On 21 June 1948, Her Majesty’s troopship the Empire Windrush journeyed up the river Thames to Tilbury Docks. The following day hundreds of passengers from the Caribbean and beyond disembarked to help fill post-war UK labour shortages. The ship became the symbolic shorthand for people who came to work or join family in the UK between 1948 and 1973, particularly from Caribbean countries.
While the ‘Windrush generation’ is often associated with individuals of Caribbean heritage, immigration legislation meant that the UK welcomed many Commonwealth citizens between 1948 and 1973. Analysis of census data has estimated 599,078 people arrived from Commonwealth countries before 1971. Yet, it remains unclear how many people came to the UK from the Commonwealth or continue to live here.
The 1971 Immigration Act entitled people who had arrived from Commonwealth countries before January 1973 to the “right of abode” in the UK. However, in many cases the Government did not provide documents or keep records confirming this status. In an independent review commissioned by the Home Office, Wendy Williams said, “this, in essence, set the trap for the Windrush generation.”
Government immigration policy
A National Audit Office (NAO) investigation into the handling of Windrush in 2018 and the previously mentioned review by Wendy Williams in 2020 drew attention to immigration legislation created by successive UK governments. This evolved into what became known as the “hostile environment” policy (and later the “compliant environment” policy). In particular, both reports highlighted the 2014 and 2016 immigration acts, which the NAO said were “designed to prevent illegal immigration, remove incentives for illegal immigrants to enter or remain in the UK and encourage them to depart”.
Towards the end of 2017 and throughout spring 2018, the Guardian began to draw attention to immigration cases of longstanding UK residents, predominantly from the Caribbean. Even though these individuals had been living in the UK as settled residents for decades, they lacked UK passports or sufficient documentation to prove their right to reside. Consequently, they reported instances of: detention; deportation; loss of employment; homelessness; loss of access to healthcare and benefits; and being unable to return if they left the UK.
The experiences of these individuals, who predominantly belonged to the Windrush generation, prompted significant media coverage, where it has often been referred to as the “Windrush Scandal”. As Wendy Williams said in her review:
[the Windrush generation] had no reason to doubt their status, or that they belonged in the UK. They could not have been expected to know the complexity of the law as it changed around them.
Righting wrongs and restoring rights
In April 2018, the Government acknowledged that members of the Windrush generation had been treated unfairly and those affected have been apologised to by successive Home Secretaries: Amber Rudd, Sajid Javid and Priti Patel. In efforts to “help right those wrongs”, the Home Office launched the Windrush scheme to provide documentation to those unable to prove their right to live in the UK. It also established the Windrush taskforce (later known as the Windrush help team) to support people with their applications. In addition, the previous Home Secretary commissioned an independent lessons learned review by Wendy Williams, mentioned above.
In 2019, the Government introduced a compensation scheme, outlined in detail below. It also announced the first national Windrush Day, including an annual grant scheme which local authorities, charities and community groups can apply to. Subsequently, in June 2020, the Home Secretary launched the Windrush Cross-Government Working Group, to improve, design and deliver practical solutions to address the challenges affecting the Windrush generation and their families.
In July 2020, the Home Secretary published Wendy Williams’ independent lessons learned review into the events leading up to the Windrush scandal. She found that despite the Home Office being taken by surprise, the Windrush scandal was “foreseeable and avoidable”. In September 2020, the Government published a comprehensive improvement plan in which it accepted the findings of the lessons learned review and committed to responding to all 50 recommendations. However, in October 2020, Wendy Williams expressed concern to the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee that both detail and pace of changes were lacking, in terms of reviewing the compliant immigration environment policies, amongst other issues.
In Spring 2021, the Government published updates on the Windrush scheme and the progress of the various measures it had put in place. The Government stated that:
- Windrush scheme and taskforce: As of March 2021, 13,300 documents had been issued to more than 12,500 people confirming their status or British citizenship (free of charge). The taskforce had also attended over 80 surgeries across the UK, to help people apply for documentation.
- Vulnerable persons team: As of March 2021, 1,438 more vulnerable individuals had been offered support and advice on accessing mainstream benefits and housing.
- Public engagement: As of May 2021, 180 events had been held across the country, as well as 44 online events during the coronavirus pandemic and a £750,000 advertising campaign, to raise awareness of the Windrush schemes.
- Windrush community fund: As of May 2021, between £2,500 and £25,000 had been awarded to 14 charities and grassroots organisations across the UK. This funding supported the running of outreach and promotional activity to ensure affected communities were aware of the support and compensation available.
- Windrush Day grant scheme: As of May 2021, 42 projects across England were awarded a share of £500,000 to host events marking Windrush Day on 22 June.
In addition, on 30 April 2021, the Government announced a shortlist of four artists to design a national Windrush monument at London Waterloo station. It said “the monument will be an ambitious public artwork that stands as a testament to the contribution of Caribbean pioneers in communities across the United Kingdom”. It also explained that Waterloo was chosen as a point where many of the Windrush generation first arrived in London. The Windrush Commemoration Committee (WCC), chaired by Baroness Benjamin (Liberal Democrat), selected the shortlisted artists who are all of Caribbean descent. Each proposed design will be shared nationally “with a focus on the British Caribbean community”, and the WCC will consider public responses when making their final selection, as part of the public engagement strategy. The winning design is planned to be announced during Black History Month in October 2021 and the monument is due to be unveiled on Windrush Day 2022.
However, the Government’s response to the scandal has been subject to criticism, particularly with regards to the low rate of compensation claims. In October 2020, Wendy Williams told the Home Affairs Committee, “this is an opportunity for the Home Office to demonstrate that it is taking things seriously. If 164 people have been recompensed, I struggle to see how the Department can justify that.”
Wendy Williams is expected to conduct a follow up review of progress in September 2021, alongside the Home Office’s analysis of the compliant environment, which is due for publication by Autumn 2021.
The Windrush compensation scheme aimed to address the losses suffered due to an inability to prove legal residence in the UK. Some issues highlighted by the scheme included a loss of access to services, employment, housing, and healthcare. In addition, time spent in detention, removal from the UK and broader impacts on life for those from the Windrush generation were also considered. As of September 2019, the Home Office estimated that it would make payments to 11,500 people through the scheme at a cost of between £60m and £260m.
However, towards the end of 2020, after receiving feedback from the Windrush Cross-Government Working Group and others, the Home Office overhauled the compensation scheme. The changes included: reducing the burden of proof for claims; introducing a preliminary payment of £10,000; and raising the minimum ‘impact on life’ award from £250 to £10,000 and the maximum award from £10,000 to £100,000. Claimants currently have until 2 April 2023 to claim compensation. The changes appear to have had a significant impact, with the amount paid in compensation more than quadrupling since they were introduced. Indeed, more was offered within six weeks of the reforms than in the first 19 months of the scheme.
Up until the end of April 2021, the compensation scheme had paid £20.4 million across 687 cases. It had also offered a further £9 million to individuals that were awaiting acceptance or pending review. However, it is worth noting that, by the end of March 2021, the Home Office had only received 2,163 claims—an estimated 19% of those expected. Delays have also been experienced in the processing of claims. Of the 1,417 claims being worked on at the end of April, 495 had been in process for between 12–24 months, and five have been in process for over 24 months. In addition, as of May 2021, the Government had paid £46,795 through the urgent and exceptional circumstances policy for those unable to wait for payments through the compensation scheme.
In May 2021, a second NAO investigation specifically into the compensation scheme drew attention to the low number of claims received and the length of time taken to process claims. In response to the low application numbers, the NAO said the Government needed to address reluctance to apply for the scheme due to lack of trust, confusion over eligibility, concerns that people are rarely compensated and that schemes are a way to “round [people] up”. The NAO also highlighted the complexity of the cases, which involved around 154 hours of staff time as opposed to the original estimates of 30 hours, and a lack of clarity around staffing numbers over the two years.
Before the NAO published their report, the Government had already begun to review estimates of applicants. Furthermore, on 21 April 2021, the Home Office announced that Professor Martin Levermore would offer new independent advice on the compensation scheme’s operation, policy and effectiveness. Finally, in addition to the public engagement efforts mentioned above, the Home Office has also planned a series of reconciliation events with members of the Windrush generation and their wider community. However, they have been delayed in light of Covid-19 restrictions.
Cover image shows Hackney Council’s Windrush Generations Festival 2019. Image courtesy of HackneyWindrush.com.