Between 1948 to 1970, nearly half a million people moved from the Caribbean to Britain, which in 1948 faced severe labour shortages in the wake of the Second World War.
The immigrants were later referred to as ‘the Windrush generation’. It refers to the ship MV Empire Windrush, which docked in Tilbury on 22 June 1948, bringing workers from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and other islands.
The 492 passengers were temporarily housed near Brixton in London. Over the following decades some 500,000 came to the UK.
Working age adults and many children travelled from the Caribbean to join parents or grandparents in the UK or travelled with their parents without their own passports.
Since these people had a legal right to come to the UK, they neither needed nor were given any documents upon entry to the UK, nor following changes in immigration laws in the early 1970s.
Many worked or attended schools in the UK without any official record of their having done so, other than the same records as any UK-born citizen.
In 1973, a new immigration act came into force putting the onus on individuals to prove they have previously been a resident in the UK.
In 2010, the Home Office destroyed thousands of landing card slips recording Windrush immigrants’ arrival dates in the UK. It came despite staff warnings that the move would make it harder to check the records of older Caribbean-born residents experiencing residency difficulties, it was claimed
Then in 2014, a protection that exempted Commonwealth residents from enforced removal was removed under a new law. Theresa May was Home Secretary at the time.
Under a crackdown on illegals, Windrush immigrants were obliged to provide proof they were resident in the UK before 1973.
In 2018, questions were raised in Parliament about individual cases that had been highlighted in the press.
On March 14, when Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn asked May about an individual who had been refused medical treatment under the NHS during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, Theresa May initially said she was ‘unaware of the case’, but later agreed to ‘look into it’.
Parliament thereafter continued to be involved in what was increasingly being referred to as ‘the Windrush scandal’.
On April 16, David Lammy MP challenged then Home Secretary Amber Rudd in the House of Commons to give numbers as to how many had lost their jobs or homes, been denied medical care, or been detained or deported wrongly.
Lammy called on Rudd to apologise for the threats of deportation and called it a ‘day of national shame’, blaming the problems on the government’s ‘hostile environment policy’.
Rudd replied that she did not know of any, but would attempt to verify that. In late April, Rudd faced increasing calls for her to resign and for the Government to abandon the ‘hostile environment policy’. There were also calls for the Home Office to reduce fees for immigration services.
On May 2, Labour introduced a motion in the House of Commons seeking to force the government to release documents to the Home Affairs Select Committee concerning its handling of cases involving people who came to the UK from Commonwealth countries between 1948 and the 1970s. The motion was defeated by 316 votes to 221.
On April 25, in answer to a question put to her by the Home Affairs Select Committee about deportation targets, Rudd said she was unaware of such targets, saying ‘that’s not how we operate’.
The following day, Rudd admitted in Parliament that targets had existed, but characterised them as ‘local targets for internal performance management’ only, not ‘specific removal targets’. She also claimed that she had been unaware of them and promised that they would be scrapped.
Two days later, The Guardian published a leaked memo that had been copied to Rudd’s office. The memo said that the department had set ‘a target of achieving 12,800 enforced returns in 2017-18’ and ‘we have exceeded our target of assisted returns’. The memo added that progress had been made towards ‘the 10% increased performance on enforced returns, which we promised the Home Secretary earlier this year’.
Rudd responded by saying she had never seen the leaked memo, ‘although it was copied to my office, as many documents are’.
The New Statesman said that the leaked memo gave, ‘in specific detail the targets set by the Home Office for the number of people to be removed from the United Kingdom. It suggests that Rudd misled MPs on at least one occasion’.
On April 23, Rudd announced that compensation would be given to those affected and, in future, fees and language tests for citizenship applicants would be waived for this group.
On April 29, The Guardian published a private letter from Rudd to Theresa May dated January 2017 in which Rudd wrote of an ‘ambitious but deliverable’ target for an increase in the enforced deportation of immigrants. Later that day, Rudd resigned as Home Secretary.
On June 29, the parliamentary Human Rights Select committee published a ‘damning’ report on the exercise of powers by immigration officials. MPs and peers concluded in the report that there had been ‘systemic failures’ and rejected the Home Office description of ‘a series of mistakes’ as not ‘credible or sufficient’. The report concluded that the Home Office demonstrated a ‘wholly incorrect approach to case-handling and to depriving people of their liberty’, and urged the Home Secretary to take action against the ‘human rights violations’ occurring in his department.
On July 3, the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) published a critical report which said that unless the Home Office was overhauled the scandal would ‘happen again, for another group of people’.
The report found that ‘a change in culture in the Home Office over recent years’ had led to an environment in which applicants had been ‘forced to follow processes that appear designed to set them up to fail’. The report questioned whether the hostile environment should continue in its current form, commenting that ‘rebranding it as the ‘compliant’ environment is a meaningless response to genuine concerns’.
Home Office replies – On June 28, a letter to the HASC from the Home Office reported that it had ‘mistakenly detained’ 850 people in the five years between 2012 and 2017. In the same five-year period, the Home Office had paid compensation of over £21million for wrongful detention.
Compensation payments varied between £1 and £120,000; an unknown number of these detentions were Windrush cases. The letter also acknowledged that 23 per cent of staff working within immigration enforcement had received performance bonuses, and that some staff had been set ‘personal objectives’ ‘linked to targets to achieve enforced removals’ on which bonus payments were made.
In a report published in December 2018, the UK’s National Audit Office found that the Home Office ‘failed to protect [the] rights to live, work and access services’ of the Windrush scandal victims, had ignored warnings of the impending scandal, which had been raised up to four years earlier, and had still not adequately addressed the scandal.
On March 19, 2020, the Home Office released the Windrush Lessons Learned Review. This study, described by the Home Secretary as ‘long-awaited’, was an independent inquiry managed and conducted by Wendy Williams, an inspector of constabulary.
The report was a scathing indictment of the Home Office’s handling of Windrush individuals, and concluded that the Home Office showed an inexcusable ‘ignorance and thoughtlessness’, and that what had happened had been ‘foreseeable and avoidable’. It further found that immigration regulations were tightened ‘with complete disregard for the Windrush generation’, and that officials had made irrational demands for multiple documents to establish residency rights. The study recommended a full review of the ‘hostile environment’ immigration policy.