The Guardian view on the Windrush scandal: a result of a hostile environment | Opinion

Wendy Williams, an inspector of constabulary, has produced a thoughtful and intelligent review of the Windrush scandal. This shameful episode saw British citizens wrongly deported, dismissed from their jobs and deprived of services such as NHS care. More than 160 people, almost all of African-Caribbean descent, were detained or expelled. It is thought that up to 8,000 were likely to be caught in the web of misery.

The reasons why this deplorable event occurred are complex. The trap had been set by decades of restrictive immigration laws and questionable decisions. But it was sprung by the Conservatives’ hostile environment policy. Two immigration acts in 2014 and 2016 had the effect of requiring long-term residents to prove their right to be in the UK, limiting access to services if they could not do so, in a system of citizen-on-citizen immigration checks.

Ms Williams, who had been appointed by Sajid Javid as part of the clean-up operation, took the Home Office to task for failing to look out for people it had responsibility for. A senior official in the report describes as “unfortunate” the fact that “most of the policymakers were white and most of the people involved were black”. That is one way of putting it. Ms Williams suggests a culture stained with “disbelief and carelessness”, and ingrained “ignorance and thoughtlessness”, much of which chimed with the charge of institutional racism.

Priti Patel, the current home secretary, was right to apologise. But she was wrong to point the finger of blame at New Labour. True, Labour ministers shamefully employed the language of the hostile environment. But this was not backed by statute. That was left to the Conservative governments that took over. In the last decade, officials and ministers ignored warning signs about the implications of their actions. When stories emerged, in this paper, of the Windrush generation, those who came to Britain between 1948 and 1973, falling victim to the harsher immigration controls in 2017, the Home Office sat on its hands.

In 2018 Theresa May, who had been the architect of the Tories’ hostile environment, proved so tin-eared that she initially refused a formal diplomatic request from Caribbean leaders at a Commonwealth heads of government meeting to discuss the matter. Mrs May only relented when the visiting prime ministers went public with their concerns. The Home Office now runs a “compliant environment”. This is a change of label rather than a change of product. Ms Williams’ recommendations should be implemented. The Home Office must acknowledge wrong, be open, more human, and have a race advisory board. Crucially, there needs to be a full review of the hostile environment.

It was David Cameron who stripped away the checks and balances vital to cut the risk of policies’ unintended consequences. This mentality contributed to the Windrush scandal. There is a significant lesson to learn here: political considerations must not drive internal targets, priorities and behaviour despite contrary evidence and with an indifference to humanity.

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