By Diane Abbott MP, Shadow Home Secretary
Before Christmas, the Home Office’s top civil servant said that warning signs over the Windrush scandal may have been missed because ministers’ “minds were elsewhere.”
Specifically, Sir Philip Rutnam told MPs “There was some awareness, but how is it possible that this was lost sight of, as significant a fact as it clearly is?” adding that “I think that probably people’s minds were elsewhere.”
His remarks to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) came alongside those of Vernon Vanriel, who came to the UK from Jamaica as a boy in 1962, but who was unable to return here after he visited Jamaica in 2005.
“I tried to get back after two years but was told I couldn’t get back,” he said, adding “I always considered myself as British. When I was refused entry in 2007, it just blew my world apart.”
Sir Philip also apologised to Mr Vanriel, who finally came back to Britain earlier this year, saying he was “absolutely appalled” to hear his account, “as I have been appalled by reading and hearing other accounts of people who have been let down so badly” and adding that “in my 30-odd years of public service, I’ve never seen an episode like this.”
Rutnam’s comments come alongside the publication of the National Audit Office’s Handling of the Windrush Situation report, which is yet another example of how this increasingly discredited government has failed so many people in so many different ways in recent years.
This is a vital report, and with much attention understandably focussed on the Tories botched approach to Brexit, it is imperative that we do not let the ongoing injustices facing the victims of the Windrush scandal fall off the news agenda.
To put it simply, this is a damning report that sets out a catalogue of Government failures. It makes it clear that in the years running up to this scandal there was no shortage of concern raised from many fronts, saying the distress suffered by many was “both predictable and forewarned,” and yet the government continued to prioritise it’s anti-immigrant ‘hostile environment’ approach.
In terms of difficulties being forewarned, it cites a 2014 report by the Legal Action Group, which flagged up the potential adverse impact of immigration policy on certain groups, including Jamaicans who arrived pre-1973, and that Caribbean ministers raised Windrush cases with the government at a 2016 forum, while inspection reports highlighted issues including the possibility people were being sanctioned because of incorrect data.
Shockingly, the report makes it clear that Home Office processes have not only led to wrongful detentions and deportations of members of the Windrush generation, but also that there was a failure in duty “to be proactive in identifying people affected.”
It also makes it clear that the full scale of the scandal has still not been established.
Key findings include not only that up to four years ago the Home Office was aware about possible problems and “did not act on credible information about issues that may have contributed to the Windrush situation;” it ignored a 2016 recommendation to “cleanse” a database of individuals wrongly flagged as being here illegally; does not know now how many members of the Windrush generation have been wrongly affected by policies that were supposed to target illegal migrants and is showing “a lack of curiosity” about the effect on people not of Caribbean heritage.
On how these mistakes relate to broader government approaches to immigration, it criticises the use of deportation targets, saying “these targets would have influenced how enforcement staff carried out their work, in a way that may have increased the risk of wrongful removals.”
The report also outlines how the Home Office failed to protect the rights of the Windrush generation when it implemented its “hostile environment” approach, despite acknowledging in 2014 there were about 500,000 people who would find it harder to prove their status and would be negatively affected by new requirements to prove eligibility for services.
The report also shows us the scale of the scandal already revealed, and what may yet be revealed or indeed never found out.
Currently, the Home Office has reviewed the cases of 11,800 individuals from the Caribbean and identified 164 people removed or detained who might have been resident here before 1973.
Additionally, because there is no data to record those decisions, officials are unlikely to ever be able to establish how many victims of the scandal were incorrectly denied a job or a home to rent.
With regards to the charge that the government is showing “a lack of curiosity” about the effect on people not of Caribbean heritage, the report reveals that the government has no plans to review 160,000 files relating to non-Caribbean Commonwealth nationals to see who may also have been wrongfully detained or removed.
Whilst the Home Office has said it would be disproportionate to undertake this, the NAO understandably finds this approach “surprising” given there was an “onus on the department to use its own data to identify people affected.”
It is utterly wrong that the Government is trying to limit the Windrush scandal solely to victims from the Caribbean when it affects everyone who came here from the Commonwealth before 1973.
In terms of how we move forward, it is also quite unacceptable that the Home Office’s own practices continue to deepen the crisis, and a real change of approach is needed.
Within this context, ministers’ repeated assurances that they are on top of this scandal are clearly worthless.
We must all keep campaigning for justice for all the victims of this scandal, and ensure it doesn’t fall off the news agenda.
The Government urgently need to finally take charge of this shambles, start treating all the Windrush generation fairly and legally and end the hostile environment. Otherwise, this scandal will only continue, and more injustices and scandals will inevitably follow.