Yesterday’s climb-down by the Home Secretary over the Windrush generation was sudden and dramatic. It is a welcome change of direction, as is the agreement by the Prime Minister to meet representatives of the Caribbean countries to discuss the issue, given that, as recently as last week, she was absolutely refusing to do so. A lot of credit is due to the Guardian, in particular, for exposing details of some of the worst cases.
If it weren’t so tragic, and hadn’t had so much impact on the lives of ordinary citizens who had every right to be in the UK, some of the revelations would be comic. The Home Office advice produced during the current Prime Minister’s tenancy of that office advising those being returned to Jamaica to ‘put on a Jamaican accent’; the fact that the government admit that they’ve probably deported people who had every right to be here, but can’t be certain about how many; and the way in which the government of the time failed to keep any documentation relating to those invited here – this is the material of farce. It shows a deeply dysfunctional approach to the issue, but there’s also something more there.
During the tenure of Theresa May at the Home Office a policy was deliberately introduced of creating a “really hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, as she herself put it in 2012. Of course, they will argue, this was aimed at ‘illegal’ immigrants rather than at those with a right to be here, but it also effectively placed the onus on anyone living in the UK to prove that they have a right to be here rather than on the authorities to prove that they do not. It’s not quite a case of ‘guilty until proved innocent’, but it’s not far short of that (in another instance of those great British values being more about fine words than deeds).
The implementation was then placed in the hands of officials who seem to have been told simply to implement the rules rather than question them or use any initiative, whilst ministers took a hands-off approach and let them get on with it. It is that combination which led to a situation where officials were unsympathetic, rule-driven and inflexible; deporting – or attempting to deport – anyone who couldn’t produce the required reams of documentation, despite decades of contribution to the economy and society in which they lived. The officials, of course, were ‘just following orders’. Whilst that’s not a defence which they should be able to rely on – there should surely have been at least some of them understanding that what they were doing was wrong morally, as well as legally wrong in the case of those who had a right to be here but simply couldn’t prove it – the real target has to be those who gave the orders in the first place. And guess who that brings us back to?
Yesterday’s apologies and U-turns are a welcome start, but unless they lead to a change, not only in the rules being applied, but also in the culture of those tasked with applying those rules, then the apology will be no more than a form of words, satisfying the news agenda of the day whilst leaving the basic processes in place.