The Risks of Scrapping the UKBA

Immigration continues to be a heated topic in British politics, and the government’s tools and techniques for managing such an issue is just as prominent a subject. In late March, it was announced that Home Secretary Theresa May is to terminate the short career of the United Kingdom Border Agency (UKBA), which was conceived in 2008, and subsequently shrunk in 2012 by a split with the Border Force (UKBF), which returned to the Home Office. Now, May has abolished the UKBA as an independent agency altogether, returning its powers and responsibilities to the Home Office, and splitting the task of managing Britain’s immigration procedures into two new departments: one to deal with the visa system, and the other to enforce immigration law. May has spoken in favour of smaller, more focused structures, but might the scrapping of one of Britain’s most controversial government departments create more problems than it solves?

In 2008, the Labour government merged several agencies to form the original UKBA: the Border and Immigration Agencies combined with UK visas and departments of HM Revenue and Customs to create an all encompassing and independent division of government. May claims that the ‘arms-length’ attitude that the Westminster has had towards the agency since has developed a ‘secretive’ culture, resulting in poor performance, and occasional scandal, such as the recent claims that large numbers of cases have been found, backlogged and forgotten about. The Home Secretary wants to increase the success of British immigration law enforcement by centralising operations completely. However, is this not hypocritical?

It is worth noting that May has proposed that ministerial boards be set up to oversee the new immigration system. By not only reigning in the UKBA, but bringing it under the control of a central government department, May risks two further issues that could hamper its performance. One, the extra bureaucracy required to liaise between a board and the new immigration department could decrease the success of the new organisation’s operations, which is currently, according to May, below par, precisely because of bureaucratic problems. Two, by bringing ministers in to oversee the day-to-day operations of the new agency, there is the risk that decisions may be made based on ideology rather than evidence or practicality. True justice and/or administration could be jeopardised if high-profile ministers need to make quick policy or case-based choices. With immigration, linked to other political debates such as the EU, so important right now in Britain, the last thing May should do is compromise effective management so that the central government can be given everyday reassurance that its departments are working to expected standards. Ministerial control may actually decrease the standard of performance.

One could consider this hypocritical as well as risky. The Home Secretary aims to create more effective and rational immigration management by reigning in the UKBA. But in a time of financial constraints and stretched government duties, is centralising the UKBA really the best way to go about creating a better agency? The coalition hardly gave the reformed system a chance after the split with the UKBF last year. So how long must the public wait to see another new policy?

In hindsight, May should have restructured, again, the old system, if she wasn’t happy with it. Perhaps it would be equally hypocritical to suggest an injection of funds to increase work rate at the UKBA. However, the impact of immigration on the upcoming elections and referenda could be huge, and so, for the coalition at least, it might have been a better option to pump some resources towards the UKBA rather than risk compromising it and the government’s desired outcomes. If the Tories maintain power and call a public vote on Europe, immigration could be one of the biggest opinion-swingers, and it is a factor that should not be toyed with by anyone.