants concerned is chilling, as you say, but Milgram & others have demonstrated that, well, this is what people do. Is it fair to try to hold your ordinary civil servant to a higher ethical standard than, say, the people giving them the orders? That's not rhetorical; I don't know the answer.

John Dixon said...

"Is it fair to try to hold your ordinary civil servant to a higher ethical standard than, say, the people giving them the orders? That's not rhetorical; I don't know the answer."

To be honest, neither do I. I know that there is a point at which 'following orders' becomes complicity in the policy, but establishing exactly where to draw the line is a lot harder. And the seniority of officials also affects the location of the line. In the case of the detentions and deportations, I think the senior officials at least crossed the line.

Jim Morris said...

I have just watched Ken Loach's film "I, Daniel Blake" recommended to me as a true story. The government department involved is the DWP not Immigration but still under the Home Office, I think. The main character dies of amheart attack as he is about to enter the appeals tribunal.