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ANALYSIS: The Windrush report reveals a scandal decades in the making - and MPs of all stripes cannot ignore it

Windrush generation

7 min read

It's easy to become numb to the cliched language of Whitehall watchdogs - phrases like "not fit for purpose", and "lessons to be learned" crop up so often in official reviews that they can lose their impact.

But Wendy Williams' 264-page report on the Windrush scandal, published on Thursday, is different - and all the more devastating for it. 

It starts with two people: Nathaniel and Veronica.

"In 2001, Nathaniel went on holiday to Jamaica with his daughter Veronica," the inspector of constabulary - who has spent the better part of two years combing Home Office archives and interviewing ministers, officials and those affected, begins.

She continues: "Little did either of them know that Nathaniel would never see the UK again. When they set off to come home to the UK, immigration authorities told him he would not be allowed back into the country. The passport he had had for some 45 years, which declared him a citizen of the UK and Colonies, was no longer good enough, though it had been in 1985, when he last made the trip. And it had been in the mid- 1950s, when he arrived in the UK as a young man, in common with thousands of other men, women and children, members of what we now know as the Windrush generation.

"Nine years after his holiday, Nathaniel died in Jamaica, unable to afford treatment for prostate cancer."

Over the next 200-odd pages, Williams peppers these real-life case studies of those swept up in the scandal with a detailed account of how decades of immigration policy, and a deep-seated culture at the Home Office, inflicted misery on people who had come to call Britain their home.

Commissioned by the-then Home Secretary Amber Rudd in 2018 after dogged reporting and campaigning exposed the scale of the problem, the report has been a long time in the making - and contains strong criticism of the Home Office under the Conservatives, the Coalition government, and Labour.

The report does not directly brand the Home Office 'institutionally racist', first coined in the damning Macpherson review of the Metropolitan Police's response to the killing of teenager Stephen Lawrence. But, given the criticisms it makes of the department, it does not need to.

Instead, it tells the story of the Windrush generation and the contribution that they made to Britain's post-war recovery, when the country's infrastructure "lay in ruins" and needed labour "to rebuild it and revive vital industries". That migration was, Williams points out, actively encouraged by Britain.

It reminds readers how the 1971 Immigration Act, which granted those who arrived in Britain from the Commonwealth before 1973 the "right of abode", was not followed up with any documentation to help those people prove their entitlement to stay here - a move the report says "set the trap" for the Windrush generation.

And, over decades, that initial failure combined with an increasingly tough stance on immigration from governments of all stripes that "progressively impinged on the rights and status of the Windrush generation" - culminating in what came to be known as the "hostile environment" under the Coalition government. 


The signs, Williams says, were there.

The Home Office is accused of ignoring a string of warnings over the impact of this crackdown, coupled with a lack of documents, for years, with individual cases brought to the attention of the department "well before the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts" - and years before the issue hit the headlines.

While a 2006 memo urged officials to be "sensitive" in dealing with what would become known as Windrush-related cases, Williams finds that people who'd lived in the UK since before 1973 were still routinely being asked to prove their legal status. Home Office staff recalled hearing from people struggling to produce documents "as far back as 2009".

The issue was compounded, Williams says, when the 2014 Immigration Act significantly increased the role of the state in enforcing immigration policy and pulled parts of the the private sector, including landlords, into the orbit of Home Office policy. Migrants found themselves facing constrained access to NHS services, welfare benefits, driving licenses and bank accounts without documentary evidence - a move that hit Windrush citizens hard.

In a warning flagged by Williams that now looks prescient, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said the legislation was "doomed to failure" and would "impact on those legally residing in the UK, including temporary migrants, BAME groups and many British citizens, who will find it more difficult to live in the UK in a climate of hostility".

But such signs were not heeded by the Home Office, and Williams, in the understated style that characterises her report, says: "A government department which exemplified the principles of good public administration might have been expected to have identified the problem much sooner. But until well in to 2018, they continued to be treated with indifference." 


Williams trains much of her fire on the 'hostile environment' - but her criticism does not focus solely on the Conservative-led Coalition that brought it about.

"The explicit intent and language of the hostile environment can be traced back to the Labour government of the late 2000s," she points out, flagging a hardline speech by the then-immigration minister Liam Byrne in 2007 which vowed to "come down much harder" on illegal entry to the country.

Between 1997 and 2017, the report says, all parties "referred to pressure on public services to legitimise their policies" on immigration - with the infamous (and never met) Conservative target to lower "migration to the tens of thousands" typical of "the direction of political discourse" in recent years.

Home Office officials told the review they had long been encouraged to come up with "radical, far-reaching plans" to lower immigration, and, William says: "They felt the principle of the Government's hostile environment policy was not up for question but that they were there to come up with solutions to make it happen."

In that environment, Williams found officials had failed to consider whether Home Office policy was hitting particular ethnic groups harder - with "an implicit assumption both at junior and senior levels that the duties in the Equality Act 2010 did not apply to what they did on a day-to-day basis". 

Williams too sheds light on how government policies that can seem unconnected at a distance may have contributed to the problem - a theme that is an all-too-regular feature in reports outlining Whitehall failures.

In 2012, for example, David Cameron scrapped Equality Impact Assessments for government policy - branding them "bureaucratic nonsense" - a move Williams says could have added to the failure to spot what was happening.

Major cuts to legal aid then "exacerbated" the challenge for those seeking to fight Home Office decisions.

Home Office processes were too-often impenetrable to those seeking help. One senior official said: "My biggest reflection really, from the outside in, is what a difficult organisation we've been to seek help from."

And the department became used to "aggressive" jargon and cliches when dealing with cases, with Williams flagging one Home Office board meeting that talked of "bringing the 'guillotine' down" on human rights claims.

In all, Williams' report suggests a department that, under the orders of ministers worried about the public's perception of migration, lost sight of both its humanity and its need for basic administrative competence.


The review - handed to the Home Office this week - has landed at a time when the politicians and the public are focused on the battle to contain the coronavirus outbreak. Labour's Diane Abbott has warned it must not get lost amid the "national crisis", while Home Secretary Priti Patel has said she is "truly sorry for the actions that spanned decades".

The Cabinet minister told MPs: "We must all take responsibility for the failings that led to the unimaginable suffering of this generation. And let me be clear: there is nothing that I can say today which will undo the pain, the suffering and the misery inflicted upon the Windrush generation."

But Williams make clear that it will take more than words to fix a scandal whose consequences have been profoundly damaging for those whose lives it has upturned: people left in debt, people left jobless, people left stranded in temporary accommodation - even, as the review's author says, people left grappling with their very "identity and feelings of self-worth".

As Williams says: "The sincerity of this apology will be determined by how far the Home Office demonstrates a commitment to learn from its mistakes by making fundamental changes to its culture and way of working, that are both systemic and sustainable."

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