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What Can We Learn About Prime Minister Theresa May from Her Time as Home Secretary?

Her six years as home secretary were characterised more by their brutality than their effectiveness.
Theresa May (Photo via US Embassy London)

A lot of people are worried that our new Prime Minister, Theresa May, is the reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher. Fortunately, she's not. Unfortunately, she is in fact Theresa May, who has been Home Secretary for the last six years and has built up a body of frightening policies that should worry everyone all of her own.

As the longest serving leader of the Home Office in recent times, May has had huge control over the department's future. She's managed to implement changes to policing, counter-terrorism and immigration that will shape British society for a long time to come. Can her reforms give us any clues to what life will be like with her as PM?



In many ways, May's greatest impact has been on immigration and Britain's borders. While she supported remaining within the EU, she has charged through with a draconian approach to migrants as Home Secretary. Under her watch, the UK Border Agency split in two. It dropped its somewhat tarnished name, becoming UK Visas and Immigration, and created the more specialised role of Immigration Enforcement Officers. Their primary task is tracking down those who've committed "immigration offences", which they often do by undertaking random raids in communities populated by a lot of foreign people. Anyone they do find on these raids is picked up and faces deportation or at least an undetermined period of time locked up in one of Britain's immigration detention centres.

The number of people who entered immigration detention has increased year on year since May came into office. In 2015, 32,446 people had been detained, an increase of more than 2,000 on the previous year. But while more people are entering immigration detention, the figures of those leaving detention are increasing at an even higher rate. The number of people being deported or voluntarily leaving has dropped, and it seems that detention centres act as a place to hold foreign people, before letting them go again because it turns out there's no legal justification for keeping them there.

May has been famously bad at actually carrying out the deportations that she promises, having been blocked by pesky things like human rights law. That hasn't stopped her inflicting endless attempts to deport people in an effort to improve those stats. Earlier this year, it became clear that May unlawfully removed 48,000 international students from the UK after using evidence of fraud at one English language testing centre as an excuse to issue deportation orders to many others without investigation. It was a move clearly designed to improve immigration figures with no regard to those people's lives. During her time as Prime Minister, it'll be important to look behind any comfortable figures emerging from Number 10 to see who has been screwed over.



Her approach to policing, meanwhile, has been somewhat surprising. In 2014 she delivered a speech to the Police Federation saying that police had displayed "contempt for the public" and suggesting that it is more than "a few bad apples" that are the problem. She was met with stunned silence whereas at previous conferences she had received heckles and boos.

She promised to take power away from the Police Federation if it would not accept her changes, including introducing elected Police and Crime Commissioners, conducting a review into deaths in custody, holding a public consultation on stop-and-search and criticising its use.

Under New Labour, police powers were allowed to grow massively and May's approach seemed to be about a Tory argument for rolling back the state. It could be worrying to see how this will play out when the focus is something other than the police. Given that junior doctors just rejected the government's new contract deal and teachers went on strike earlier this month, there will no doubt be worries in these and other public sector professions about how their grievances will be handled. With her propensity to bring opponents to heel, we could see the entire public sector becoming her enemy.

For all of her tough approach to the attitude of the police, there is little to suggest that May's reforms have had an impact on that institution's problems. Most people have no idea who a Police and Crime Commissioner is or what they do. Her review into deaths in custody is yet to report back. Now that she has left the job, will she be so keen to encourage her successor take up its recommendations?



While she's ruffled the feathers of the police themselves, she's actually increased the state's policing powers. It was under Theresa May that the government's Prevent strategy was developed and implemented. This brings together public sector workers like local council workers, teachers, lecturers and medical professionals into a network designed to spy on people and ensure that they are not being drawn into extremism. The design of the strategy makes it inevitable that suspicion will be directed at Muslims, and we have seen how many have come to be targets of racial profiling from workers with little idea how to tell the difference between potential extremism and totally benign behaviour.

The whole Prevent system is based on a naïve view of British values and the dangers of disagreeing with them. May seems to be fine with Muslims as long as they share these values. Now she leads the country and has even more control over defining what's acceptably British and what is extremist.

The latest criticism for Prevent comes from the UN's special rapporteur on freedom of assembly. Maina Kiai pointed out in a report on his follow up visit to the UK earlier this year that, "By dividing, stigmatising and alienating segments of the population, Prevent could end up promoting extremism, rather than countering it." Kiai was largely ignored by May and the British government. In 2014 another UN special rapporteur, Rashida Manjoo, was also ignored when she requested a visit to the Yarl's Wood detention centre as part of her investigation into violence against women in the UK. For that, Theresa May earned the UK a censure from the special rapporteur. Between these problems with the UN and her immigration mess-ups, May already has an issue with her international perception and her stint at Number 10 could well drag the UK's even further down.


Theresa May's time as Home Secretary is characterised more by her brutal method than her ability to actually get results. She has been relentless, deaf to criticism and dogged during her time in charge of her department. But not much has come of it. Putting her in charge of the country will likely lead to more of the same. With Brexit negotiations looming we can probably look forward to her merciless approach, which will deliver very little. That's the best-case scenario as long as we don't all end up in a detention centre somewhere.


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