EXCL Priti Patel urged to take Windrush compensation scheme out of Home Office hands to encourage victims to come forward
The Home Office scheme is open to open to 'almost anyone' from a Commonwealth country who arrived and settled in the UK before 1973.
The Home Office "cannot be trusted" to run the scheme to compensate people wronged by the Windrush scandal and should hand it over to an independent body, Priti Patel has been warned.
MPs and campaigners urged the Home Secretary to pass the payback programme to an outside organisation, arguing that her department lacks the "experience and empathy to support traumatised people" after a scathing report into its handling of the affair.
But Martin Forde QC, the independent barrister who worked with the Home Office to design the scheme and check up on its implementation, urged politicians not to "throw the baby out with the bathwater" as he attacked what he called "ill-informed comment" about its work.
The Windrush Compensation Scheme opened in April 2019 following an outcry over the treatment of British citizens from the Caribbean who faced deportation and the loss of access to public services after being wrongly swept up in an immigration crackdown.
But MPs are now demanding that the department be stripped of its oversight of the scheme, with the programme instead passed to an independent body within months.
They fear that victims of the scandal will be reluctant to trust the Home Office both because of the way they were treated and because the department is continuing to run immigration deportation flights.
The calls follow last week's highly-critical report by Wendy Williams which found that the department had for decades shown "ignorance and thoughtlessness" on the issue of race.
The report lambasted the Home Office for what it called a "profound institutional failure" on Windrush, with people's lives uprooted when they could not provide proof that they were entitled to be in the UK.
The SNP's immigration spokesperson Stuart McDonald has tabled an amendment to the Windrush Compensation Scheme (Expenditure) Bill, calling on the scheme to be "completely independent from the Home Office to encourage uptake".
"Windrush victims may rightly be reluctant to get in touch again with the very department that caused them such misery," he said.
And Labour MP David Lammy told PoliticsHome: "The £62,198 compensation that has so far been paid out to the Windrush generation is truly pitiful. These are British citizens who were detained, deported, made homeless, jobless and denied healthcare by their own government."
He added: "I have no faith in the Home Office to fairly implement the compensation scheme before it has implemented every single one of the 30 recommendations made in Wendy Williams' damning Windrush Lessons Learned Review.
"An independent body should be set up to administer the compensation scheme, so that black Britons can be confident they will be treated fairly."
That view was echoed by Patrick Vernon OBE, a longstanding Windrush campaigner who has organised a petition calling for a string of improvements to the scheme.
The push, which has so far gained more than 22,000 signatures, says the scheme is still "far too complicated" for victims to use.
Mr Vernon told PoliticsHome: "The Home Office is not the right department to manage the compensation scheme, when at the same time they are implementing hostile environment and deportation flights.
"But, more importantly, they do not have the experience and empathy to support traumatised people in their compensation claims.
"Wendy Williams' report was critical of the department and the Home Office needs major reform. This means they are not the right organisation to operate the scheme."
Mr Vernon believes the Home Office should default to giving "automatic" payouts of £10,000 to all those whose claims are accepted, warning that some of those affected will now be "really vulnerable" amid the unfolding coronavirus crisis.
And Liberal Democrat Home Affairs Spokesperson Christine Jardine said: "It is clear that the same Home Office that allowed this appalling scandal to arise in the first place cannot be trusted to administer the compensation scheme."
She told this site: "We owe it to the Windrush Generation to ensure that a scandal like this cannot happen again. That starts with a trusted alternative administrator for this scheme."
But Martin Forde, who was brought in by the Home Office to design the scheme and hold the Government to account for the way it is working, said MPs had not proposed a workable alternative.
And he warned that "ill-informed comment" about the set-up could "drive people into the arms of rapacious, no-win, no-fee lawyers who can't produce anything better than the scheme".
"We got this scheme up and running within four months of the end of the consultation," he told PoliticsHome.
Mr Forde pointed out that deals struck between the Home Office and other departments mean payments awarded to victims will not be taxed or be counted as income to stop someone receiving benefits from the Department for Work and Pensions.
Meanwhile those who apply are also able to access a two-stage right of review to challenge the department, he said, while the Home Office is able to push other government departments to compensate victims for a loss of access to services and benefits.
"All of that work would have to be redone," he warned.
"If you stopped the scheme tomorrow and handed it to a third party, I couldn't see them making payments in under a year."
The SNP bid to amend the Compensation Scheme Bill would give Home Secretary Priti Patel two months to "arrange for operation of the Windrush Compensation Scheme to be the responsibility of an institution other than the Home Office".
The party is also calling on the department to beef up the state support available to people seeking redress through the programme, saying the Government "must make legal aid available" to help people affected by its actions.
Labour has meanwhile tabled its own amendments to the bill, calling for the scheme to be widened to include more people, with a new "migrants' commissioner" also set up to flag any "systemic concerns" with the department in a bid to avoid a repeat of the scandal.
However, Mr Forde urged people who believe they have a claim to continue to come forward - and he has vowed to continue to challenge the Home Office as an independent adviser.
"I have already said to the Home Office if you continue deportation flights during the compensation scheme you've got a frightened cohort of people who feel if they come forward they risk deportation, and you've got to separate out the question of deportation for criminality from the issue of compensation," he said.
"And the very clear message that I've been given, and one that needs to get more into the public domain in my view, is that if you apply for compensation or to get your immigration status regularised through the [Windrush] taskforce they will not, even in the event of a failed application, pass on your details to immigration enforcement.
"People don't need to be scared that this is some form of entrapment. That's a message that has been lost, I fear, in the narrative."
He added: "I agree with the SNP that there will be a trust deficit with the Home Office as long as the [deportation] flights are publicised in the way that they are.
"And I can see what [Windrush review author] Wendy Williams has to say about the Home Office historically having issues around understanding, and culture and systems. The whole idea is that lessons are learned so things aren't repeated.
"But I don't think you throw the baby out with the bathwater."
'RIGHT THE WRONGS'
A Home Office spokesperson meanwhile said: "We are determined to right the wrongs experienced by the Windrush generation.
"That is why we established the Windrush Compensation Scheme, which has been carefully designed with independent oversight to ensure that the scheme is fair, accessible and generous.
“Payments continue to be made, but we are listening to feedback on the scheme and have made changes as a result.
"That is why the mitigation policy has been amended so people will no longer be expected to show they took immediate steps to resolve their immigration status.
"This change means some people may qualify for higher awards, particularly where it relates to loss of employment.”