Public Accounts Committee

– in the House of Commons at 12:45 pm on 7th March 2019.

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Select Committee Statement

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I will briefly remind the House of the fairly new procedure. Meg Hillier will speak on her subject for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of her statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and call Ms Hillier to respond to them in return. Members can expect to be called only once. Interventions should be questions, and should be brief. Ministers on the Front Bench may take part in the questioning.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee 1:22 pm, 7th March 2019

I rise to speak briefly on what is our 82nd report of this parliamentary Session, which looked at the Windrush generation and the Home Office. We asked the National Audit Office to look into this issue when it became apparent that a large number of British citizens and residents had lost jobs, homes, benefits and access to healthcare as a result of errors in the Home Office. We then took evidence from those who represent people who were victims of this and from the victims themselves, and we challenged Home Office officials about how they handled the matter. That is what our report covers.

We looked into what led to the Windrush scandal and how the support that was set up to help those affected is working. We also flagged up concerns about the future and laid down a number of recommendations for the Home Office, which are to be responded to through the normal Treasury minutes process and in other responses by certain deadlines.

What we discovered was that the Home Office failed to understand the real-life impact of policies that it was implementing. There was a group of people with citizenship and residency rights who were badly affected—people who were legally in the country with citizenship prior to 1973 when citizenship was granted automatically to many citizens, including those from the Caribbean Commonwealth. By changing the rules, the Government created huge problems for many people, but appeared unaware of that. I will come on to the warning signs that they missed in a moment. Those people, as I said, lost jobs and lost housing. Some went on holiday to the country in which they or their parents had been born, and were refused readmission to the UK, and others were deported.

The Home Office was warned about these problems and about the potential impact in 2014 through countless individual cases raised by Members of Parliament and by others working for some of the individuals concerned. Caribbean Ministers also raised these issues from 2016. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy, who did so much to raise the profile of this issue. Our job as a Committee is not just to look at what went wrong. It is important that the Minister is here to listen to what went wrong so that lessons can be learned. Most of our recommendations are about what can be learned for the future.

Since the failure of this system, the Government have set up a Windrush scheme. Although it has achieved much—people can ring up and speak to an individual—it has certainly not helped everybody as it should have done. The urgent hardship fund that the Government established took eight months to set up. One of the concerns that we had as a Committee was that people had lost their jobs, and therefore their livelihoods and their homes, and so had to borrow money off friends. The lack of urgent funding was a real issue. We are pleased that the Government have now set up the scheme, but we think that there is more to be done. As we speak and as our report was published, there is no compensation scheme yet established, and we are a year on from that. It would be helpful to hear the Government’s response in that regard. I am sure that the whole House is hanging on what that compensation scheme will look like. This is also a generation of people who are not getting any younger. Some of them have already died waiting for a resolution.

Let me go through a number of our concerns. The first is that, although the Department has reviewed all 11,800 cases of people from the Caribbean who may be affected, we understand that there are around 160,000 cases from other Commonwealth countries that have been not reviewed by the Home Office. It is not the policy of the Home Office at this stage to review them. We are concerned about that, because there are many people from other Commonwealth nations who are affected, or could be affected, by this, and it is important that the Government understand that, get on top of it and make sure that others are not affected.

There is a big systemic issue in the Home Office. I speak as someone who, although Chair of the Committee now, was in the past a Minister in the Home Office, in part dealing with immigration. Under several Governments there have been poor systems, poor data and poor information about people, but this Government set great store by their Atlas programme, which is their new software system to deal with immigration matters. We as a Committee are clear that, on its own, a new software programme does not solve matters. We have to make sure that, in the first place, the right data is being put in. We want to make sure that the Government are focused on sorting out those systemic issues, and we have made a number of recommendations on which we expect the Government to come back to us with a response over the next six to 12 months.

As well as Commonwealth citizens, there are also lessons that could be applied to those going through the European Union registration scheme in the hope that the Government can stave off a similar crisis. At the moment, our European Union citizens have until the end of this month to register as resident in this country. That is a fast-paced programme. After that date, it is important that anyone who has not got the right paperwork is caught by the Home Office so that their existing rights, which have been guaranteed by the Government, are protected and that they do not hit problems with employment and other services if they have to provide certain information that they do not have. It is a digitally focused system, so there are real lessons there for the Government, and we are keen to hear from them how they will make sure that those citizens are protected because of the lessons that they have learned from the Windrush scheme.

In summary, the Home Office has very much focused on processes—it introduced new rules, which, in turn, led to different processes—but it has not taken a bigger-picture view of the impact that those processes and the problems have, if not resolved, on real people’s lives. When someone loses their job and their livelihood there is a long-term impact. These issues were flagged up to the Home Office by many of us in this House, by many agencies and by Governments. This report now flags up some serious issues for the Government to respond to, and we look forward to their response.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady SNP Chief Whip

I am surprised that there are not more people with an interest in this subject. This is a very useful report, as it demonstrates how deeply embedded the hostile environment still is in the Home Office and how much further there is to travel. It also shows the need for far-reaching cultural change.

I wish to pick up on recommendation 5, on the need to extend the review beyond Caribbean Commonwealth citizens. I wonder whether the Committee discussed quite how wide ranging that should be. In particular, I wonder whether the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee is aware of the situation of the Chagossian community—the Chagos islanders—who were forced from their homes in the Commonwealth in the 1960s, many of whom have made their homes here in the United Kingdom. Getting citizenship for them, and for the future generations that have come after them, has been very difficult. The least that can be done to demonstrate that there is a change to the hostile environment would be to grant these people the citizenship that they deserve.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee

Our role as a Committee is not to dictate or comment on the exact details of Government policy or whether the Government are making the right policy, but to examine whether that policy is working. It is very clear in law that if people arrived from certain countries to the UK before 1973, they automatically gained citizenship, and others had rights to residency. We are saying loud and clear to the Government that other people from the Commonwealth are in this group, and it is not good enough just to expect them to find access to what is badged “the Windrush scheme”, because that may not mean as much to people from Canada, Australia, Nigeria, Ghana or wherever.

In our recommendations, we have urged the Government to actively reach out—to assess the cases that they have on their files, but also to encourage people to apply. Some of these people may now be in their countries of origin, so there is an international aspect to the issue. Just as some people went back to the Caribbean on holiday and could not come back into this country, there may be people in the same situation in other Commonwealth countries. It is absolutely imperative that the Government deal with this matter before it becomes the next big scandal.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Shadow Home Secretary

I congratulate the Public Accounts Committee on this important report. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most important sentences in the report is the one that says that

“while the Department has reviewed 11,800 Caribbean cases, around 160,000 non-Caribbean Commonwealth cases remain unreviewed”?

What does she advise the Government to do? These people cannot simply be ignored.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee

Absolutely. As my right hon. Friend and I know, there are probably more citizens affected by the issue in our own borough—perhaps this goes beyond my remit as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee—who are from the wider Commonwealth than from the Caribbean. I am glad to see that the Immigration Minister is in her place to hear this statement. As I said in response to Patrick Grady, it is important that the Government really get a grip on this issue and take a proactive approach to publicising the support that is available. If people are legally entitled to support and protection, it is absolutely right that the Home Office ensures that they have access to it, and that they know their rights.

The Government have set up a scheme for Windrush—there is some architecture in place now—so it is really important that this message goes out to the wider Commonwealth. This issue has been raised with me since before this report and our inquiry; many across the wider Commonwealth are concerned. It is important that the Government deal with this situation more effectively, as we have recommended.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

Has the Committee looked at compensation for the Windrush people? A number of them in Coventry have been a bit concerned, to say the least.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee

As I said earlier, it is not our job to recommend how the Government do things. They have promised to deliver a compensation scheme, and my hon. Friend can rest assured that my Committee will be keen to look at that when it is unveiled—as, no doubt, will the National Audit Office. Our concern was that, a year on, there is no further information about the compensation scheme while people are waiting.

Although it is beyond the remit of what we were looking at, a compensation scheme could involve a formula or there could be bespoke compensation. It is obviously for the Government to decide exactly how that goes ahead. Once a compensation scheme is established, no doubt many of us will be scrutinising it—including, quite possibly, the Public Accounts Committee.