What’s wrong with the Home Office? Almost two years have elapsed since Amelia Gentleman broke the story in The Guardian of Jamaican-born Paulette Wilson: she had come to Britain aged ten, lived here continuously for fifty years working and bringing up her daughter; she had no passport, never returned to the Caribbean, nor left the UK. In 2015 the Home Office informed her that she would have to leave Britain and must not work. In October 2017 Paulette Wilson was taken to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, where she was detained for a week awaiting deportation. Naturally she was distraught at being declared an illegal immigrant. Jamaica was a foreign country. Her local MP, Emma Reynolds, and the Refugee and Immigrant Centre in Wolverhampton managed to rescue her from Heathrow just in time. But she was not out of the woods. The threat of deportation still hung over her. This was the beginning of the Windrush Scandal breaking in the Press.
Appalling treatment of British citizens began with David Cameron bulldozing measures through the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government with the aim of reducing the number of immigrants, culminating in the 2014 Immigration Act. Theresa May, Home Secretary since 2010, was determined to create a “really hostile environment” for illegal immigrants. Norman Baker who was Minister in the Home Office at the time described staff responsible for carrying out the policy as “zealots”, ever coming up with more inhumane ideas. The touring vans in 2013 with ‘Go home or be Arrested’ emblazoned on them, immigrants avoiding vital medical assistance for fear of being denounced to the authorities, children in detention, were all products of the Cameron-May policy. As was hundreds of people of Caribbean origin who had worked hard, duly paid their taxes and national insurance, being required to prove that they were legally British, then many being declared illegal by the Home Office. A pernicious set of demands made on Home Office staff took precedence over conscience and whistle-blowing.
The Home Office leadership seemed to glory in meeting government targets for ‘assisted removals’ (a kind of ‘self-deportation’ when, under government pressure, someone leaves without being deported) with 12,800 set as the target for forced removals in 2017-2018. The aim was a 10% increase in “removals” overall. More than eighty of the Windrush generation arrivals fell foul of the anti-immigrant frenzy and were illegally deported. In April 2018 Theresa May refused a formal diplomatic request for an urgent meeting from Commonwealth countries from the Caribbean attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London. The Windrush scandal gained international exposure and momentum.
Someone had to take the blame. Inevitably it was the then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd who had been in post for nearly two years. She denied her Ministry had removal targets then, when incontrovertible evidence of their existence emerged, claimed in Parliament to have been unaware of them. Even though she was not responsible for creating the policy, her defence was clearly untenable. She resigned on 26 April 2018.
Did the Home Office, as a result of the public outcry at the scandal, then undergo major changes? No. What were the real causes of the Windrush scandal? There were several. But who was really responsible?
I recently went to listen to Amelia Gentleman talk about her new book, The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment at the Buxton Festival in Derbyshire. Also on stage, was Colin Grant promoting his own book: Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation, a series of moving verbatim reflections on being a British citizen of Caribbean origin. Together they provided a coherent account of how it had taken so long before “the Windrush betrayal” was exposed and ended.
Grant, whose father was Jamaican-born, spoke about the way many victims kept their plight and the cause of their suffering to themselves, as a result becoming even more vulnerable to state bullying. They had grown up with great loyalty and romantic views of Britain. They felt shamed by being singled out, partly a product of defence mechanisms developed over the years - against racism. They did not know to whom to turn or how to complain and seek redress. Gentleman also provided a thorough and balanced account of what went on, providing detailed cases exploring the ways victims were victimised and expected to provide often missing documentary evidence to prove their citizenship. Victims were guilty of illegality until they proved themselves innocent.
But focus on the varied components in the transmission belt of injustice, Cameron-May to Rudd to Home Office staff, risks neglecting its prime mover: the Tory leaders who in order to appease voters hostile to immigration initiated policies which produced debilitating anxiety and, often, physical and mental ill-health for victims destined for detention centres and Heathrow. A reduced Home Office staff, suffering up to 20% cuts, were doing what they were told, obeying orders from above, acting as the promoters of May’s hostile environment. At the same time, Cameron moved away from multi-culturalism as a policy towards existing immigrant communities, tacking further into the wind created by hostile public attitudes to immigrants.
The Home Office is perennially accused of being “not fit for purpose”. Two years have passed now and three things need underlining.
First, if lessons have been learned from the Windrush scandal, apart from a special unit set up to deal with the fall-out from the scandal, to date there are no signs of that. Only the economic consequences of May’s hostile environment seem to make any impact on policy. The same callous indifference to human suffering persists in the treatment of asylum seekers and migrants, with the judiciary the last resort for maintaining human rights standards.
Second, the Home Office still awaits reform, notably in training staff to understand something of the conditions and realities in the specific countries from which asylum seekers and migrants are drawn.
Third, the Home Office needs an institutional ethos free of hostility in which empathy is not a career hazard. And the ethos of institutions comes from the top.
On the broader question of dealing with inflamed public opinion, the root cause of the Windrush scandal was the failure of government and Parliament to show moral leadership. Government needs to challenge the baser instincts of citizens, as well as dealing with the legitimate grievances of citizens disturbed by rapid social change. Representative democracy does not mean robotic obedience to understandable, but often misinformed, popular demands based on fear. Nor the adoption of immigration policies that grievously undermine what we must continue to hope are British – universal - human values.
See TheArticle.com 02/11/2019