Amber Rudd’s insistence that she knew nothing of Home Office targets for immigration removals risks unravelling following the leak of a secret internal document prepared for her and other senior ministers.
The six-page memo, passed to the Guardian, says the department has set “a target of achieving 12,800 enforced returns in 2017-18” and boasts that “we have exceeded our target of assisted returns”.
It adds that progress has been made on a “path towards the 10% increased performance on enforced returns, which we promised the home secretary earlier this year”.
What are enforced departures?
There are three layers of state-enforced or enforceable departures of immigrants from the UK: deportations, administrative removals and voluntary departures.
Deportations apply to people and their children whose removal is deemed ‘conducive to the public good’ by the home secretary. They can also be recommended by a court.
Administrative removals refer to cases involving the enforced removal of non-citizens who have either entered the country illegally, outstayed a visa, or violated the conditions of their leave to remain.
Voluntary departures are people against whom enforced removal has been initiated; the term ‘voluntary’ simply describes how they leave. There are three sub-categories:
a) Those who depart via assisted voluntary return schemes.
b) Those who make their own travel arrangements and tell the authorities.
c) Those who leave without notifying the government.
The document was prepared by Hugh Ind, the director general of the Home Office’s Immigration Enforcement agency, in June last year and copied to Rudd and Brandon Lewis, the then immigration minister, as well as several senior civil servants and special advisers.
More than eight hours after the Guardian approached the Home Office with details of the leaked memo, and as speculation swirled in Westminster about her future, Rudd finally responded in a series of defiant late-night tweets.
The home secretary insisted she had not seen the leaked memo, “although it was copied to my office, as many documents are”.
She repeated her claim that she “wasn’t aware of specific removal targets”, adding: “I accept I should have been and I’m sorry that I wasn’t.”
She promised to make a fresh statement to MPs on Monday about the affair, and concluded: “As home secretary I will work to ensure that our immigration policy is fair and humane.”
The leak will raise questions about Rudd’s public position on what she knew about the setting of targets for the enforced removal of migrants.
The issue has become particularly toxic because of coverage of the Windrush generation – many of whom have been made destitute, homeless and denied benefits and healthcare because of the Home Office’s “hostile environment” policy towards those it deems to be lacking appropriate documentation to be in the UK.
Windrush citizens: ‘It’s like having your world torn apart’ – video
Rudd told the home affairs select committee this week that the Home Office did not have targets for removals. She had to backtrack when it emerged there were localised targets, but she said she was unaware of them. The leak undermines her narrative.
Forced back into parliament on Thursday, she admitted there were operational targets but said she would be abandoning the policy.
On Thursday, the home secretary told reporters she had “not approved, seen or cleared any targets for removals”, and suggested any targets that did exist were regional rather than national.
“We were gobsmacked by what she said, and that she stuck to her guns,” a Home Office source told the Guardian. “It is inconceivable that Amber Rudd did not know about the targets.”
Sources said there were regular meeting between ministers and senior officials at which specific national targets were discussed, including details of how Home Office departments would achieve the 10% increase in the number of people being removed from the UK every year – a goal set by Rudd personally.
The revelations are likely to reignite the row that has already led to calls for Rudd to resign over her handling of the Windrush scandal, and it comes amid widespread criticism of the hostile environment engineered by the Home Office to accelerate the country’s deportation programme.
The leaked memo, dated 21 June 2017, was a “summary of performance” prepared by Immigration Enforcement, which is responsible for tracking down and deporting immigration offenders.
It states that 12,503 enforced returns were achieved in 2016-17, which was regarded as a “success given the particularly damaging impact” from the number of late claims for asylum.
The memo adds: “IE has set a target of achieving 12,800 enforced returns in 2017-18, aided by the redistribution of resources towards this area. This will move us along the path towards the 10% increased performance on enforced returns, which we promised the home secretary earlier this year.”
The summary then moves on to “assisted returns”, cases where, for instance, someone has left the country voluntarily on a flight paid for by the British government.
“Typically these will be our most vulnerable returnees,” the memo says. “We have exceeded our target of assisted returns. We set an internal target of 1,250 of these returns for 2016-17 … we delivered 1,581.”
At the bottom of the memo is a list of all those who received copies of the findings. The home secretary, permanent secretary, second permanent secretary and special advisers are the first to be named.
Sources told the Guardian the briefing was one of several to have been circulated in the Home Office in recent months outlining the target culture.
They said ministers had supported the extra effort being put into two specific programmes to help the department meet its targets: Operation Perceptor and Operation Gopik. The former involves arresting and deporting people on the same day, the latter targets EU nationals who have three criminal convictions.
“These programmes are being run by civil servants, but the policies are being driven by politicians,” the Home Office source said. “The pressure comes from the top, and Amber Rudd is at the top. She is the one cracking the whip.”
Operation Perceptor is understood to be increasingly important. It targets people who are easier to arrest and deport, because most “same day” removals are of individuals with no family ties to the UK.
“The main risk is that these people may not know their rights and won’t be able to challenge what is happening,” the source said.
The memo underlines the importance of the hostile environment, which the Home Office has rebranded the “compliant environment”.
It says: “We move closer to the creation of a truly compliant environment with every passing year and have begun to pick up some, as yet anecdotal, evidence suggesting new powers and interventions are influencing behaviours both in terms of encouraging upstream compliance and encouraging voluntary departures.”
The briefing outlines measures being taken to identify the NHS trusts in England and Wales where people in the country illegally might try to receive treatment.
“Over the past 12 months we have undertaken an intense programme of activity with the top 20 ‘highest risk’ trusts to improve their ability to identify chargeable patients. Our Local Partnership managers visited trusts to support frontline NHS staff to establish robust immigration status checking systems.
“They agreed memorandum of understandings with 16 of these trusts … [to] prevent upfront access to healthcare to which illegal immigrants are not entitled.”
Labour renewed its call for Rudd to resign following the emergence of the leaked memo.
The shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, said: “Amber Rudd is hanging by a thread to shield the prime minister from her responsibilities as the initial architect of this cruel and callous approach to migration, which resulted in the Windrush scandal.
“She failed to read crucial documents which meant she wasn’t aware of the removal targets that have led to people’s lives being ruined. Another apology is not enough, she should take responsibility for chaos in the Home Office and resign.”
Senior members of the home affairs select committee were discussing how best to hold Rudd to account in parliament next week. They also hope to interrogate the prime minister on what she knew about the targets culture.
The SNP’s Stewart McDonald pointed to the ministerial code, which says “ministers who knowingly mislead parliament will be expected to offer their resignation”.
Stewart McDonald MP
The Ministerial code is quite clear. Amber Rudd must resign. https://t.co/zNkU9NLvOY pic.twitter.com/OvwzYmmzxN
April 27, 2018
Downing Street refused to be drawn on the leak for several hours. But after Rudd’s statement, a spokesman finally said: “The prime minister has full confidence in the home secretary and the hugely important work that she is carrying out at the Home Office.”
Friends also rallied to her defence, with the digital minister, Margot James, saying she “must remain home secretary”.
With no secure majority and contentious Brexit legislation coming to parliament, the prime minister may be reluctant to dispatch a powerful pro-remain voice to the backbenches.