With the row over detention of David Miranda at Heathrow still reverberating, together with typically unverifiable and frankly barely plausible national security claims, it’s probably a more interesting question to ask why the Home Office (Britain’s Ministry of the Interior) and its associated agencies have become, well, so feral over the last decade. The best explanation is that the separation 15 years ago of its former legal functions to what is now the Ministry of Justice allowed the Home Office to focus exclusively on enforcement.This is not to say, necessarily, that the split was the wrong thing to do. In the brief moment after the 1997 election, when the Labour government was concerned with rights, before it became an authoritarian monstrosity, it did a number of things to modernise the country’s creaking constitutional machinery. As well as creating the Department of Constitutional Affairs (it became the MOJ later) it passed the Human Rights Act, a swathe of devolution legislation, and a whistleblowing Act enacted, albeit a hopelessly flimsy one.

What’s happened since, of course, is that the Home Office – and its various agencies abd privatised contractors – have become the dark heart of government.

From racism to routine abuse

The Snowden revelations about the close ties between the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ are one example; the increasingly routine abuse of terrorism legislation; but also the Home Office’s recent racist campaign about immigration and the appearance of ‘immigration watch’ type vans in Home Office colours on the street (see photo) and the aggressive and negligent treatment of asylum seekers [Update: of which, more here], in particular by Home Office favourite G4S. One can add our expensively malfunctioning prisons policy (opens pdf) as well.

There are a couple of explanations for this. The first is that in the wake of 9 11, governments and security services got a licence to hang tough, and the opportunity was too good to miss. Another is that it has suited governments to be tough on both migration and prison policy, even though the first makes no economic sense, and the second is counter-productive both socially and financially, even measured on its own terms.

Matters of justice

But the most coherent explanation – in a letter to the Guardian from a former civil servant that I have been unable to trace online – was an institutional one.

It goes like this. In the days when the Home Office was also responsible for matters of justice, both ministers and senior civil servants represented a range of of views, not just the ‘Lock ’em up’ school of public policy, and so there was a broader range of policy arguments within the department.

Home Office Secretaries of State such as Roy Jenkins or William Whitelaw, unimaginably liberal by contemporary standards, were able to balance the views they drew on. Those other views have now vanished into the Ministry of Justice.

The toughest

The only way to get on now in the Home Office is to be the toughest in all matters of policy-making and implementation, and I suspect that is how its Core Group functions as well.

And this is compounded by the fact that this grimly illiberal Ministry is also one of the UK’s so-called ‘great departments of State‘. On a par with the Treasury and the Foreign Office, and so attracts the best and the brightest. The Ministry of Justice, a recent upstart, has none of the same kudos.

Either way, even though our public policy im this area is badly in need of reform, it seems that bad policy is now locked in to the way the Home Office functions – or dysfunctions. It’s hard to see how the system will change. Which means, almost certainly, that it will take some kind of internal or external crisis before we see anything change.

The picture at the top of this post is by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.