A hostile agenda: the Windrush scandal
Public memory and our collective attention span
By Co-founder of advocacy group Windrush Lives, Ramya Jaidev
Tuesday 16 August 2022
To most, ‘hostile environment’ refers to a set of policies mooted by then-Home Secretary Theresa May in a newspaper interview in 2012, as part of a bid to achieve her party’s manifesto pledge of a reduction in net migration figures. Laws introduced in 2014 and 2016 fleshed out the concept, which was to slowly squeeze out migrants of certain types by marginalising them, and making day-to-day life difficult enough that they would choose to leave the UK.
A central plank of these policies was the deputization of non-governmental bodies – organisations outside of the direct control of the Home Office and Border Agency – as frontline immigration sheriffs, through checks restricting access to higher education, banking and free NHS services. This would form the ‘carrot’ – the incentive to leave; the Home Office supplied the ‘stick’ through increasingly nativist and xenophobic rhetoric, typified by the notorious ‘Go Home’ vans, and normalising information-sharing practices between immigration enforcement and police.
But, as the Windrush scandal made clear, both the specific policies and the attitudes that make up the hostile environment have a longer history. At the thinnest end of the wedge, one specific policy which is now considered a cornerstone of the hostile environment – Right to Work – predates May’s 2012 interview. Right to Work checks, which required employers to prove employees or prospective employees were entitled to work in the UK – i.e., show passports and/or visas showing they were British citizens, or held a form of leave to remain which did not prevent them from working – were originally introduced by a Labour government, through section 15 of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006.
Right to Work was a disaster for Windrush migrants and their descendants. Those swept up in the scandal did not hold valid documentation, whether because they had already been wrongfully denied, did not know it was a requirement, or simply had never had a reason or occasion to apply for a British passport.
Some of the best-known cases arose because an employee failed a Right to Work check – Anthony Bryan, whose story is the subject of the Bafta-winning film Sitting in Limbo, first landed in trouble after his employer terminated him, out of the blue, because it had no passport on file. Without the ability to work, Windrush victims faced dire financial straits; worse, employers reported their lack of documentation to the Home Office, which began pursuing them aggressively, determined to find a way to have them deported.
Public memory and our collective attention span are short. The creation of Right to Work in 2006 legislation is no secret. Yet the hostile environment is regarded as a specific policy that arose after May’s 2012 interview. This view is misguided, and will be the basis of failure to make the deep-rooted and substantial change that is needed.
Since 1962 at least, Windrush migrants have been battling some version of a state-led attitude that holds some people are not native Britons, and should not enjoy the same rights as native Britons.
Having thrown the doors open to migrants from Commonwealth countries in 1948 – because they were desperately needed, following the devastation of infrastructure and services caused by the Second World War – Britain’s attitude changed. Many present-day Windrush victims arrived as small children between 1948-62; they have, therefore, lived through the steady, deliberate erosion of their rights to enter and remain, and more broadly, to live freely and without interference. They and their parents came to Britain because of a genuine belief that this was the Mother Country; many victims describe a sense of patriotism and ownership in the fate of post-war Britain, which had, after all, owned and ruled over the colonies where they or their parents were born.
These are the roots of the hostile environment, which should perhaps be defined thus: a migration policy framework designed to squeeze out people viewed as undesirable or expendable, by whatever means possible, in service of political rhetoric and goals. It was not invented in 2012. It is much more than employer or landlord status checks, although these represent a nadir in the state’s handling of the issue.
Preamble to the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962
Our European compatriots now find themselves victimised by the hostile environment – once welcomed because they were wanted and needed, they are being squeezed out, despite promises to the contrary, because it became expedient to blame EU migration for various socio-economic ills, and that became a central plank of the Brexit narrative. The underlying pattern could not be more obvious; and yet, this truth has not penetrated the public consciousness.
If we are to mount a meaningful resistance to the hostile environment, three things are necessary. The first two are fundamental and ideological: we must treat the hostile environment as a deep-seated attitude that goes much further back than 2012, so as to lay bare that it is a repeating pattern rooted in racism and xenophobia as tools of political misdirection; second, we must aggressively mount a positive, values-based argument for frictionless borders and the free movement of people.
The third is practical measure – migration must not be subject to political whim any longer. It should be the preserve of an independent, non-governmental organisation, in much the same way that the flow and supply of money is regulated by an independent central bank.
A Windrush Inquiry
That lack of independence has hobbled Windrush victims repeatedly – over and over, we crash against the same obstacles, because the government has appointed itself the arbitrator of damage it caused in the first place. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Windrush Compensation Scheme (WCS), which is run by the Home Office. At least 15,000 people were offered documentation when the scandal first broke. The true number of victims is much higher, many having been deported, and some having died overseas. Three years after it was launched, the WCS has closed 1,546 cases – 54% of them being ‘zero entitlement’. Most victims are in their 60s and beyond, and will not live to see justice.
It is for this reason that we are calling for the WCS to be made independent, and for a statutory, judge-led Windrush Inquiry, akin to the process that has recently concluded concerning the Grenfell tragedy. The Home Office cannot sit as judge and jury over its own wrongdoing anymore.