A rather sinister tweet was sent out yesterday by the Home Office telling EU nationals that if they wanted to stay in Britain they’d best “apply” – not register – for the scheme if they "want to stay in the UK" after 31 December 2020. The tone was quite disgusting. And it raises the question as to whether, with the Home Secretary on holiday, his officials are about to launch into a “hostile environment” scheme in direct contradiction to his personal approach and UK government policy.
Language matters. The phrase “hostile environment” summed up the horror of Home Office autopilot: a computer-says-no approach to immigration, with effects on human lives that will forever be a stain on the reputation of Tory government. There is a structural problem with the Home Office. As John Reid said, it’s a vast bureaucracy that takes countless major decisions, any one of whom could end the career of whoever is Home Secretary. (Officials were all set to arrest the mother of the sick boy who was recently coming to the UK with marijuana oil, for example: it took last-minute political intervention to stop what would have been another national scandal). Amber Rudd’s time as Home Secretary was ended not because she had anything to do with the “hostile environment” system that she inherited (and despised) but because she was seen to have not got a tight enough of a grip over the machine. Unfair, but so is politics.
Sajid Javid now faces the same problem. As Home Secretary, he has been warm and welcoming to EU nationals. He has set up an easy system where you can, with an iPhone, send a picture of your passport together with a National Insurance number and that’s it: job done. More should be made of that. But the Home Office bureaucracy is programmed to be snarling, stand-offish – and, in general, sinister. This is a huge risk, not only to the Home Secretary but the tone and nature of Brexit.
The government policy is to guarantee status to all EU nationals, and its message to them ought to be simple: thank you for coming to our country, and for how you strengthen our economy and public services. We are leaving the EU so we would need you to complete some paperwork, but that’s all. We’ve gone to great lengths to simplify the process: a passport scan and a National Insurance number is all you need. We’ll do the rest. Your status here is guaranteed, as is that of your family.
The Home Office literature needs to go out of its way to make this time point. Every word needs to be weighed carefully. For example, take that tweet saying EU nationals (some of whom have been here for decades) will have to "apply" if they wish to stay after December 2020. This sounds like a deportation threat. But it could well have been a blunder. Perhaps they meant to say: "not everyone needs to apply, only those who intend to be here after the deadline". So they insert a caveat, intending to be helpful - and not realising that if comes across as a threat.
At least, that's my interpretation. The longer I've been in this job, the more inclined I've been to believe in cock-up over conspiracy. But after Windrush, the Tories gave up their right to the benefit of the doubt.
It’s a grave mistake to launch an EU registration scheme in the dead period between Christmas and New Year, when supervision is at its weakest and mistakes are most likely. The tone and wording of the EU migrant campaign should have been signed off at Secretary of State level, and ideally with a set-piece speech leaving no room for misunderstanding. The language for the EU campaign, even the forms, cannot be the same as the Home Office uses for, say, people in Saudi Arabia who want to emigrate to the UK.
The stakes are too high to let Windrush-style blunders define Brexit. This raises the prospect of the Home Office, in its unthinking, robotic way, setting out to create a "hostile environment" for EU nationals just as it did for Windrush. And by now, we ought to have no illusions about the extent of the damage this can cause.
My guess is that this tweet, and the page it refers to, was sent out by a junior official under the supervision of a bureaucrat who did not learn the lessons of Windrush. Others will see it as deliberate malice by a Tory party that always saw Brexit as an excuse to turn on migrants. The Tories should not underestimate depth of feeling on this issue, on both sides of the Brexit divide.
Let’s hope this was a mistake – and the last such mistake. How we now treat EU nationals – and the warmth or otherwise of the language – will speak volumes about how the country will be after Brexit. Let’s get it right.