The year 2018 has proved a turbulent one for the British government, with Brexit being only one of the controversies that have gripped it.
Earlier this year, it emerged that hundreds of Commonwealth-born people living in Britain, who had arrived before 1971 and were entitled to live and work in the U.K. on a permanent basis, were wrongly being treated as illegal immigrants. In what has come to be known as the ‘Windrush scandal’ — named after one of the passenger liners that brought people to the U.K. during this period — some were wrongly deported. Eleven of them died after the deportation, while others had been left homeless or without work in the countries they had been deported to.
Many others failed to get essential medical treatment back in England, because authorities had wrongly judged them not to be entitled to it, and suffered hardship or death. As the scale of the crisis emerged in April, political casualties mounted as senior civil servants stepped down.
Eventually, Home Secretary Amber Rudd also resigned over evidence she had provided to a parliamentary committee, relating to U.K. deportation targets, that was seen as contributing to the crisis. Her successor, Sajid Javid, took office pledging a change, but failed to end the government’s “hostile environment” policy towards illegal immigration.
Lack of follow-up
Eight months on, Ms. Rudd is back in the government as the Work and Pensions Secretary, after an internal inquiry pointed the finger at civil servants failing to adequately brief her during the committee inquiries.
Last week, a major report by the National Audit Office (NAO pointed to a worrying lack of follow-up by the government in the wake of the scandal. It is the latest in a string of criticisms of the government’s handling of the crisis. Earlier this month, the Home Office faced criticism for its running of a scheme set up to help individuals resolve their immigration status and offer compensation. It has been accused of failing to proactively contact dozens of Commonwealth citizens who had been wrongly deported.
In addition to delivering its assessment of the government’s failure in its “duty of care to protect people”, the NAO criticised the approach of the Home Office and other authorities. In particular, the Home Office had focussed on migrants from the Caribbean, on whom most of the stories had centred, rather than looking at whether people from other parts of the Commonwealth could have been impacted too.
“The historical case review doesn’t go far enough,” warned the NAO’s Geraldine Barker, who noted that so far only 18 individuals had been apologised to for being wrongfully removed or detained. “It should have looked at a wider group because the issue about poor documentation doesn’t just relate to people from the Caribbean.”
The NAO pointed to the fact that documentation (which had been lacking because it wasn’t issued before 1971 had been provided to nationals from beyond the Caribbean, including India (106 people, Canada, Nigeria and even Italy, suggesting that people from these countries too had struggled to get the necessary paperwork.
The suggestion that sizeable sections of other communities could have been impacted has been made by critics of the government, including the Labour Party’s Diane Abbott, but has had limited uptake in the government. Whether the latest NAO report prompts further action from the government and revelations on this remains to be seen.
Vidya Ram works for The Hindu and is based in London.