What is Suella Braverman’s Legacy as Home Secretary?
“There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” These words, initially spoken by Vladimir Lenin, have stood the test of time as a summary of the way that major events can often move at breakneck speed, and while this phrase has been used to describe events of greater consequence than Suella Braverman’s tenure as Home Secretary, it is for her career at the Home Office to which I wish to apply this phrase. However, that does not really tell the whole story, as the truth is somewhat more complex and, indeed, paradoxical: she served as Home Secretary twice, but overall, her tenure was particularly short; and an awful lot happened during her tenure, but overall, very little was achieved. For this reason, it is worth examining the legacy of Suella Braverman’s short career overseeing, among other things, the UK’s immigration system.
When Suella Braverman became Home Secretary, I wrote a post about the legacy of her predecessor in the job, Priti Patel, and in what state she had left the UK’s immigration system. In short, Ms Patel had introduced a new post-Brexit points-based system for immigration and additional restrictions on the rights of asylum seekers, including negotiating a deal to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda to be processed and, in some cases, be settled there permanently. When Ms Braverman became Home Secretary, however, the number of people coming to the UK overall was going up, the measures to limit the right to claim asylum were not having an effect on the number of people seeking protection in the UK, and the Rwanda scheme was being challenged in court. Additionally, the backlog of pending immigration cases still awaiting a decision from the Home Office had grown unmanageable, leaving tens of thousands of people in legal limbo.
So how have things changed in her brief 12-month tenure (14 months if you include her even briefer stint as Home Secretary during Liz Truss’s chaotic 49-day premiership)? We will go into the details,
but a brief summary would be: not much, not nothing, not enough.
One indisputable legacy of Ms Braverman’s tenure as Home Secretary has been to oversee the largest net number of people migrating to the UK in its history (although I suspect this particular legacy will end up being broken by her successor as Home Secretary). The number of UK visas being granted is the highest ever, and for the first time, the number of work visas outnumbered the number of student visas, which had long represented the largest share of UK visas. This trend may end up being permanent, as one of Ms Braverman’s policies was to restrict the ability of students to bring dependents with them to the UK for the duration of their studies.
Regarding asylum, Ms Braverman’s headline policy was the Illegal Migration Act 2023. If you wish to know about this law, you can read my analysis from when it was introduced. There is little else to add, other than the fact that it risks leaving tens of thousands of people in permanent limbo as they cannot have their asylum claims considered or be removed.
On removal, while Ms Braverman merely inherited the Rwanda scheme, she enthusiastically took it up and even declared it her “dream” to see people be taken there. Despite her support for it, the scheme is in exactly the place as it was when she became Home Secretary: awaiting the judgment of the court on its lawfulness. Unless there is an unprecedented U-turn, she will not be in post when the Supreme Court makes its decision on the scheme.
The Rwanda scheme was just part of Ms Braverman and the Prime Minister’s plan to stop small boats crossing the English Channel to bring people to the UK. At the time of writing, while there are still a large number of small boat crossings, the overall number has slightly fallen compared to when Ms Braverman took office. This, however, may have nothing to do with government policy and instead is due to the large reduction in the number of people from Albania making the crossing. There had been a huge surge in Albanians coming to the UK in small boats in 2022, but that number has gone down in 2023. While the number of people coming to the UK in small boats is lower this year, the number is higher than last year when you exclude Albanians from the figures. In other words, the issue is getting worse.
One of the reasons for Ms Braverman wanting to reduce the number of people crossing in small boats is because of the difficulty in accommodating them while the Home Office processes their cases. In order to deal with this, Ms Braverman put into practice a plan to house asylum seekers on floating barges. The flagship barge was the Bibby Stockholm, which on 7 August 2023 was boarded by fifteen asylum seekers, to much fanfare from the Home Office and Ms Braverman herself. It was, therefore, somewhat embarrassing for her when the asylum seekers were evacuated four days later due to an outbreak of illness caused by Legionella bacteria. It is unclear whether asylum seekers will ever return to the barge, as the Home Office is currently locked in a legal dispute with the Fire Brigades Union over the safety of the barges.
If the Home Office is struggling to house asylum seekers, the best solution is to process their applications as quickly as possible. To this end, during Ms Braverman’s tenure, the Home Office had some small success, as the backlog of pending cases has stabilised and slowly gone down. Reducing the backlog, however, has not been as quick as it could have been, and during her tenure, Ms Braverman often seemed more interested in rhetoric and talking about sorting out these problems than taking the practical steps necessary to do so.
Talking of rhetoric, it is impossible to examine Ms Braverman’s legacy when it comes to immigration without mentioning the things she said as she said a lot of things.
- As mentioned above, she said it was her “dream” to deport people to Rwanda.
- She described the arrival of asylum seekers on the English south coast as an “invasion” a few days after a man had firebombed a migrant processing centre. Ms Braverman continued to use the word “invasion” in this context, even after Holocaust survivor Joan Salter confronted her and told her such language was reminiscent of Nazism.
- In an article for the Daily Mail, Ms Braverman claimed child grooming gangs in the UK were “almost all British-Pakistani”. This was despite Home Office research that had concluded such offenders were mostly white.
- Ms Braverman said that a large number of asylum seekers in the UK had pretended to be LGBT to “game the system” and get “special treatment”, and that being a victim of discrimination on LGBT+ grounds should not be enough to qualify for asylum.
- She said multiculturalism in the UK had “failed” and was a threat to national security.
These are just some of the most controversial things she said, and just ones relating to immigration. While words and actions are not necessarily the same (indeed, there is a stark contrast between her words and her record of success), it cannot be understated that these kinds of comments from the person in charge of the UK’s immigration system will inevitably have consequences for wider society.
James Cleverly, the former Foreign Secretary, is replacing Ms Braverman. While it is likely Mr Cleverly will not depart significantly from the policies of Ms Braverman, he has a reputation as a pragmatist and, while not afraid of the spotlight, he is described as measured and diplomatic. While he will likely pursue the same aims as Ms Braverman, it is possible he will be open to pragmatic solutions and prioritising results over tough talk, particularly in regard to ending the backlog of pending immigration applications and speeding up the Home Office’s decision-making process for immigration and asylum.