UK Home Office is in crisis mode over visas

Home secretaries must know how to deal with flak. It goes with the job.

But when accusations of foot-dragging, complacency, heartlessness and lies come from your own backbenches, you know you have got a serious problem.

One Tory MP has called for Priti Patel to resign over her handling of the Ukrainian refugee emergency.

The Home Office is in crisis mode, trying to convince an increasingly sceptical nation that the department has got a grip of the situation.

“We are doing our best,” one insider tells me, before adding: “But we haven’t got everything right.”

The nightly images of desperate families fleeing a war but turned away by UK government officials confirm the latter point.

This is becoming deeply damaging for the Home Office and the prime minister. Priti Patel is under intense pressure, with suggestions that Downing Street is losing confidence.

The surprise appointment of a minister for refugees operating across two government departments suggests the Home Office is not trusted to sort matters out alone.

‘Soul-destroying’ criticism

Tellingly, the sponsorship scheme launched to bring some Ukrainians to Britain is being run by Michael Gove’s communities department.

Home Office staff were overstretched before the latest humanitarian disaster started to unfold – trying to deal with thousands of Afghans coming to Britain to escape the Taliban, migrants arriving by the boatload having crossed the channel, tens of thousands of Hongkongers fleeing the Chinese clampdown, and increasing numbers of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children with nowhere to stay.

For a department trying to convince sceptical voters its attitude to immigration has changed from the days of the “hostile environment” and the Windrush scandal, accusations of inhumanity over the plight of Ukrainian refugees are damaging.

“We are working 24/7 to try to respond in really, really challenging circumstances,” an official tells me.

“Some of the criticism has been soul-destroying, but we are not going to give up.”

She shows me a box of Pringles. “This is my breakfast,” she says, as evidence of how hard everyone is working.

But it was the sight of hapless officials handing out crisps and Kit Kats to desperate refugees in Calais that will stick in the public’s mind, a sense that the home secretary was not taking the plight of those fleeing the conflict in Ukraine seriously.

The Home Office says it has been preparing for a possible humanitarian crisis in Ukraine since January, designing detailed policies for how to respond. But officials accept that their plans had to be adapted almost as soon as the first refugees asked for sanctuary in Britain.

“You can create a scheme on paper, and the first family group that applies does not meet the criteria,” an insider tells me. “We set up a scheme that we thought was very generous and then a case came onto the helpline and it wasn’t suitable.”

Critics see a department that is on the back foot, constantly forced into embarrassing U-turns, accused of both inhumanity and incompetence. But inside the department’s headquarters in Westminster, they insist they are listening to the feedback and adjusting their policies in response.

Priti Patel visiting the Ukrainian embassy in LondonIMAGE SOURCE,PA WIRE
Image caption,

Home Secretary Priti Patel visited the Ukrainian embassy in London at the weekend

One senior official gives me an example: “In issuing a visa to a child, the original process required both parents to consent. But we realised that conscription in Ukraine meant fathers were away fighting and could not give consent. So we went to the home secretary and she agreed to change the rules.”

The question, though, is why did they not realise the problems earlier? Why was eligibility under the Ukrainian Family Scheme not initially applied to aunts and uncles, cousins and step-children? Why did the rule changes have to be forced out of the Home Office when the emergency reached the UK border?

The answer is that the Home Office’s response to desperate people fleeing a war is shaped by a determination to maintain the integrity of the UK border. This is a government and a home secretary elected to get Brexit done, and for many of those who campaigned to leave the EU, taking back control of our borders was the central goal.

That is why Priti Patel’s initial response was to say that people escaping the conflict should claim asylum in the first safe country they reached. “It’s important to note that the situation in Ukraine is very different from Afghanistan,” I was advised by the Home Office, as the Russian tanks rolled across the Ukrainian border.

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