Is the Home Office Fit for Purpose? Challenges for a New UK Home Secretary

Struggling department: the Home Office building on Marsham Street in London. Image: Steve Cadman / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

With politicians of both main UK parties having struggled with the department for decades, what challenges will an incoming home secretary face in 2024?

Who would wish to be the UK’s home secretary from July 2024? The new resident at 2 Marsham Street will face a bulging in-tray and a series of challenges in the first 100 days that few other ministers will have to contend with. According to a range of think-tank reports and the National Audit Office, these include but are not limited to an acute leadership problem at the top of the department, a record of poor delivery, and a workforce where morale remains among the worst in Whitehall.

Amid these difficulties, it is notable that the Home Office has grown from 26,270 staff in 2009 to a staggering 43,125 in 2023. Yet despite these increased resources, according to one report, big challenges remain in delivering on many of the department’s key strategies and policies. It is also telling that in 2021–22 nearly 80% of employees worked in migration and border functions, while around 74% of departmental spending was on public safety and homeland security.

In this context, whoever enters the Home Office in July will inherit a system struggling in key areas, from policing to immigration policy and criminal justice.

Notably, policing is strangled by a web of territorial forces unchanged since the 1960s; duplication and inefficiency reign supreme. Falling criminal charge rates remain a problem, with the proportion of police-recorded crime resulting in charges dropping in 2021–22 to a low of 5.6%. While (according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales) the number of crimes appears to be in long-term decline, public confidence has dropped to new lows, straining the fundamental principle of policing by consent and amounting – in the words of His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary – to one of the police’s ‘biggest crises in living memory’. The outgoing government has put in place initiatives to try to address these issues, and there are signs of police forces starting to reverse poor performance, but it is hard to ignore the requirement for more fundamental reform.

Whoever enters the Home Office in July will inherit a system struggling in key areas, from policing to immigration policy and criminal justice

The asylum system remains overwhelmed, due in part to mismanagement and the time taken to process decisions. Meanwhile, gaps persist in the department’s ability to assess the scale of illegal immigration or the impact of policies. Despite increases in staff numbers, things look to have changed little since 2020, when Public Accounts Committee Chair Meg Hillier MP described the Home Office as having ‘frighteningly little grasp of the impact of its activities in managing immigration’ and ‘no inclination to learn from its numerous mistakes’. While the outgoing government has enacted initiatives in an effort to address these problems, it is unclear what fruit these will bear. It would take a brave incoming home secretary to deny the enduring need to overhaul the system.

In parallel, while not the sole responsibility of the Home Office, the criminal justice system is in its most precarious state in decades. Today, fewer offenders are charged and prosecuted, victim waiting times are increasing, and prisons are so overcrowded that police have been asked to arrest fewer offenders. In 2022, the backlog of Crown Court cases exceeded 60,000, with the highest rates of prisoners held on remand in half a century. Recruitment poses a pressing challenge, and physical facilities in criminal courts reportedly range ‘from bad to appalling’. While the government is working to address these issues, an incoming home secretary cannot fail to recognise a criminal justice system in crisis.

Amid these realities, the time has come to return to the drawing board. This would appear necessary in the face of increasingly complex threats in the years ahead. A new home secretary will have their own priorities, but there are four areas – a worrying escalation in the drugs threat, unremitting small-boat crossings, hostile-state activity and the advent of AI – that could make or break their time in office.

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On drugs, there is evidence that these are becoming more and not less dangerous. Concern is mounting over nitazenes – super-strength synthetic opioids several hundred times more potent than heroin. Despite public-health warnings, 176 deaths have been forensically linked to nitazenes in under a year, with the true toll feared to be higher and concern over a possible US-style epidemic. In parallel, the impacts of the 2022 Taliban ban on opium poppy cultivation could soon filter through; with Afghanistan the source of most heroin in UK markets, any gaps in supply could be filled by even more harmful synthetic opioids.

Meanwhile, a sharp rise in irregular Channel crossings since 2018 continues to loom large as criminal business models professionalise. With engines sourced in China and small-boat services advertised online, criminal innovation among people smugglers poses critical challenges. Crucially, amid ongoing global instability and increasing asylum applications across the EU, demand for irregular entry to the UK is not set to slow. While numbers of small-boat crossings declined last year, this remained the second highest yearly total on record. In this context, strengthened asylum cooperation with EU countries is needed, while also ensuring safe alternative pathways.

On confronting hostile states, a fourfold increase in Scotland Yard’s workload has been reported since the 2018 Salisbury attacks, with the threat at its ‘highest since the Cold War’. Particular concern surrounds the blurring lines between organised crime and hostile-state activity, producing threats in hybrid organisational forms. Yet questions surround key departments’ skills, competencies and resources to respond; last year, the Intelligence and Security Committee denounced a ‘singular… failing to deploy a “whole-of-government” approach when countering the threat from China – a damning appraisal indeed’.

Finally, the influence of AI has proven too real for citizens not to be conned. Generative AI is widely used to make frauds more compelling, from advanced phishing attempts to deep-fake videos. Criminal use of AI is held up as one of the greatest risks facing those working to prevent financial fraud, with an ‘innovation arms race’ looming and authorities struggling to keep pace. In parallel, a proliferation of hyper-realistic AI-generated child sexual abuse material raises the risk of offenders moving on to commit real-world abuse.

For an incoming home secretary, a difficult job will be made harder when faced with a department marked by longstanding institutional problems and a set of strategies that don’t necessarily add up

Protecting the public in this new era requires a fundamental reconsideration of the Home Office’s focus, strategy and resourcing. Above all, it requires a department fit to address the mounting challenges to national security and public safety. While there appears to be a reasonable level of agreement between the main political parties on the nature of these problems (if not the answers to them), the immediate question is how functional the setup at 2 Marsham Street will prove to be in responding to these pressing issues.

Indeed, for an incoming home secretary – of whatever political affiliation – a difficult job will be made harder when faced with a department marked by longstanding institutional problems and a set of strategies that don’t necessarily add up. The new incumbent will quickly find out whether the department is fit for purpose, and would do well to remember the infamous words attributed to Herbert Morrison – home secretary in the National Government during the Second World War – that the Home Office is a ‘troublesome Department ... the corridors are paved with dynamite, and any Minister occupying these offices is liable to be blown up at any moment’.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Cathy Haenlein

Director of Organised Crime and Policing Studies

Organised Crime and Policing

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