Monday, 30 April 2018

Windrush, targets and the cultural panic about immigration

The still ongoing Windrush scandal has now claimed the scalp of Home Secretary Amber Rudd, primarily for misleading Parliament by saying that there were no deportation targets when, in fact, there were. The wider picture is that it was these targets which were part of the reason why the Windrush citizens were wrongly identified as illegal immigrants (for those unfamiliar with how and why this happened, see this briefing).

The organizational use of targets and the effects of doing so are widely discussed within organization theory, and figure frequently in the concept of goal displacement discussed in my book (pp. 26-30). In brief, one way that goal displacement arises is when following the target (or, more generally, a rule) becomes an end in itself: that is, as if the purpose of the activity were to meet the target, rather than the target being a means of achieving that purpose. The Windrush scandal is a textbook case: the purpose of the rules was (ostensibly – I’ll come back to this) to remove illegal immigrants. The targets were a means of achieving this.

What happened in practice was that staff sought to meet the target and focussed solely on that. It is easy to envisage how this happened. Under, presumably, great pressure to meet their targets staff would seek any reason to identify someone for deportation. Thus any inexactitude or deficiency of documentation would be ceased on, and there was no incentive at all to try to understand the reasons for it. On the contrary, there was a disincentive to do so: the system was set up to look for reasons to deport more people, not to find reasons not to do so.

The calamity for the Windrush generation was that although they were perfectly legally entitled to live in Britain, they did not have the necessary paperwork to prove it (having not been required in the past to have such paperwork). Thus they appeared to meet the criteria for deportation and were treated accordingly. In the terms discussed in my book, this is an illustration of what happens when instrumental rationality trumps substantive rationality. Following the rules (no paperwork = no right to remain) trumped both ultimate purpose and ethical conduct. In the process, many lives have been destroyed.

Nor was the issue just one of Home Office staff, targets and deportation. Under recently introduced laws, landlords, employers, the NHS and benefits offices were also required to check immigration status. When Windrush people could not do so, they lost their jobs, benefits, homes and healthcare. In this way, too, lives were destroyed. To call it a scandal is to understate things: what has happened is an abomination: an example of the horrific potentials of instrumental rationality (as discussed on p.23 of my book).

But this did not arise simply as a result of organizational incompetence. It grew out of a political and cultural panic about immigration going back many decades. For as long as I can remember there has been a populist meme that “we’re not allowed to talk about immigration” and that “the elite is ignoring the people’s concerns about immigration”. This is nonsense. Again for as long as I can remember immigration has been talked about and complained about.

In recent times it has become common to hear anti-immigration sentiment expressed in terms of ‘of course it wasn’t a problem in the past, it’s just now that the numbers are higher that it’s a problem’. Nonsense, again – it was complained about just as much in the past, and in exactly the same terms, as it is now. Indeed, the treatment of the Windrush generation when they originally arrived is testament to this (in fact, amongst the far Right, the date 21 June 1948 [when the original Windrush ship docked in London] is still used as a code for ‘when Britain ceased to be “racially pure”’).

Moreover, for an equally long time – certainly going back to the 1971 immigration controls (which are directly relevant to Windrush, since it was these which ended the entitlement that they had, but those who had arrived prior to 1971 had been guaranteed the right of permanent residence) – the ‘elite’ have been bending over backwards to address complaints about immigration. Indeed, politicians have quite erroneously endorsed wholly exaggerated complaints about, for example, ‘benefit tourism’ and ‘health tourism’. Indeed, the latter are two of the reasons for the introduction of the rules of which the Windrush generation have fallen foul.

It is out of that fetid soil that the Windrush scandal has developed. And although the public and the press are now up in arms about it – perhaps, it has been argued, because those affected are depicted as ‘the right kind of immigrant’ - they should remember that it was public and press demand that pushed politicians into creating the “hostile environment” that led to it. That represents a major failure of political leadership, for sure, but in a democracy the public also have to accept responsibility for the policies they have sought and endorsed.

That phrase – “hostile environment” – is being justified on the basis that it ostensibly related just to illegal immigrants. But the reality is that it is impossible to separate it from a wider hostility, not least because it created an environment of presumption of guilt of illegality in the absence of proof to the contrary. Indeed, that is precisely what has been revealed by the scandal. Moreover, it has a much longer history than even the post-1948 period.

So, as always, but in this case particularly strikingly, the way that organizations conduct themselves is inseparable from broader political, ideological and cultural issues. The laws that were made, the targets created to enforce them, and the way in which those targets were operationalised may be the immediate focus of the Windrush scandal, but they are the end result of a deeper, older and much darker story.