Windrush U-turn is welcome, but May’s policy was just cruel

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For years, the government’s approach to Windrush children with immigration problems has been both absurd and cruel.

Over the past five months, as this scandal gradually unfolded, the Guardian has documented numerous cases of retirement-age UK residents who have described how the Home Office’s refusal to believe that they are in the UK legally has ruined their lives. Many have cried as they explained how upsetting it is to be classed as an illegal immigrant after more than 50 years in the UK, studying, working, bringing up children in a country they believed to be their own.

The extent of official Home Office heartlessness has been staggering, so it is encouraging to hear the home secretary, Amber Rudd, acknowledge belatedly that the treatment meted out by her department has been “appalling”, and to recognise that the Home Office has become “too concerned with policy”, causing it “lose sight of the individual”.

Ministers are promising now to deal with cases “sensitively”. Let’s see if that sensitivity actually materialises. It’s worth remembering that, less than a month ago, Theresa May chose to take a very harsh position on this issue.

What is the Windrush deportation crisis?

Windrush U-turn is welcome, but May’s policy was just cruel

Who are the Windrush generation?

They are people who arrived in the UK after the second world war from Caribbean countries at the invitation of the British government. The first group arrived on the ship MV Empire Windrush in June 1948.

What is happening to them?

An estimated 50,000 people face the risk of deportation if they never formalised their residency status and do not have the required documentation to prove it.

Why is this happening now?

It stems from a policy, set out by Theresa May when she was home secretary, to make the UK ‘a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants‘. It requires employers, NHS staff, private landlords and other bodies to demand evidence of people’s citizenship or immigration status.

Why do they not have the correct paperwork and status?

Some children, often travelling on their parents’ passports, were never formally naturalised and many moved to the UK before the countries in which they were born became independent, so they assumed they were British. In some cases, they did not apply for passports. The Home Office did not keep a record of people entering the country and granted leave to remain, which was conferred on anyone living continuously in the country since before 1 January 1973.

What is the government doing to resolve the problem?

On Monday, the home secretary Amber Rudd announced the creation of a new Home Office team dedicated to ensuring that Commonwealth-born long-term UK residents would no longer find themselves classified as being in the UK illegally.

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She was called on at prime minister’s questions to look into the case of Albert Thompson (not his real name) who is still being refused free NHS treatment by the Royal Marsden Hospital, five months after his radiotherapy was due to start. She showed no sensitivity to the case and refused to intervene, stating that Thompson needed to “evidence his settled status in the UK”. Thompson, a Jamaican-born son of a nurse who has lived and worked in the UK since he was a teenager, 44 years ago, remains profoundly worried about the impact that the delayed treatment is having on his health.

This is an extraordinary government U-turn. It is remarkable that officials have decided they want to be sensitive today, when for months they have been holding an obstinately firm line on this issue. Repeatedly, when the Guardian has contacted the Home Office to highlight cases of people who have lost their jobs, their homes, or been unable to get passports to travel to visit dying parents, officials have indicated that the fault lies with the individual, for failing to provide enough evidence of their right to be here.

Paulette Wilson with her daughter, Natalie Barnes.

Paulette Wilson with her daughter, Natalie Barnes. Photograph: Fabio De Paola for the Guardian

It’s hard to pick out the harshest example of unfair treatment from a whole catalogue of extreme official meanness, but the case of Paulette Wilson sticks out. For 18 months, Natalie Barnes accompanied her mother, Paulette, when she went to sign in monthly at the Home Office reporting centre in Wolverhampton, as demanded by the immigration officials, who had noticed that Wilson had no papers proving she was here legally.

Barnes tried repeatedly to explain to staff that her mother, 61, a former cook who had lived in the UK for over 50 years, and who had worked in the House of Commons serving food to MPs, was not an illegal immigrant. Occasionally she got angry and sometimes very upset as she attempted in vain to persuade officials that a mistake had been made.

Eventually, Home Office workers at the reporting centre got so fed up with her that she was banned from entering the building, and her mother had to go in alone. In October, without her daughter to argue for her, Wilson was detained and sent to Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, ahead of deportation to Jamaica, a country she had not visited since 1968. Barnes can’t remember how many times she explained to staff they had got it wrong, but the culture of disbelief that runs through the Home Office meant she was not listened to.

Equally, it’s hard to understand why Home Office staff and police needed to take a battering ram to smash down Anthony Bryan’s door when they came early one Sunday morning last November to detain him. He opened the door willingly when they arrived, so it wasn’t used; he was taken into detention for the second time, despite having lived an entirely law-abiding life in this country for more than 50 years, working and paying taxes.

Small details of official callousness are particularly upsetting. Judy Griffith, 63, who came from Barbados in 1963 when she was nine, had been trying to sort out her status for years, and queued for five hours in a Home Office processing centre on 27 December, to be told that, although officials believed her claim was valid, she was “not on the system”. She received a letter in January stating that new checks needed to be made, adding: “Please note it is no longer possible to make an enquiry in person. Please telephone the number on this letter in the first instance if you need to contact us.” There was no telephone number on the letter.

The government is under pressure now, more than ever before, to abandon this “hostile immigration environment” which Theresa May introduced when she was Home Secretary.

The home secretary, Amber Rudd.

The home secretary, Amber Rudd. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

The Home Office readily admits that these newly-tightened immigration rules are what is behind the Windrush problem, acknowledging in a new briefing paper that: “Recent changes to the law mean that if you wish to work, rent property or have access to benefits and services in the UK then you will need documents to demonstrate your right to be in the UK. The government believes this is a proportionate measure to maintain effective immigration control.” The guidance note adds: “We recognise that this is causing problems for some individuals who have lost documents over the long period of time they have been in the UK.”

The government position appears to have softened significantly with Rudd’s admission on Monday that things have gone wrong in her department. On Friday, the Home Office was still recommending that people in this situation should get legal advice – despite the fact that legal costs are often unaffordable to people whose immigration problems mean they can neither work nor claim benefits (and are often homeless, and struggling with debt as a result); legal aid cuts mean it is unavailable for most immigration matters. The announcement waives application fees and the new team of 20 dedicated Home Office staff members should remove the need for the involvement of expensive lawyers.

Natalie Barnes said she and her mother, Paulette Wilson, were overwhelmed at the news. “We had no support. We never met a case worker, we just kept being told by a man behind the glass in the reporting office: you need to bring more evidence; they were rude,” she said. “This has been very traumatic for my mum; she tries not to show, but I can see it in her eyes. It’s been really hard for her but I feel very happy for everyone else in this situation. Knowing that they have people trying to help them sort it out will make a huge difference.”

For years it has been left to tiny charities like Praxis and St Mungo’s in London and the Refugee and Migrant Centre in Wolverhampton to pick up the shattered lives of Windrush generation people fighting to regularise their immigration status. They will be watching to see whether their case load reduces in the wake of these announcements, or if the official policy of cruelty will persist.