Lords Diary: Floella Benjamin

Posted On: 
19th April 2018

After disbelief at the destruction of Windrush records, and concerns over a new taskforce, Floella Benjamin is resolute that British values will prevail

Newly arrived passengers from the “Empire Windrush”, Tilbury, 22 June 1948
Credit: 
PA Images

Last week I was sitting overlooking the tranquil Lake Windermere as I spent a few days in my spiritual retreat, the Lake District, contemplating what the next couple of months had in store. But by Thursday my peace was shattered by a flurry of emails and calls alerting me to the decision to air a programme on Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech! I spent the next few hours on the phone explaining to the BBC that the speech may be something for the intellectually arrogant to discuss at their dinner parties, but to many people like me the speech was a repugnant piece of racist diatribe, which should be consigned to the dustbin of history. I explained that in this 70th anniversary year of the arrival of the Windrush to broadcast it was insensitive and inappropriate. I walked off my anger and despair with a brisk trek.

I was not aware of the dark clouds gathering ominously behind the hills as I thought about my plans for my RHS Chelsea Windrush Garden, which I am creating with Birmingham City Council, and the joys of working with Lord Bourne and Number 10 on other exciting Windrush celebrations. Over the last 18 months, I have explained to anyone who would listen about the Empire Windrush and the fact that we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of its arrival. Little did I know that within a few days everyone in Britain would know a great deal about Windrush and her passengers! I along with over 100,000 others signed the online petition to secure legal immigration status for Windrush generation…mind you it’s an insult to offer them an amnesty, as that implies they have committed a crime. It appears that in order to reduce immigration numbers these people have become easy targets for the Home Office who has treated them with contempt, without compassion or dignity.

By Monday the Windrush story was hitting the fan in bucketloads and my email, twitter account and phone went into overdrive as every newspaper and TV news channel was covering the story. How the Home Office and the government didn’t see this coming is beyond me.

As I arrived back at the Lords, I am asked to lead from my party’s front bench to an Urgent Question on the subject, as I have personal experience of being part of the Windrush generation. I point out how victims are being asked to provide information from decades ago. These are elderly, vulnerable people – would you put your granny through this?

I write a piece for the Telegraph on the issue which seems to capture the public’s imagination and by sunrise, almost every news programme wants to interview me. It seems the turbulent and angry mood of the nation on this issue is not abating.

Thank goodness the PM finally apologised to try and salvage the situation. But despite her apology, I still have concerns about how much documentation is still required and how effective the planned task force will be in helping these elderly folk. A major question for me is why were thousands of landing cards, which would have unequivocally proved status were destroyed. Some might come to the conclusion there is something fundamentally sinister going on at the Home Office.

I turn my attention to my Lords Communication Committee meeting where we discuss plans for our next report which will be on the internet: to regulate or not to regulate? This is an issue that will affect everyone as recent events have shown.

To end the day, I speak in yet another child obesity debate. My APPG on a Fit & Healthy Childhood has produced nine reports on the issue and the government has listened and needs to be congratulated for all it has done so far to tackle the obesity epidemic. But so much more needs to be done.

Well, day one of Report Stage of EU Withdrawal Bill is here which means some powerful speeches in the Chamber, meticulously scrutinising the Bill…. this is what’s great about the role of the Lords.

Next week I will be awarded the Freedom of the City of London, which to me demonstrates how far this country has moved on. I have always believed Britain is a great country where fairness and justice prevail. So hopefully the events of this week will focus our minds on the importance of upholding these principles. 

Baroness Benjamin is a Liberal Democrat Peer