Windrush report condemns Home Office ‘ignorance and thoughtlessness’ | UK news

The Home Office demonstrated “institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race” and some ministers still “do not accept the full extent of the injustice”, an independent inquiry into Windrush scandal has found.

In a scathing report on the way British citizens were wrongly deported, dismissed from their jobs and deprived of services such as the NHS, the department is blamed for operating a “culture of disbelief and carelessness”. And the long-awaited investigation concludes that the failings “are consistent with some elements of the definition of institutional racism”.

The home secretary, Priti Patel, gave an official apology in the House of Commons on Thursday, saying: “There is nothing I can say today that will undo the suffering … On behalf of this and successive governments I am truly sorry.”

Written by Wendy Williams, an inspector of constabulary, the study – prompted by months of Guardian reporting on the consequences of the Home Office’s “hostile environment” policy – says the scandal was “foreseeable and avoidable”. It adds that warning signs of problems caused by the immigration policy – such as “racially insensitive” “Go home or face arrest” billboards – were ignored.

The roots of the problem, it says, can be traced back to racially-motivated legislations dating back to 1960s, 70s and 80s. One of the report’s recommendations is that ministers on behalf of Home Office should provide “an unqualified apology to those affected and to the wider Afro-Caribbean community”.

Williams says: “While I am unable to make a definitive finding of institutional racism with the department, I have serious concerns that these failings demonstrate an institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race and the history of the Windrush generation within the department which are consistent with some elements of the definition of institutional racism.

She also writes: “Despite the scandal taking the Home Office by surprise my report sets out that what happened to those affected was forseeable and avoidable … Over time those in power forgot about them and their circumstances, which meant that when successive governments wanted to demonstrate that they were being tough on immigration by tightening immigration controls and passing laws creating, then expanding, the hostile environment, this was done with a complete disregard for the Windrush generation.”

She also states: “Warning signs from inside and outside the Home Office were simply not heeded by officials and ministers. Even when stories of members of the Windrush generation being affected by the immigration control started to emerge in the media from 2017 onwards, the department was slow to react.”

The 275-page report examined 69,000 official documents. It defines the Windrush generation as those who came to the UK between 1948 – when HMT Windrush arrived with the first immigrants from the Caribbean invited to help re-build postwar Britain – to 1973, when legislation ended the automatic “right of of abode”.

Williams said many people “felt a strong sense of Britishness and had no reason to doubt their status or that they belonged in the UK. They could not have been expected to know the complexity of the law as it changed around them.”

“The way members of the Windrush generation were treated was wrong. They had the right to be in the UK. The difficulties they have had in demonstrating this cannot be laid at their door. I have been provided with no positive justification for why they were treated in the way they were.”

Who are the Windrush generation?

They are people who arrived in the UK after the second world war from Caribbean countries at the invitation of the British government. The first group arrived on the ship MV Empire Windrush in June 1948.

What happened to them?

An estimated 50,000 people faced the risk of deportation if they had never formalised their residency status and did not have the required documentation to prove it. 

Why now?

It stems from a policy, set out by Theresa May when she was home secretary, to make the UK ‘a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants‘. It requires employers, NHS staff, private landlords and other bodies to demand evidence of people’s citizenship or immigration status.

Why do they not have the correct paperwork and status?

Some children, often travelling on their parents’ passports, were never formally naturalised and many moved to the UK before the countries in which they were born became independent, so they assumed they were British. In some cases, they did not apply for passports. The Home Office did not keep a record of people entering the country and granted leave to remain, which was conferred on anyone living continuously in the country since before 1 January 1973.

What did the government try and do to resolve the problem?

A Home Office team was set up to ensure Commonwealth-born long-term UK residents would no longer find themselves classified as being in the UK illegally. But a month after one minister promised the cases would be resolved within two weeks, many remained destitute. In November 2018 home secretary Sajid Javid revealed that at least 11 Britons who had been wrongly deported had died. In April 2019 the government agreed to pay up to £200m in compensation.

Photograph: Douglas Miller/Hulton Archive

The Home Office does not have a large BAME workforce at senior levels, the report observes.

“I think it is unfortunate that most of the policymakers were white and most of the people involved were black,” a senior official is quoted as saying in the report.

Other recommendations in the report include calls for a full review and evaluation of the hostile environment policy and the creation of a “migrants commissioner responsible for speaking up for migrants and those affected by the system”.

Some individual decision-makers within the Home Office, the report says, operated an irrational and unreasonable approach to individuals, requiring multiple documents for “proof” of presence in the UK for each year of residence in the UK. The department has accepted that there was no basis for doing this.

Some of these criticisms may feel familiar. A series of parliamentary reports have already criticised the government and the Home Office for its handling of the disaster. A National Audit Office report in 2018 said the Home Office showed a “lack of urgency” in its approach. Historically the immigration system was condemned as “not fit for purpose” by the then home secretary, John Reid, in 2006.

Wendy Williams, an inspector of constabulary, was commissioned in June 2018 to write the Windrush Lessons Learned review by Sajid Javid, then home secretary, after the scandal came to public attention following months of coverage in the Guardian.

It had become clear that the Home Office had wrongly designated thousands of legal UK residents as being in the country illegally. Most had moved to the UK as children in the 1950s and 1960s, with their parents, many of whom had been recruited to take up jobs in the health service and with London transport. People who had never naturalised or applied for a UK passport found themselves branded immigration offenders in later life.

Some were wrongly deported to countries they had left as children half a century earlier, and others were mistakenly detained in immigration detention centres. Many were sacked by employers worried they faced £20,000 fines for hiring people without the correct documentation. Some were then denied benefits, leaving them destitute. Many were made homeless, denied NHS treatment and prevented from travelling.

The scandal led to the resignation of then home secretary, Amber Rudd, in April 2018, and put Theresa May’s drive to create a “really hostile environment for illegal migration” under the spotlight.

In the past two years, the government’s Windrush taskforce (set up to assist those affected) has given documentation to over 8,000 people, confirming that they have the right to remain in the UK.

A compensation scheme was launched last April, with an estimated budget of between £200m and £570m. The slowness and complexity of the scheme has been widely criticised; by February only £62,198 of compensation had been paid out, shared between 36 people.

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