HMT Empire Windrush sailed into Tilbury Docks in 1948, filled with immigrants from the Caribbean who had put their faith in the British government. Those on board the Windrush, and many other ships like it, were responding to Britain’s cries for labour, needed to help rebuild the country after the devastation of World War II, and trusting that in exchange, the government would honour its promise to give them a home in the UK. This was a promise that every government remembered – until David Cameron’s. Under his premiership, the Home Office introduced the ‘hostile environment’, a policy targeting illegal migrants, but a policy that too often caught innocent people in its dragnet.
Foremost among these innocents were the Windrush generation. Freedom to travel across the Commonwealth had meant that most adults received entry into the UK without any formal documentation, while children, in that less fearful age, entered on their parents’ passports alone. The faith placed in the British government was shattered by the hostile environment, which forced individuals to prove their right to remain in the UK – evidence that many were unable to provide – or otherwise face detention and deportation to the countries of their birth. Consequently, thousands of British and Commonwealth citizens, lawfully resident here, were illegally forced into detention or sent to countries they knew little of, and expected to build new lives there.
Once this scandal was uncovered, public outrage forced the government into a u-turn, promising to compensate the Windrush generation for the harm inflicted on them, and so launched the Windrush Compensation Scheme in 2019. According to the Home Office’s own records, thousands are eligible for compensation under the scheme, yet only a small percentage have come forward, with fewer than 900 people having received compensation by the end of August this year.
As JUSTICE’S report, Reforming the Windrush Compensation Scheme, shows, the driving force behind this reluctance is a lack of trust. Rather than having confidence that the government genuinely intends to try and recompense them for the pain and suffering its malignance has caused, people are fearful that in applying, they will put their ‘heads above the parapet’, exposing them to the risk of detention and deportation. In part, as JUSTICE point out, this is because, rather than be operationally independent, the scheme is run by the Home Office, an institution that minorities already ‘fear and mistrust’, with one victim telling the Working Group that the Home Office being the ‘administer of justice to right its own wrong puts the victims at risk of being open to more harm’.
Given the culture that still pervades the Home Office, there is little to suggest that the claimants are wrong to take this view. The compensation scheme looks more like the government going through the motions than genuinely trying to correct its mistakes. Rather than treating claimants fairly and with respect, Alexandra Ankrah, the former Head of the Windrush Compensation Policy described ‘clear evidence of racism within the Civil Service staff’, who had an ‘absence of genuine empathy and a lack of focus on righting wrongs’. In much the same vein, communication with claimants has been patchy, with most claims taking over a year to process, and with the Home Office frequently making requests for information that has already been provided, thus serving to further ‘undermine trust in the Scheme’ and reminding claimants of the ‘failings which led to the…scandal in first place’.
To this end, JUSTICE is right to advocate the scheme being taken out of the hands of the government, and being given an independent footing. Yet although this would go some way to mitigating the harm done to the Commonwealth community, significantly more is needed for minority communities at large to feel as though the Home Office views them with little other than contempt. This should be Priti Patel’s priority, ensuring that she heads a department that all residents of Britain – citizens or otherwise – can respect, rather than one that many must fear.
Such an ambition, however, is far down on Priti Patel’s list of priorities, if it appears on it at all. Instead of recognising that the powers of the Home Secretary and the responsibilities of the Home Office need to be distributed more widely and to be subject to more scrutiny, she is trying to amass even more power. In the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill there are already a number of alarming provisions, including the criminalisation of anyone who ‘facilitates’ illegal entry, seemingly up to and including the RNLI, and discriminates against asylum seekers based on how they enter the country. Yet this is not enough for the government, which in late amendments, is trying to enhance the powers of the Home Secretary to strip citizens of their citizenship by broadening the circumstances in which the Home Office does not have to provide notice of the decision.
The Home Office has justified this on the basis that British citizenship is not a right, but a ‘privilege’.
Not only is this constitutionally illiterate – citizenship is not a discretionary grant, but an entitlement – it is authoritarian, depriving individuals of the right to contest the Home Secretary’s decision by preventing them from having notice of it. It renders the Home Secretary unaccountable, making her judge, jury, and executioner.
Admittedly, there is little to suggest that Patel feels she should be accountable to anyone. In comments after the failed Liverpool terror attack, she assailed lawyers who represent asylum seekers and refugees once more, implying that had the attack succeeded, responsibility would have lain with them, rather than with her own department. And, not content with stoking public anger against lawyers alone, she proceeded to attack the clergy, vilifying the Church of England for helping asylum seekers like al Swealmeen ‘game the system’ by baptising them into the Church. The fact that al Swealmeen’s appeals had been exhausted (despite his conversion), and that it was her Home Office who had failed in its responsibility to deport him was seemingly an inconvenience that, to the Home Secretary, did not warrant consideration.
It should come as no surprise to the Home Office that the Windrush generation are fearful of it, and are reluctant to put their faith in an institution that clearly has nothing but contempt for migrants. As the Channel crisis grows, the government’s solution is to spew bile while doing anything it can to circumvent its international obligations, up to and including paying vast sums to detain them in other countries, like Albania – although their government seem unwilling to be tainted by association with ours. They are right to want nothing to do with our government- we just have to hope the British population eventually comes to the same conclusion.