Windrush scandal: from offhand denial to May’s shamefaced apology | UK news

In the six months between the first Windrush interview I did for the Guardian in November 2017 and the resignation of the Home Secretary in April 2018, I was on the phone so regularly to the Home Office press office that the department’s on-hold music became permanently seared into my brain.

Wendy Williams’s report into the Windrush scandal offers a rare and fleeting insight into what was happening at the other end of the phone.

I was frequently frustrated by the offhand nature of the official responses. Home Office staff seemed very slow to grasp what was happening, moving gradually over the months from dismissing the problem to blaming the individuals affected for their own difficulties, before attempting to downplay the scale of the issue.

The Williams report has detailed interviews with unnamed Home Office staff members revealing how calls from the Guardian began to trigger a sluggish internal inquiry. In response to my questions about the detention of Paulette Wilson, (a law-abiding 61-year-old grandmother who had been in the UK for almost 50 years) and Anthony Bryan (a law-abiding 60-year-old grandfather who had been here since he was eight), the press office alerted officials that a reporter was asking for information on these proposed deportations. The following day an immigration official emailed back to say they “would need to think carefully about how to respond”.

By the end of 2017, the Home Office acknowledged internally that the Guardian was “uncovering a series of cases with a pattern that could no longer be interpreted as unique or a ‘one-off’”. But no action was taken.

When the Home Office realised it might have an issue with “a few people”, press officers were briefed to respond: “We’re taking a closer look.” But by February, senior officials told the press office staff to take a new line, in effect blaming individuals for their own difficulties, and claiming it was their own responsibility to sort out their status. “Those who have resided in the UK for an extended period but feel they may not have the correct documentation confirming their leave to remain should take legal advice and submit the appropriate application with correct documentation so we can progress the case.”

That day, I spent a long time on the phone explaining to a press officer that people were not taking legal advice because legal aid for immigration cases had been abolished in 2012 by the government, and paying for a lawyer was unaffordable if you had been sacked from your job and denied benefits as a result of a Home Office decision to classify you as an illegal immigrant. People affected were also unable to make the application because the fees were unaffordable.

By March, the press office had again changed its response. Now it assertedthat: “We value the contribution made by Commonwealth citizens who have made a life in the UK.” It was a peculiar formulation (which still remains in use by the press office), since Commonwealth citizens were coming forward in large numbers to describe how little they felt valued by a government that was treating them as if they had broken immigration laws.

Downing Street remained oblivious to the growing unease. On 15 April 2018 the Guardian reported that No 10 had refused a formal diplomatic request from representatives of 12 Caribbean countries to meet the prime minister to discuss the situation of the Windrush generation. Downing Street officials told Williams that they were “not aware” of the concerns the Caribbean leaders wanted to raise with the prime minister, and later found time for a meeting. But by that point the diplomatic snub had become international news, and within hours Theresa May was forced finally to apologise for her government’s treatment of the Windrush generation.

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