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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Amelia Gentleman

‘Stringing us along’: Windrush U-turns let down those whose lives were ruined

Anthony Williams, who served for 13 years in the British army, has now left the UK.
Anthony Williams, who served for 13 years in the British army, has now left the UK. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Last year Anthony Williams decided to leave the UK after 51 years, 13 of which were spent as a soldier serving with the Royal Artillery. He said his decision to move was directly linked to the pain of being caught up in the Windrush scandal and his sense of disappointment that government promises to make amends were being quietly abandoned.

“I just didn’t feel welcome any more. I spent the best part of my life serving the British army, and when I needed help everyone turned their back on me,” he said by telephone from Jamaica. Williams arrived in Birmingham aged seven in 1971, with his mother, a hospital cleaner, and his father, who worked at the Longbridge British Leyland car manufacturing plant. He was wrongly classified as an illegal immigrant and sacked from his job in 2013, and spent five years nearly destitute, unable to work or claim benefits.

For him, the news that Suella Braverman has dropped several key reform commitments made in the wake of the Windrush scandal came as further confirmation that the many, repeated promises of reform, made by successive ministers in the five years since the scandal broke have yet to materialise. “They’re just stringing us along until people lose interest, and we die out,” Williams, 59, said. “That’s why I left the UK.”

In September 2020, the former home secretary Priti Patel promised to address the department’s “shameful” failings. “My ambition is to build a fairer, more compassionate, Home Office that puts people first. I expect to see nothing less than a total transformation of our culture,” she wrote. This compassionate, transformed Home Office did not emerge during her time in office. Compassion and fairness are no longer being mentioned even as a vague aspiration.

The significance of the decision to discontinue key parts of the post-Windrush reform programme goes beyond the government’s promises to those directly affected by the 2018 scandal, which saw thousands of legal UK residents mistakenly branded immigration offenders. Braverman’s predecessors Patel, Sajid Javid and Amber Rudd all acknowledged that wholesale reform was necessary to improve the whole department. Javid said he wanted to have an “immigration policy that is fair and treats people with respect and with decency”. The abandonment of commitments to introduce greater external scrutiny is particularly notable at a time when the government is pushing ahead with new, hardline policies on detention and removal.

Official acts of atonement on Windrush continue to be announced. The first 50p coin to bear the new king’s portrait was recently unveiled, celebrating the forthcoming 75th anniversary of the arrival of HMT Empire Windrush, with a design by the artist Valda Jackson whose parents came to Britain from the Caribbean. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities unveiled a £750,000 grant funding scheme to support “ambitious projects” to mark Windrush day on 22 June, and noted in a press release that since the Windrush scandal broke, a total of £3.75m had been spent “honouring the Windrush legacy”.

Officials had been hoping that this summer’s celebrations would not be tainted by the continuing fallout from the Home Office debacle. But most of those whose lives were ruined by the department’s mistakes have become very weary at the government’s delays in delivering justice.

Several of the people who raised awareness in the Guardian about how they had wrongly been classified as illegal immigrants after decades in the UK have died in the past four years, still waiting to see government reform implemented: Paulette Wilson (wrongly detained and booked on a flight back to Jamaica, a country she had not visited in 50 years); Hubert Howard (branded an immigration offender and sacked from his job, 52 years after arriving in London aged three, from Jamaica); Sarah O’Connor (pushed into destitution after being classified as an illegal immigrant 51 years after arriving as a six-year-old); the Middlesex bowler Richard Wes Stewart (who spent years in limbo after being told he was an overstayer in 2012, 57 years after travelling here aged 10). At least 20 others have died while waiting for compensation.

Every step towards implementing the promised reforms has been hampered by U-turns and internal resistance. The most senior black Home Office employee in the team responsible for the compensation, Alexandra Ankrah, resigned from her role in 2020, describing the scheme as systemically racist. Martin Forde, the architect of the compensation scheme, criticised the implementation of his programme and said payments should be more generous.

After the head of the Windrush inquiry, Wendy Williams, concluded that the scandal was caused in part by the Home Office’s “institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness” on the issue of race and noted that staff had a “poor understanding of Britain’s colonial history”, ministers promised to introduce a mandatory course on race, empire and colonialism to the department’s 36,000 employees. But the academics contracted to create the teaching module said civil servants attempted to “sanitise” the content, urging them to tone down “controversial” elements.

Compensation of £53.9m has now been paid to 1,085 people affected by the scandal, a figure which campaigners see as very low, given that 15,700 people who had no documentation have been helped to have their immigration status confirmed since 2018, and given that the original estimates suggested more than £200m could be paid out.

Claimants have repeatedly complained about delays and low offers. Anthony Williams said he cried when he opened the envelope containing a compensation offer of £18,000. During the time he was classified as an illegal immigrant, he had no money to heat his flat, and had to sell his belongings to buy food. He was unable to get medical treatment on the NHS, and lost most of his teeth after getting an infection. “The first offer was insulting: £18,000 for five years of hell. I sat down and cried when I opened the envelope.” He has recently accepted a higher settlement, but had to appeal against the original offer twice. “I’ve had to fight for it. I feel like I’ve been banging my head against a brick wall.”

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