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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered e-petition 216539 relating to people who entered the UK as minors between 1948 and 1971.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. It is also a great honour to open the debate on this important and pressing issue. To make it clear, I do so as a member of the Petitions Committee, which agreed to schedule the debate today.
I thank the petitioner, Mr Patrick Vernon, whom I had the pleasure of meeting just before the debate, and the more than 178,000 people who have signed the e-petition in just a few days. It calls for an amnesty for any minor who arrived in Britain between 1948 and 1971. Its goes into further detail and includes a link to a story published by The Guardian on
After Mr Romeo experienced difficulty in producing documentation to prove his identity and right to remain in the UK, he was asked to report to the Home Office every fortnight and offered help and support to return home voluntarily, according to The Guardian. He is understandably anxious that the Home Office will pay a visit to his doorstep and forcibly detain him.
My hon. Friend is right. This is a mistake, not a conspiracy, with a well-meaning policy having been wrongly applied to people to whom it should never have been applied. I will go on to develop that point, as I am sure other right hon. and hon. Members will do.
I am staggered by what the hon. Gentleman said about a “well-meaning policy”. How can the creation of a hostile environment, and putting a hostile environment into a policy, be well meaning? It is time for an apology, not thin, sanctimonious explanation.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. [Interruption.] If she can wait to hear what I will go on to say, all will become clear. I hope that we can keep the tone of the debate constructive and positive and put right what has gone wrong for the benefit of those who have been affected. Those who want to score political points may feel free to do so, but I will not seek to do that. I will seek to address the concerns of the people who have signed the petition.
The hon. Lady keeps saying an awful lot of stuff from a sedentary position. Does my hon. Friend accept that the rewriting of history on such a sensitive issue is unhelpful to both sides of the debate and to moving this thing forward? For perfectly legitimate reasons at the time, Liam Byrne referred not only to having a hostile environment but to seeking to flush out illegal migration. “Illegal” is the key word.
My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. We must be clear in differentiating between illegal immigration and people who clearly have a right to remain in this country but, for all sorts of reasons, are having trouble proving that right. That is the difference. Governments of different parties over many years have taken various steps in robust action against illegal immigration, and rightly so, but when we conflate those two issues in the current situation we do a disservice to those of the Windrush generation who have a legal right to stay.
I will take interventions again in a while, but I need to make some progress.
Mr Romeo’s story was one of many that drew widespread public concern about the status of the Windrush generation and their children, who have spent most if not the entirety of their lives in this country. Other awful examples of treatment faced by members of the Windrush generation have come to light in recent weeks, which has rightly led to many people being concerned, as evidenced by the number of people who have signed the petition in just a few days. While the situation is devastating for all those affected and should never have happened, it provides all of us with a timely reminder to learn from a significant period in time for our nation.
I will make a bit more progress.
It is almost 50 years since the Empire Windrush docked at the port of Tilbury on
The arrival of the Windrush passengers marked the beginning of a multicultural, modern Britain. In the following decades, thousands from the Caribbean and other Commonwealth countries followed in their footsteps. Together, they became known as the Windrush generation. Most intended to stay for a few years, save some money and return to the West Indies. However, as time passed, the majority decided to remain and make this country their home. They married, raised families and built their lives here.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Simply put, if we have a proper inquiry, we can establish who did what, who introduced what, who gave certain instructions and what happened in the Home Office. Targets were part of it and a hostile environment was a part of it. Let us have a proper inquiry to clear it up and find out what actually happened so we do not have this Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Furthermore, it does not stop with the West Indies; I suspect other groups were affected by the same Home Office methods. We should have an inquiry and sort it out.
An inquiry may or may not be appropriate, but my focus is on getting things right for the people who have been affected by the current situation. There are lessons for the Home Office and the Government to learn for the future, and those lessons will be learned, but our focus now needs to be on righting a wrong that has happened and ensuring that the people affected get all the help and support they need at this time.
I will make a bit more progress, then take another intervention.
Life for the Windrush generation was often tough, but this was the generation that worked hard to overcome the many social, economic and cultural challenges of post-war Britain. I want to be clear: the Windrush generation are people who responded to our invitation to come to this country as British subjects, to help us rebuild our country in the years after the war. They are not economic migrants or asylum seekers. Theirs was the generation that helped us build the NHS. They were the people who contributed to Britain’s re-emergence as one of the most prosperous nations in post-war Europe. Indeed, they also played a role in shaping modern Britain, by making us one of the most vibrant and multicultural nations in the world.
It is therefore totally shocking to hear about the treatment of some of the Windrush generation. It is appalling that some of them have been refused access to NHS services, have lost their job, or have even been threatened with deportation. I want to draw attention to the language of the petition that we are debating today. It asks for amnesty for the Windrush generation children. Amnesty is granted to someone who has been found guilty of breaking the law. In the context of the issue before us today, that would imply that the people in question are illegal immigrants. I recognise the intention of the petition but I want to make the important point that those people do not require amnesty: they already have the right to remain here.
The hon. Gentleman is right that we must learn the lessons of what happened. However, my constituent, Paulette Wilson, was detained in October. She has been here for 50 years; she worked in the UK. She worked in Parliament, serving MPs. What she, her family and I want to know is why it took her detention, and the appalling treatment of others, for the scandal to come to light.
The hon. Lady makes a very good point and I shall go on to address it. I will just say that on this occasion the Home Office has been too slow to respond. There were warning signs about it and more should have been done sooner. I do not think anyone is arguing anything other than that mistakes have been made that have been deeply damaging to some people’s lives, that it should not have happened, and that we must put it right and make sure it never happens again.
This relates to the core not just of the policy but of the practice. What is wrong with the Home Office? When it is quite clear that things are going wrong, why is there no overriding corrective mechanism? When senior officials are approached by Members of Parliament why do they not look at the matter again in the light of what has been raised with them? Why do Ministers not intervene to resolve it? Why has it taken so long, when it was crystal clear, in the press and in correspondence, that something was going seriously wrong? There is a deep structural problem in the Home Office immigration department that needs to be addressed.
I would respectfully say to the right hon. Gentleman that I suspect that question is more for the Minister than for me. I think it is above my pay grade to answer for the Government on those issues. I recognise that there are such issues, but perhaps the Minister will respond or the right hon. Gentleman will raise the issue later.
We have a duty to ensure that the Windrush generation and their children know that they are welcome here and belong here. We do not want any Commonwealth citizens who came to this country between 1948 and 1971, and who made their life in the UK as law-abiding citizens, to feel unwelcome or to be in any doubt about their future in this country. It should be stated that the response from the Home Office to the situation has been too slow. Not only should the situation never have occurred, but once it was known about the Government should have spotted what was happening and reacted much more quickly. However, although they are late, I commend the actions that the Government are now taking to help the Windrush generation and their children to obtain their right to remain here. The clear apologies from the Prime Minister and other members of the Government have been welcome, but we need more than words. We need action to correct what has gone wrong.
The then Home Secretary first announced on Monday
The former Home Secretary also announced other measures, which are of particular interest to the petition’s signatories. First, the petition called for Windrush minors to be given the right to remain in the UK; indeed, most Windrush generation children in the UK are already British citizens. However, should they have to apply for naturalisation, the Government will waive the associated fees. Secondly, the petition states that
“the government should also provide compensation for loss and hurt”.
The Government have said that a new compensation scheme will be set up for those who have suffered loss as a result of this issue. That is clearly the right thing to do, but I want to ask the Minister whether the Government have considered providing, as part of the compensation package, support and counselling for those who have suffered distress, stress and upheaval that has affected their day-to-day lives. It should not just be about recompensing them for costs they have incurred; it should also be about the support they need to get over, and move on from, their traumatic experience.
My hon. Friend is laying out in useful terms the series of actions that the Government are taking. Does he feel, as I do, that the leadership provided by the new Home Secretary this morning will prove decisive? I have just come from the Chamber, where he said he will do whatever it takes to deal with the matter in a timely and decisive fashion. Does my hon. Friend share the confidence I have in the new Home Secretary?
Indeed I do. I would add that I think the previous Home Secretary was completely committed and was taking action to address the issue. However, I also have tremendous faith in the newly appointed Home Secretary and that he will get to the heart of the issue and make sure that things are put right and that the lessons that need to be learned are learned, and I shall come on to that point now.
Going forward, officials working at all levels of the Home Office must learn important lessons from the failures that have beleaguered the Windrush generation and their children. Those mistakes should never have happened, and there were warning signs, with Members coming forward in recent weeks to say that they were receiving casework relating to the issue.
I shall make a bit more progress and then allow an intervention.
Ministers and Home Office officials must now focus on establishing the status of the Windrush generation and their descendants with all possible speed, and ensure that the administrative issue of missing documentation for our citizens is not a barrier. Windrush cases must be prioritised. The Home Office must also take a far more proactive approach; it cannot wait until a particular case has gone into the public domain before deciding to take action to resolve it. The Windrush generation are British—they belong here—and the task now is to provide them with a legal status that reflects that. I applaud the new team’s intent to resolve cases within two weeks after evidence has been produced. It is vital to keep to such commitments to restore public trust in the Home Office.
In the past week, since I agreed to lead the debate, I have been engaging with lawyers and volunteers assisting members of the Windrush generation to secure their legal status, as well as with church and community leaders who represent the group. Many of those people are descendants of the Windrush generation or have a personal connection to them. They have expressed concerns about the capacity and effectiveness of the dedicated helpline that was set up to deal with inquiries. They have also asked whether there will be a deadline beyond which the Home Office might not be able to give further help to those seeking it. Will the Minister clarify what her Department will do to ensure that the helpline can give help effectively to everyone who seeks advice and whether there will be a deadline or cut-off point after which people might not get the help they seek from the new helpline?
I am glad the former Home Secretary acknowledged that the burden of proof to produce evidence of their legal right has been too much for some and suggested that the Department will deal with those individuals in a more personal manner. They came as British subjects and were not subject to any condition or restriction when they entered the UK. As we now know, many have found the task of producing evidence of their continuous residency here difficult. We need to prevent the Windrush generation and their children from facing further uncertainty over their status in the future and to allow them to be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.
With Brexit fast approaching, the Government must get things right for EU citizens. The Home Office must work now to ensure that the EU citizens who decide to stay here legally after Brexit know that they are welcome and that they will not face similar treatment.
A couple of times the hon. Gentleman has referred to these issues as though they have blown up only in the last few weeks. There may have been massive press coverage in the last few weeks, but the issues have been going on for months and indeed years. There has been an almost complete failure to recognise that and to put the corrective mechanisms in, which is precisely why a full restructuring of the immigration directorate in the Home Office is required.
I think I did say that there had been warning signs and cases for some time now that should have highlighted the problem. I do not know whether it is years or months; I have certainly been aware of it for months, but if the right hon. Gentleman says it is years, I am not going to argue with him. Whatever the period of time is, I think we all agree that action should have been taken sooner to address the issue, before it reached the state that it did in recent weeks. On that, we can absolutely agree.
To go back to the question of EU citizens, I commend the Home Office for preparing for a new form of identification that will be simple and straightforward, so that the 3.7 million EU citizens will have clear and secure documentation of their legal status. That is vital to avoiding similar mistakes. I hope the Home Office will be able to publish further details about the identification scheme in the near future.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there is a chance that people will not be able to use iPhones to register their EU registration? That seems to be of concern to EU citizens. Could he confirm that one way or the other?
The hon. Lady raises a point I am not aware of, and it is not really for me to answer it. She might like to address it to the Minister, who might respond to it later. I was not aware of that point, but I am sure it is a valid and important one.
We need an immigration system that is effective and fair. Many of my parliamentary colleagues and I are of the belief that we need a robust and competent immigration system that is also fair and humane to people seeking to legally enter and settle in this country. We have to send clear messages to discourage illegal immigration, and this and previous Governments have taken steps to be tough in tackling it. I believe the British public want the Government to be tough on illegal immigration. However, we also need to be clear that this issue is not about illegal immigration, and to make it about the way the Government handle illegal migrants is missing the heart of the point. The Windrush generation are not here illegally and never have been. In this case, well-meaning policies have been applied to the wrong people, with devastating consequences for the lives of our citizens. There are clearly lessons to be learned from that, but if our reaction is to weaken our stance on illegal immigration, we will be doing the British people a disservice.
A change of culture is needed at the heart of the Home Office, because the focus has been on policy and process and not on people. We must never lose sight of the fact that at the heart of these polices are people—individuals and families who deserve to be treated fairly and with dignity and respect. It is right that immigration needs to be managed—it cannot be uncontrolled—but managing immigration can be just and compassionate. That can be challenging, but it is essential. We must have a just and fair immigration system that works for the British people, that is open to people with the skills and talents to fill much-needed roles in our economy, and that is compassionate to the most vulnerable, the persecuted and the displaced.
We owe the Windrush generation a huge debt of gratitude for a number of things: for coming to help our nation at a time of need, for the contribution they have made to our nation for the past 70 years, for the lessons they have taught us and for the important part they have played in shaping modern Britain as a tolerant, multicultural nation. I suspect that we will soon owe them another thank you. Through this terrible experience, which I know has been painful and caused distress to many, they are again teaching us an important lesson: they are forcing us to look at the type of country we want to be in the future, they are making us look at the consequences, no matter how unintentional, of the way we handle immigration, and they are reminding us of the values that made us into the great nation of the modern post-war world. Those are important lessons, and this is an important time for us to be reminded of them.
In closing, I reiterate the crucial message that we want to send to all Commonwealth citizens who have legally chosen to make Britain their home: you are a vital part of this country, and we are immensely grateful for the contributions you have made to our culture, our economy and our society over many years. You have helped to make us the country we are. You and your children are welcome to stay here. We want you to stay, and we want to do everything we can to make you feel welcome.
Mr Austin, I am very proud to stand here on behalf of the 178,000 people who have signed the petition. I am proud to stand here on behalf of the 492 British citizens who arrived on Empire Windrush from Jamaica 70 years ago. I am proud to stand here on behalf of the 72,000 British citizens who arrived on these shores between the passage of the British Nationality Act 1948 and the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962, including my own father, who arrived from Guyana in 1956.
It is a dark episode in our nation’s history that this petition was even required. It is a dark day indeed that we are here in Parliament having to stand up for the right of people who have always given so much to this country and expected so little in return. We need to remember our history at this moment. In Britain, when we talk about slavery we tend to talk about its abolition, and in particular William Wilberforce. The Windrush story does not begin in 1948; the Windrush story begins in the 17th century, when British slave traders stole 12 million Africans from their homes, took them to the Caribbean and sold them into slavery to work on plantations. The wealth of this country was built on the backs of the ancestors of the Windrush generation. We are here today because you were there.
My ancestors were British subjects, but they were not British subjects because they came to Britain. They were British subjects because Britain came to them, took them across the Atlantic, colonised them, sold them into slavery, profited from their labour and made them British subjects. That is why I am here, and it is why the Windrush generation are here.
There is no British history without the history of the empire. As the late, great Stuart Hall put it:
“I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea.”
Seventy years ago, as Britain lay in ruins after the second world war, the call went out to the colonies from the mother country. Britain asked the Windrush generation to come and rebuild the country, to work in our national health service, on the buses and on the trains, as cleaners, as security guards. Once again, Caribbean labour was used. They faced down the “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish” signs. They did the jobs nobody else wanted to do. They were spat at in the street. They were assaulted by teddy boys, skinheads and the National Front. They lived five to a room in Rachmanite squalor. They were called, and they served, but my God did they suffer for the privilege of coming to this country.
But by God, they also triumphed. Sir Trevor McDonald, Frank Bruno, Sir Lenny Henry, Jessica Ennis-Hill—they are national treasures, knights of the realm, heavyweight champions of the world and Olympic champions, wrapped in the British flag. They are sons and daughters of the Windrush generation and as British as they come. After all this, the Government want to send that generation back across the ocean. They want to make life hostile for the Windrush children—to strip them of their rights, deny them healthcare, kick them out of their jobs, make them homeless and stop their benefits.
The Windrush children are imprisoned in this country—as we have seen of those who have been detained—centuries after their ancestors were shackled and taken across the ocean in slave ships. They are pensioners imprisoned in their own country. That is a disgrace, and it happened here because of a refusal to remember our history. Last week, at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister said that
“we…owe it to them and to the British people”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 639, c. 881.]
The former Home Secretary said that the Windrush generation should be considered British and should be able to get their British citizenship if they so choose. This is the point the Government simply do not understand: the Windrush generation are the British people. They are British citizens. They came here as citizens. That is the precise reason why this is such an injustice. Their British citizenship is, and has always been, theirs by right. It is not something that the Government can now choose to grant them.
I remind the Government of chapter 56 of the British Nationality Act 1948, which says:
“Every person who under this Act is a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies…shall by virtue of that citizenship have the status of a British subject.”
The Bill uses “British nationality” by virtue of citizenship. I read that Bill again last week when looking over the case notes of my constituents caught up in the Windrush crisis. Patrick Henry is a British citizen who arrived in Britain in 1959. He is a teaching assistant. He told me, “I feel like a prisoner who has committed no crime,” because he is being denied citizenship. Clive Smith, a British citizen who arrived here in 1964, showed the Home Office his school reports and was still threatened with deportation.
Rosario Wilson is a British citizen with no right to be here because Saint Lucia became independent in 1979. Wilberforce Sullivan is a British citizen who paid taxes for 40 years. He was told in 2011 that he was no longer able to work. Dennis Laidley is a British citizen with tax records going back to the 1960s. He was denied a passport and was unable to visit his sick mother. Jeffrey Greaves, a British citizen who arrived here in 1964, was threatened with deportation by the Home Office. Cecile Laurencin, a British citizen with 44 years of national insurance contribution to this country, payslips and bank account details, had her application for naturalisation rejected. Huthley Sealey, a British citizen, is unable to claim benefits or access healthcare in this country. Mark Balfourth, a British citizen who arrived here in 1962 aged 7, was refused access to benefits.
The Windrush generation have waited for too long for rights that are theirs. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over. There comes a time when the burden of living like a criminal in one’s own country becomes too heavy to bear any longer. That is why in the last few weeks we have seen an outpouring of pain and grief that had built up over many years. Yet Ministers have tried to conflate the issue with illegal immigration. On Thursday, the former Home Secretary said she was personally committed to tackling illegal migration, to making it difficult for illegal migrants to live here and to removing people who are here illegally.
I will not; I am just going to finish. Indeed, during her statement last Thursday, the former Home Secretary said “illegal” 23 times but did not even once say “citizen”.
This is not about illegal immigration. This is about British citizens, and frankly it is deeply offensive to conflate the Windrush generation with illegal immigrants to try to distract from the Windrush crisis. This is about a hostile environment policy that blurs the line between illegal immigrants and people who are here legally, and are even British citizens. This is about a hostile environment not just for illegal immigrants but for anybody who looks like they could be an immigrant. This is about a hostile environment that has turned employers, doctors, landlords and social workers into border guards.
The hostile environment is not about illegal immigration. Increasing leave to remain fees by 238% in four years is not about illegal immigration. The Home Office making profits of 800% on standard applications is not about illegal immigration. The Home Office sending back documents unrecorded by second-class post, so that passports, birth certificates and education certificates get lost, is not about illegal immigration. Charging teenagers £2,033 every 30 months for limited leave to remain is not about illegal immigration. Charging someone £10,521 in limited leave to remain fees before they can even apply for indefinite leave to remain is not about illegal immigration.
Banning refugees and asylum seekers from working and preventing them from accessing public funds is not about illegal immigration. Sending nine immigration enforcement staff to arrest my constituent because the Home Office lost his documents is not about illegal immigration. Locking my constituent up in Yarl’s Wood, meaning she missed her midwifery exams, is not about illegal immigration. Denying legal aid to migrants who are here legally is not about illegal immigration. Changing the terms of young asylum seekers’ immigration bail so that they cannot study is not about illegal immigration. Sending immigration enforcement staff to a church in my constituency that was serving soup to refugees is not about illegal immigration.
The former Home Secretary and the Prime Minister promised compensation. They have promised that no enforcement action will be taken. They have promised that the burden of proof will be lowered when the taskforce assesses Windrush cases. The Windrush citizens do not trust the Home Office, and I do not blame them after so much injustice has been dealt out.
“an unjust law is no law at all.”
I say to the Minister, warm words mean nothing. Guarantee these rights and enshrine them in law as soon as possible, and review the hostile environment that turns everybody in this country who is different into someone who is potentially illegal. Some 230 years after those in the abolitionist movement wore their medallions around their necks, I stand here as a Caribbean, black, British citizen and I ask the Minister, on behalf of those Windrush citizens, am I not a man and a brother? [Applause.]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I, too, begin by paying tribute to Mr Vernon, the petitioner.
There is a great deal in what Mr Lammy said that everyone of conscience, sensitivity and feeling can agree with wholeheartedly. On any view, this has been a shocking episode, and it has inspired feelings of some shame—shame because this is not the country we are, these are not our values and this is not the kind of country we aspire to be. Forgive me for repeating a point that does bear emphasis and on which I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman: the Windrush generation are British. They are part of the warp and weft of this nation. They have made a profound contribution—in business, science, commerce, sport and industry. We all feel profound distress at the way some individuals—far too many individuals—have been impacted.
It is right that we pause to think: how did it come to this? It is important to step back and look, with a little granularity, in a little detail, at what happened. It seems that the Immigration Act 1971 provided that those who arrived before it came into force should be treated as having indefinite leave to remain, despite not having the specific documentation. Afterwards, of course, people required the document in the passport or whatever it was. It is now tolerably plain that attempts to clamp down on illegal immigration have had unintended and wholly unacceptable consequences. The system has failed. It has acted indiscriminately and in a way that causes us the shame that I mentioned.
We may be able to derive a small sense of solace. I have been encouraged, to some extent, in hearing the response of the Government. There has been no attempt to deny that what happened was wrong; no attempt to pretend that the system has worked as it should have; no attempt to deny the impact, which is profound; and a fairly, if I may put it like this, grovelling acknowledgement that the system has gone wrong.
We can take some small comfort, too, in seeing the speed and robustness of the response. That is quite right. The taskforce has been set up not to hinder applicants, but to help them to demonstrate that they are entitled to live in the UK. That is quite right. It has been tasked with resolving cases inside two weeks, because for individuals such as Elwaldo Romeo, who was referred to with great articulacy by my hon. Friend Steve Double, it must be a peculiar form of torture, almost, to feel that the Home Office could come knocking. These cases must be resolved quickly, because justice delayed is justice denied. No language tests—quite right. No cost—quite right. A helpline—quite right. Also and importantly, those who made their lives here but have retired to their country of origin must be able to come back to the UK. Fees must be waived. It is right that the Government are working with embassies and high commissions to make that the case.
What is the net effect of all this? It means that anyone from the Windrush generation who now wants to become a British citizen can. The net effect is that the burden of proof has, in effect, been shifted. Something adverted to by the right hon. Member for Tottenham was compensation. That scheme should be run by an independent person, and I understand that that is the Government’s intention. Yes, things have gone wrong, but it is absolutely right that the Government have acted decisively, without seeking to cavil, deny or shift the blame to anyone else.
Where I respectfully—with great and genuine respect—apply a slightly different context to the points that the right hon. Gentleman made is that I think we must, when speaking about the issue of illegal immigration, emphasise that there is a distinction and explain why there is that distinction. The reason we draw the distinction is that illegal immigration, as distinct from the immigration of those who came here in the Windrush generation and subsequently, encourages exploitation of the most vulnerable. It is a cruel and pernicious way to behave.
Illegal immigration is also unfair on those who play by the rules and do the right thing. They include, by the way, people from the Windrush generation, who, exactly as the right hon. Gentleman described with great articulacy, answered Britain’s call to come to our country to help, work, support and build. They did the right thing. The truth is that some of the most vociferous critics of those who try to game the system—those who get round it and try to bend the rules—are often those people who have played by the rules, come to this country and done the right thing. We must draw that distinction not just because it is right, but because it is fair to those who have played by the rules.
The other point is that we should not seek to infantilise people by suggesting that the rhetoric about being tough on illegal immigration is new. It is not. It is entirely appropriate that, in the past, Governments of all stripes have talked and acted tough. Let us take a moment to consider what has applied. In 1982, under a Conservative Government, the NHS began treatment charges for illegal immigrants. That has the advantage of common sense, one might think. Those people who have come here legally need to feel that they are getting a proper share of public services and that they are not being wrongly diverted.
In 1997, the Government instituted checks by employers on people’s right to work here. In 1999, measures were imposed on access to benefits. We were then under a Labour Government, of course. In 2008, civil penalties of up to £10,000 were imposed for those who employed illegal migrants. I do not criticise any of that, and to suggest that what has happened now has emerged from a clear blue sky is misleading and unfair to those who are in the eye of this storm.
I shall make this point now, because it is one that those listening to the debate will not necessarily know. When it comes to healthcare, emergency treatment is available to all, regardless of who they are; it is more routine and elective care for which there are, rightly, checks. I am not criticising my hon. Friend; I am just making sure that people understand that no one is denied emergency care in this country.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for clarifying that point; he is absolutely right to do so. The point I was making about the context is that measures have accrued over time. I am grateful to him for that point of detail.
I do not quote what I am about to in the interest of inflaming matters, because I do not think we should be in the business of inflaming matters; we should be in the business of cold, cool assessment. However, my hon. Friend Simon Hoare was right when he quoted an Immigration Minister from 2007, who described his policy as flushing illegal migrants out and
“trying to create a much more hostile environment in this country if you are here illegally.”
“We need to make living and working here illegally ever more uncomfortable and constrained.”
The reality is that Governments of all stripes have talked and acted tough.
All I really want to say is that this is a shameful episode. As has been indicated, it is a case of error, not conspiracy. It is incumbent on this Government, because they happen to be in office, to make things right, but we owe it to the people of this country, whether they are here from the Windrush generation or from elsewhere, to look at this coolly, frankly and, above all, fairly.
I would like to say to the people who came here, who are our teachers, our nurses, our cleaners, our carers, our bus drivers and our train drivers: thank you. London would not be the city it is today, and my part of London—the best part of London, which is south London—would not be what it is today, but for the Windrush generation.
My mum was of an earlier generation than the Windrush generation. She came here in 1947 to train as a nurse, and worked in mental health for the rest of her working life. Until I was four years old, I did not understand that there were any countries other than Ireland, England and those in the Caribbean, because all her friends in nursing were from Ireland or the Caribbean. They were the only people who wanted to work in the large psychiatric hospitals of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
I am not here today to compete in any way with the amazing oratory of my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy, but to try to get justice for three of my constituents. I have been racking my brain since this issue came to the fore, thinking about how those people, who came to see me, could have been treated unjustly and about how they can now seek support.
I want to bring the case of Kenneth Ellis to the Minister’s attention. Ken came to the UK in 1962, aged 8, to join his parents, Herman and Ivy Ellis, both of whom were UK citizens. He still has his dad’s UK passport and birth certificate. He attended schools in Wandsworth. For a short period, sadly, he was in care under Wandsworth Council.
He first came to see me in 2013, and I tried to find out how I could help him to provide proof of his residency in the UK, backdated to 1962. That sounds an awful lot easier than it actually is. I contacted the Inland Revenue. It said that it had records, but it could not release them back to 1962 unless the Home Office asked for them. I contacted Wandsworth Council, but it informed me that it did not keep records of that age. I was told that if I could get the landing card from when he arrived, that could help. However, we now know that those landing cards were destroyed. As a result of the last five years of attempting to define his status in a country where he has lived for over 50 years, he has been unable to work, his relationship has broken down and he has lost his home.
I have known about Trevor only since
Trevor worked for the Blue Arrow agency for years, taking time off only when Eastlyn became unwell and he wanted to care for her. As a result of an administrative error with the agency, he was sent his P45. On receipt of it, he could no longer work. Every employer he went to—even Blue Arrow, which he returned to—said that he did not have the paperwork to ensure that he could work, so nobody would take him on. As a result, he has been out of work for the last 18 months and reliant on his 83-year-old mother.
Neville’s case is slightly different. He came to Britain in 1973, aged 17, to join his parents, Thomas and Deslin, both of whom were UK citizens—to prove this, I have their expired UK passports. Deslin’s passport says, “I Kenneth Blackburne, Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George, Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, Captain-General and Governor-in-Chief in and over the island of Jamaica and its dependencies, request and require in the name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford every assistance and protection of which she may stand in need. Given at King’s House in the island of Jamaica on the 19th day of April 1961.”Neville’s father’s passport reads, “Given by Geoffrey Campbell Gunter, Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Issued at King’s House in the island of Jamaica, the 6th of July 1960.”
Despite that, Neville cannot define his immigration status. He has spent money. He has had pro bono support. He has been evicted from his home. He has not been allowed to work. He has not been allowed to claim benefits. I have chased the Home Office for the last six years to try to sort out his immigration status, and I am ashamed to say that, to date, I have failed. Neville now cares full time for his mother to enable his siblings to work, knowing that their mum is cared for. It is simply not right that Neville or his parents should have been treated in this way.
All we are asking for is justice, and the right for these three men to go out and work to support themselves in the way that their parents taught them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin, and to follow Siobhain McDonagh, who made an incredibly powerful and moving speech.
Mr Lammy was absolutely right when he pointed out that we cannot forget history. We should not try to forget history, warts and all, the good and the bad. Any nation that tries to pretend that all its history is one or the other is a nation that is not at ease with itself and that is trying to fool its residents.
It is important for both the Labour party and the Conservative party to remember where quite a lot of this stuff came from. Looking back to the middle and the end of the Blair-Brown premiership and the early days of the coalition, both the main parties in this country had become terrified of either the British National party or the UK Independence party. We saw them nibbling away at our bases; we saw them pandering to prejudices, very often long held, but very rarely spoken of. We saw it in industrial areas; we saw it in all sorts of areas in this country.
I do not like using the phrase “dog-whistle politics”, because I always think it is a blunt instrument. To an extent, however, Governments of both persuasions—of both colours—were under the most enormous pressure to be tough, and sometimes we slightly lost our nerve. Principled mainstream politicians lost the resolve to kick back against that, to face it down and to say why that narrative was wrong. I am absolutely concerned that, as our concern grew, so did some of these policies, which were put in place by both Governments, and which, with hindsight, might have been phrased a little better and should have been thought of a little more deeply.
My hon. Friend Alex Chalk made an incredibly powerful speech, which was thoughtful and sensible—his hallmarks. He was right to draw our attention to some of those quotes from Labour Ministers involved with the Home Office or with immigration specifically. John Reid, now the noble Lord Reid, said as Home Secretary:
“We need to make living and working here illegally ever-more uncomfortable and constrained.”
“What we are proposing here will, I think, flush illegal migrants out. We are trying to create a much more hostile environment in this country if you are here illegally.”
I intervened on my hon. Friend Steve Double to draw our attention back to the different definitions. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the immigration Minister, the former Home Secretary, the current Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper—the chairman of the Home Affairs Committee—who has joined us, and all of us should and must be at the most enormous pains to point out that division of public policy. All of us will have been annoyed and irritated over the years, when we have entered into debates with members of the public, who could be constituents of ours or not, in which asylum seekers, refugees, legal immigrants and illegal immigrants have all been put into one pot. Instead, we should look at the silos and the policies that flow from that.
My right hon. Friends who are involved in the Home Office, and who are at the head of Government, have made clear the Government’s shame at what has happened and have made clear their apology. I cannot think of a single colleague on the Conservative Benches who would demur from that position.
I happen to be one of those Conservatives who has been perfectly relaxed about immigration and the freedom of movement. As somebody who is a quarter Irish, a quarter Greek and half Welsh, and as somebody who was born and brought up in Cardiff, how could I not be relaxed about immigration? Cardiff’s marvellous docks were a huge melting pot for the world’s nations as they came to work in and grow our south Wales economy. They enriched south Wales not just financially, but culturally, and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
We have to be clear. We must not throw the baby out with the bath water by conflating, yet again, the clear legal definitions of legal and illegal migration. The Windrush generation are not becoming British citizens. As the right hon. Member for Tottenham has said, they are British citizens, and the law seeks to confirm those rights and privileges.
In central and local government, not just in the arena of public policy, but across the piece, we have moved too much towards the “computer says no” approach—to use the “Little Britain” phrase—where boxes are ticked or they are not. In any future arrangement, we must ensure that officials and Ministers who are dealing with these often complex matters have the opportunity—the space, as it were—for more discretion and discernment in taking important decisions.
As the Member for North Dorset, and as someone who has never had their right to be in this country questioned, I am not sure that I can envisage how people’s lives must have been turned not just upside down, but inside out. Like one of those snow domes, their lives have been shaken, and the whole picture of their everyday lives has become so distorted that they cannot recognise it and they feel like aliens in their own country.
I take the point made by my hon. Friend John Howell when he intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay: people fall into saying it is either a cock-up or a conspiracy. I would be the first to stand up and say so if I believed something was a conspiracy, but I do not. I think it was genuinely an oversight. “Oversight” may be a trivial word to use, as it in no way encompasses the emotional gamut of how people have had to respond to these issues, but I take enormous comfort from the fact that we as a Government are seeking to put these things right.
As the right hon. Member for Tottenham reminded us, and as I pointed out in my opening remarks, we should not forget history, and nor should we seek to rewrite the welcome, or sometimes the lack of it, that the first Windrush generation received. On the posters in the bed and breakfasts in Kensington, Notting Hill and Portobello Road that said, “No Irish, no dogs, no blacks”, the blacks were always at the bottom of the list—dogs were preferred to black people. Other issues included the colour bar and access to housing—the Rachmanisation of the London housing stock.
We should not delude ourselves. These people answered the clarion call of the—I use the phrase of the right hon. Member for Tottenham— mother country. Just as they had answered in time of war, so they answered in time of peace. The battlefields of the first and second world wars were indelibly stained not only with the blood of white Anglo-Saxons, but with the blood of empire—of people who realised that the values that we were trying to defend and the attempt to deter and defeat the foe were right. It was right for them to come to fight alongside us. I am never quite certain that that debt has ever been truly recognised.
As we all know, the 1968 speech cast a long shadow over the immigration debate. People would often veer away from discussing immigration for fear of being accused of having racial or racist tendencies. We have moved on from that, but, by golly, when such events come about, we have to pause to remind ourselves, and to reinforce the fact, that the debate is not anchored by racial prejudice or a racial agenda in any way.
I do not like the phrase “Illegals will be flushed out”, but I fully support, as I believe do the vast majority of people who are here legally, irrespective of colour, the need to be firm and resolute in our approach to migration to this country, for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham alluded to. We need to ensure that those who are here legally are given the warm embrace of a friend and neighbour, through which we entirely recognise the unquantifiable contribution that they make to our society, not just economically, but socially, culturally and from a community base.
My right hon. Friend the Minister is all too aware of the scale of the task and the speed with which it needs to be completed, as is my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, whom I welcome to his new position. Nobody should be under any illusion as to the seriousness and determination of Her Majesty’s Government, not just to resolve the problem properly, promptly and speedily, but to ensure that the “computer says no” response, and this sort of problem, do not arise again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I thank Patrick Vernon OBE for launching the petition and creating the space we urgently needed to discuss these awful and totally avoidable events. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy for his exceptional speech and his tireless advocacy on the issue; my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper for her forensic interrogation and analysis of the former Home Secretary’s actions; and my right hon. Friend Ms Abbott, who has so effectively led on the issue from the Front Bench.
Let me make it clear: this issue is personal to me, because, like many Londoners, I have family who are part of the Windrush generation. Lucy and her husband Cecil came here to help to rebuild Britain. Lucy is a fabulous, dedicated and caring nurse who worked in the NHS for her whole life, and Cecil is a skilled artisan. So, before I start, I will say, “Thank you”, to Lucy and Cecil for all they have done, and to all the Lucys and Cecils who came, worked and served our country—often, sadly, in brutal, racist circumstances.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech about the importance of the Windrush generation to the whole country, our public services and our economy. Will she join me in thanking not only all those who have helped to build our country, but all those who have been so badly and shamefully hit by what has gone wrong in the Home Office, who have nevertheless had the bravery and strength to speak out, including telling their stories to the newspapers and to Amelia Gentleman, who has obviously played such an important role in telling their stories?
I certainly will, and I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention.
Cecil and Lucy really believed that they could make this country a home, and that it would be fit for their children and their grandchildren, and they did make it a home for them. They thought that they had secured for themselves and their children a place that was warm and welcoming. However, I assure Members that their family is angry now, because the contract they had with this country has been broken by this careless, callous Government. Their faith in this country has been crushed. They, their children and their grandchildren feel betrayed.
It is not just my family who are angered by that betrayal; many of my constituents, whether they have family among the Windrush generation or not, believe that this Prime Minister’s policies have betrayed a generation of their friends, neighbours and families.
I do not know how many of my constituents have been caught up in the Home Office’s “hostile” immigration strategy, because many people have not made their way to my door yet. However, I urge them to do so, so that I can help them sort this situation out.
One man, who I will call Gem, contacted me early last year. Gem travelled from Jamaica in 1969 and has lived here legally ever since. However, in August last year his housing benefit suddenly stopped, on the basis that he
“had no recourse to public funds.”
That was certainly news to him.
Gem has not kept hold of every official document that has come through his door for the last several decades, so when the Home Office demanded evidence for every single year that he had lived here he was understandably devastated and overwhelmed. I do not think many of us could produce that much evidence on demand; I certainly could not.
Gem was told that he would have to secure a new passport from Jamaica, at great expense and at a time when he was unable to work. The £2,500 fee for naturalisation was well out of the question. He now faces eviction, due to rent arrears, and he tells me that he has to report regularly to the immigration centre, as if he was a criminal. A few days ago, Gem’s daughter called the new hotline, but she is still waiting to be called back. I have contacted the Immigration Minister on Gem’s behalf and I will be happy to give her his details after this debate.
Gem is not the only constituent of mine who has been harmed by this “hostile” environment. Jessica travelled to Britain in 1970 from Dominica. She is 58 now but still remembers an immigration officer stamping her passport with the words, “Indefinite right to remain”. She grew up in this country, and she has worked and paid taxes here for the last 39 years. Last month, however, she was fired from her job with a local charity that supports migrants and refugees, on the basis that she could not prove her right to work in the UK. It is a bitter irony that someone who has worked to help those at risk because of immigration policies has now fallen victim to those policies herself. Jessica said:
“I have always been a positive person, but this is a terrible situation.”
I do not think that anybody could have failed to notice the oft-repeated use by the former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, of the phrase “compliant environment” last week. However, as my hon. Friend Maria Eagle said:
“Whether it’s compliance or hostility, it’s still a policy which has led to this debacle”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 639, c. 633.]
Gem and Jessica will receive absolutely no comfort if I tell them that, although they have lost nearly everything, the Government did not mean to be “hostile”. That is cold comfort, because let us be in no doubt that this scandal is leaving a legacy of fear and anxiety among the communities and individuals that it has betrayed.
Nevertheless, I welcome the Government’s pledges to waive fees for members of the Windrush generation as they apply for documents and rightful naturalisation, and to scrap the requirement for a citizenship test, as well as the free services that they have created for the victims. Those were absolutely the right things to do, but the problem stems from the policy itself. The “hostile environment” has been hardened over time, in the service of an arbitrary target. That is hardly the way to encourage careful evaluation of an individual’s rights.
The canned response that we keep hearing from the Government is that the Windrush generation are different, or an exception. We know the phrase, “the exception proves the rule”, and there are already new cases coming to light of British citizens from other backgrounds who have been caught up by this Government’s approach. So how many exceptions will it take before the rule is changed? Will cases that do not appear to be Windrush related need to make their own headlines before they are recognised? If so, that is not only nonsensical, but cruel.
The right to appeal through an immigration tribunal was scrapped, for most cases, by 2014. When, on top of that, there is no longer recourse to legal aid, the inevitable wrong decisions are so much harder to challenge. I hope that the new Home Secretary will fix this matter urgently, although I do not hold my breath.
“Regret”, no matter how bitter or heartfelt, cannot take the place of a substantial policy change. It is simply not good enough to redress the consequences each time after the fact. Policy change is the only way to prevent this situation from happening again, but even that will not undo the damage that has already been done; that pain will never go away. The petition that we are considering rightly calls on the Government to take into account “loss & hurt”. The “loss” of a job, of benefits, of medical treatment, of pensions, or of citizenship can be measured.
Does my hon. Friend hope, as I do, that the compensation scheme will be put in place sooner rather than later, because some people have been detained, some have been deprived of healthcare and some have been deprived of benefits, and they have also all gone through terrible anguish during the time that this scandal has been going on?
My hon. Friend is, of course, obviously right, because we can—possibly—put a financial value on the financial “loss” incurred by loss of jobs, benefits and so on, but the “hurt”—that is, the loss of faith and the impact of the deep betrayal—is much more complex and much more difficult to assess in monetary terms, so I ask the Minister to ensure that whoever is appointed to run the compensation scheme is encouraged to think long and hard about the lifetime impact of these losses.
The Windrush generation undoubtedly made a huge contribution to rebuilding our country; many of them also fought in the war. They came at the Government’s invitation, stayed at the Government’s invitation and worked year after year after year, because they were needed, so there is a real stench of betrayal about these recent events.
I am lucky—so lucky—that I have an amazing family. I have not only Cecil and Lucy, who have done so much for this country, but their children, including my brother-in-law, Colin, who I love to bits, and his daughter, my niece Aimee, who I love more than life itself.
My family have been lucky not to fall victim to the changed immigration laws, but, make no mistake, we are very angry. We are furious. We need more from the Government. We need mistakes to be rectified quickly, with generous compensation, and we need less dangerous policies coming from the Government. It is now time for the Prime Minister, as the architect of the hostile environment policy, to take responsibility, because it is her policy and her watch, and it is for her to be held to account.
I am grateful to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I am pleased to be able to speak in this important debate.
I will speak relatively briefly, but first I want to declare that I entirely support the sentiment of the petition. My constituency has a significant population with a Commonwealth background across Aldershot and Farnborough, which are in the borough of Rushmoor: people who have built their lives in the borough and who contribute a great deal at every professional level. I am very pleased to put on record my appreciation of the contribution that that population makes. Aldershot, as a borough, shares an even longer history with our Commonwealth, going back to the late 19th century, when a great number of imperial troops were stationed in its garrisons. The contribution of our Commonwealth population has, as has been said, a long historical precedent. Today, members of our community with mainly Indian and Pakistani heritage live with a significant Nepalese community, and that is something of which I am extremely proud.
We have heard some eloquent and moving speeches, but rather than talking about the rhetoric surrounding the issue, I will touch briefly on the action that the Government have taken in the past few days and weeks. I am grateful that the Minister is here; I am sure she will offer further reassurance about the series of actions the Government have taken so far. It is important that the Government have waived the fee for anyone who wishes to apply for citizenship—for those who do not have any documentation and those who do. The waiving of the requirement to do the knowledge of language test is important, as is the fact that the children of the Windrush generation will be able to apply to naturalise at no cost. It is also important that those who have lived here for a long time and have then returned to their country of origin are able to come back, and that the associated fees will be waived.
I am encouraged that we have a dedicated team helping to identify and gather evidence to confirm the existence of individuals’ rights to be in the UK, and I would be grateful for any updates that the Minister might provide on that taskforce’s latest actions. I understand that, as of last week, 23 people had already obtained the documentation they needed, with nearly 100 appointments booked to help more people. I am encouraged by that, but any further update from the Minister would be much appreciated.
I am pleased, too, that no one affected will be charged for any documentation that proves their right to be here, and that anyone who wishes to obtain a formal residence card can do so free of cost. Given the emotions around the subject, which we have been described eloquently today, I am reassured that there will be no removal or detention as part of any assistance to help those citizens get their proper documentation. It is important that we put that on record and that it is clearly understood. I am also reassured by the fact that a new website will provide information and guidance for people who need support, and will give examples of the type of evidence required for the formal process.
In addition to that series of actions, it is important that the Government now get the tone right. That is why, earlier today in the Chamber, I was encouraged by hearing the new Home Secretary clearly outline that the matter is of the highest importance. He did so in personal terms, saying that “it could have been my mother, my brother or me.” The new Home Secretary gets this. He gets the emotional importance of the matter and the sense of justice that people associated with the Windrush generation want to see fulfilled. He also said, “I will do whatever it takes to get this right…we will do right by the Windrush generation.” He then went on to say, “Like her, I am a second-generation migrant”. He was referring to the shadow Home Secretary, Ms Abbott, and to the fact that she “does not have a monopoly” on anger. That is very true, and the only response from the Government now, while there is justifiable anger, needs to be one of calm, compassionate efficiency. I am reassured that the Government will resolve the episode in a serious and determined manner, but also in an empathetic and gracious one.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Austin.
In many ways, our debates over the Windrushers have been too small, too fixated on destroyed immigration documents or on who knew what when. Like those of EU citizens, the interests of the Windrush citizens have not been given the attention they should have been afforded; they have been afterthoughts as far as too many UK politicians are concerned. The political game has seemed more important than the people whose lives are affected, and the point scoring more important than sorting the matter out.
[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]
The debates are too small in another way, too. They are about a group of cases regarding the symptoms of a policy malfunction, not about the policy malfunction itself. It is not, as was suggested earlier, simply a structural problem in the Home Office. The anti-immigration rhetoric of successive UK Governments has created an environment of xenophobic mistrust, hate and fear. The “go home” vans that the Prime Minister created in her previous post of Home Secretary were a development from Gordon Brown’s “British jobs for British workers”. We know, too, that the Government of Clement Attlee was not the benign, welcoming and inclusive regime it has recently been painted as. We know that the Ministers in that Government wanted immigration to be a temporary phenomenon. I am afraid I cannot agree with Simon Hoare on that, although I welcome many of his very measured remarks on the topic.
Racism runs deep in the political psyche here. A bias is embedded in the minds of many politicians that will not easily be dislodged. Windrush is not some isolated case, and it is not an aberration or a deviation from the norm. It fits right into the institutional racism of this place. From the attempts of Attlee’s Ministers to turn the ship away to the Immigration Act 1971, and on to the vicious, hostile environment of the current Government, there is a thread of hate linking the attitudes of the generations. Those attitudes have driven public perceptions too, in the casual racism we all too often see. Ms Abbott can testify to that, I believe, with the appalling flood of bile that is directed at her.
Even with that evidence so easily available to us, all the attitudes persist here, and that has driven the debate on a number of issues, not least of which has been the debate on our relationship with the EU. For all that nonsense about that bus with the promise to pay the NHS millions every week, the main driver of the leave debate was racist. It was an argument of exceptionalism—an opinion that we are somehow better than everyone else. It has continued into the aftermath too, with the Government’s disregard for the worries of EU citizens concerned for their future here. Treated as pawns, they have been left with no certainty about their position post-Brexit. People who have contributed to our communities, paid their taxes, made society better, and built lives and futures here have been dispossessed by a Government who seem determined to fight Agincourt again.
Three million people who—like the Windrush generation —live, work, study, pay taxes and contribute to society here have had their lives thrown into question. EU citizens have been packing up and leaving ahead of Brexit: shutting down businesses, resigning from the NHS and leaving their research labs and universities. That damages Scotland. We need the people who will help run our services, build businesses, support our academic sector and build our future. People who come to share Scotland are as welcome as they are necessary, and we need them.
The Government’s attitude is disgraceful. They have targets for deporting immigrants. Imagine that: those are not targets as in, “This person or those people should not be allowed to stay”, but targets as in, “8,337 a year”. What could possibly be the driver of that, other than racism, a sense of exceptionalism and an attitude that we are somehow better than others?
I fear that the hon. Lady is falling into the trap I alluded to in my speech of conflating “legal” and “illegal”. I think most people in this country, including legal migrants, would say that any Government has a duty and responsibility to ensure that everybody who is here is here legally. If that means setting targets to remove people who should not be here, most people support that, irrespective of their national heritage.
I am afraid I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point. Right hon. and hon Members have made comments about Gypsy Travellers in debates here that have caused my mouth literally to drop open in astonishment and horror. There has been case after case in my constituency office of the most appalling treatment of EU and non-EU nationals alike by UK Visas and Immigration and the Home Office. My contention is that those attitudes come from successive UK Governments’ attitudes towards the issue of immigration as a whole.
Successive UK Governments have created an atmosphere of mistrust and fear, and they are proud of it—the Prime Minister even praises the “hostile environment”. They thought that they had tapped into a source of votes by painting immigrants as some kind of threat to an imaginary British way of life. Now Windrush is blowing up the dust of the UK’s imperial past. People who came to these islands as British citizens are being deported. People who came here half a century ago are being told to go home. The vans may be gone, but the attitude has not. They are being told to go back to countries they would not recognise now. Their children and grandchildren are also targeted—people who were born in the UK and have never lived anywhere else. Some have already been deported, some have declared themselves stateless to avoid deportation and many more are living in fear that their lives are about to be utterly broken. These people came here when there were labour shortages. They worked, paid their taxes and built lives and communities. They had children who worked, paid their taxes and built on that legacy. They have grandchildren who are doing the same.
The UK is unlikely to change any time soon, but Scotland needs immigrants—we need population growth, and we need the energy and the impetus that comes with them. Our country is damaged by the right-wing xenophobia of deportation, document checks and fear-mongering. EU citizens and Windrush people should not be discouraged or deterred; they should be welcomed and encouraged. This debate is less than it should be—it should be an in-depth and unflinching analysis of the continuing racism of the body politic here. That is our shame and our disgrace, and we should not be content to hand it on to future generations.
I am sorry I was not here for the beginning of the debate. I was taking part in questions in the Chamber, where a statement had been asked for. May I say to my brother, Mr Lammy, that I was honoured to be at his wedding? I have to declare that I stand as godfather to the aunt of his children. I am also proud to have known Sam King. Along with Arthur Torrington, he got the Windrush Foundation and the Equiano Society going 21 years ago. I may be fortunate that the people I know whom I would regard as being of the Windrush generation— I use that as a way of embracing a large number of people—have been bishops in my church and headteachers in my schools, and have held every kind of job across the spectrum of our society.
What we have found in this debate is too many people saying, “The other side did not get things right.” What we have lost is a sense of what each of us can do to try to ensure that we do get it right. Some of the lessons I have learned have come from a book by Will Somerville called “Immigration under New Labour”, published by Policy Press at the University of Bristol. It covers 1997 to 2007, so it is not the full period, but in chapters 16, 17 and 18 there is quite a lot of talk about targets. In the days when I served as a junior Minister and my wife served as a more senior Minister, people laughed at us because we would have between three and 11 boxes over a weekend. Various people said, “Why do you read what is put in front of you?” The answer is that we can find that voice among the public officials or the outsiders who say, “Please look at this. It is not sensible. It is not right.”
I was going to appear on “Newsnight” a few days ago, but I got bounced because the subject of the Windrush generation was seen as less important than the future retirement of the manager of Arsenal football club. To some people that may be the right sense of priorities, but it cost me an opportunity to talk about the many people affected by the way the system has worked—albeit for a minority, but that minority matters just as much as the majority. As most people now say, we should not be saying to people who have lived here at peace, paid taxes, registered to vote and contributed as British nationals, “You have to prove what you were doing for elements of your life for each year for the past 40 years.” I could not do that; why should they have to do it?
The presumption ought to be that if someone has obviously lived here for long enough to qualify as a recognised British national—as a subject, a citizen—they should not have to go find all these documents. We should say, “This person has been on the electoral register for the past 15 years. It is clear that they came out of a school. Here they are in a confirmation class. Here they are in Guides or Scouts. Here they are at a college or university, or in a recognised training situation, or even just as a taxpayer.”
The Inland Revenue knows who has been paying taxes. The Department for Work and Pensions knows who has been paying national insurance. If, on the face of it, that shows they have absolutely no chance of being an illegal immigrant who has come in during the past two or three years, they should be granted British citizenship formally, recognising what is formally right anyway.
I do not want to criticise the media, because we rely on them, but what on earth was that nonsense about the landing cards? British subjects did not complete landing cards. They did not do it. The fact that the landing cards were or might have been destroyed is irrelevant. That should have been obvious to anyone doing work experience at a newspaper, let alone someone working in one of our great news organisations, the Press Association or the BBC.
The hon. Gentleman says the landing cards are irrelevant, but my constituent Paulette Wilson was sent a letter from the Home Office out of the blue in 2015. It told her that there was no evidence of her entry to the UK, despite the fact that it had destroyed that evidence.
First, I do not know when landing cards came in. If someone arrived on the Empire Windrush in 1948 or on a ship in the next 15 or 20 years, I do not think there were landing cards. Secondly, if they were British, would they have been asked to fill in a landing card, even if they had arrived by air? I think the answer is no.
I campaigned for Krishna Maharaj, who spent 31 years wrongly imprisoned in Florida. He is British. He was born in Trinidad, but being born in Trinidad made him British, and British people do not fill in landing cards. We allow distractions to take away from the common-sense point: what on earth are we doing thinking that the landing cards would solve the problem? Even the manifests do not solve the nationality problem. When people came here, especially from the Caribbean, after the war, they were British until our laws started to change. But we are not talking about that generation; we are talking about the generation of the Sam Kings, the Arthur Torringtons and the like, who also wrote about the contribution that the people from the Caribbean made before 1948 as well as during 1948 and afterwards.
For those who want to know where targets came from, they were not new in 2010 or in 2015. They are discussed in the Will Somerville book, “Immigration under New Labour”, and I have no doubt they were probably there before new Labour as well. What we should say to those who are undocumented British nationals, subjects, citizens, is, “How soon and how easily can we give you the documents you need?” We are not talking about someone who says they are 17 when they are actually 23 and have sadly had to come across the Mediterranean from Syria or from another country in the past two or three years. We are talking about people who, just by looking at them, I can tell have been around for almost as long as I have, or as long as my children have, which is still quite some time. We should say, “Let’s get you documented in the easiest, fastest, simplest and fairest way possible.”
Those advising Ministers, whether inside a Department or outside, should always say to a Minister, “Is this fair? Is it right? Will it work?” I look to this man here, my brother, the right hon. Member for Tottenham. If we sat together for three quarters of an hour I could probably solve much of this and take away the anxiety. We could apologise for the distress that has been wrongly caused to too many for too long, but the fact is common sense normally works. Let us apply it.
I want to thank Patrick Vernon, originally from Wolverhampton—all the best people are—for setting up the petition, and I want to say a huge thank you to the 178,000 people who signed it. I thank my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy for his powerful advocacy and his incredible work and determination to seek justice for the Windrush generation.
Finally, I want to add my thanks to those of my colleagues to thank all those British people of the Windrush generation—whether they have the documents to say that they are British or not, they are British—for coming here in the post-war period and helping to rebuild Britain. My right hon. Friend was right to say that the way they have been treated is a national disgrace.
I want to talk specifically about my constituent, Paulette Wilson, one of the Windrush generation who has been treated by the Government in the most appalling and inhumane manner. We know that the Home Secretary resigned last night, but in my view that is not the end of the matter. The Government still have serious questions to answer about the way Paulette and others have been treated. Also, they have questions to answer about how we avoid that happening in future to the Windrush generation and other Commonwealth citizens, but also to EU citizens way into the future.
I still think that the Prime Minister has serious questions to answer about a raft of policies that she introduced as Home Secretary to create a hostile environment and to create the conditions for this awful scandal. Not only do we have to deal with tackling the injustice of the way the Windrush generation has been treated, but we have to look at the policies, too, and the Government need to change some of them.
My constituent, Paulette Wilson, came to the UK from Jamaica in 1968 at the age of 10. She has worked in the UK all her life and has never left the country. She even worked here in Parliament, serving and waiting on MPs in Commons restaurants. She received a letter from the Home Office out of the blue in August 2015. To her dismay, it accused her of having no evidence of being here legally and having no evidence of her entry to the UK. She started having to report to the immigration centre in Solihull. Two years later, despite the fact that she had gathered substantial evidence of her 50 years in the UK, including 34 years of paying national insurance and the fact that she has a grown-up daughter and a granddaughter, she was detained during one of her visits to the immigration centre.
Paulette spent a week in Yarl’s Wood, fearful of what was going to happen next. She became even more scared when she was taken to the detention centre at Heathrow. Let us imagine for a minute what it was like for her. Imagine ourselves in her shoes: you have lived and worked in the UK for 50 years and raised a family. You feel, and you are, British. You have not left the UK in all that time and you suddenly find yourself in a detention centre at Heathrow airport being told you are going to be put on a flight to Jamaica.
Paulette could hear planes taking off and she really thought she was going to be put on a plane. I intervened and so did the Refugee and Migrant Centre in Wolverhampton. Her family—reluctantly, because they are a private family—contacted the media. Paulette was released at the eleventh hour. I want to thank the Refugee and Migrant Centre and the journalist Amelia Gentleman for helping Paulette and her family. But that experience has stayed with Paulette. In the weeks after she was detained, she talked about struggling to eat and sleep. Despite repeated demands for an explanation, we still do not know why she was sent to the detention centre and detained at Yarl’s Wood.
I have some questions for the Immigration Minister. She might not be able to answer them today, but I would like some clarification. Why were we never given an explanation as to why Paulette was detained? Why did the Home Office not consider 34 years of national insurance contributions? Why did it not check with the Department for Work and Pensions? The family provided other evidence of Paulette’s decades of living in the UK. Why was that disregarded and disbelieved?
The Prime Minister was in Wolverhampton last week and apologised to Paulette through the Express & Star, which is welcome, but why has the Prime Minister, or any other Minister, not apologised to Paulette directly? More broadly, why did it take an initial refusal by Downing Street to meet the Commonwealth Heads of State, the action of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham and the many articles written by Amelia Gentleman for this national scandal to come to light? I have known about this matter for months; other Members have known about it for years. I do not understand why it took so long for us to realise that there was a severe and cruel injustice being meted out by the Government.
In January, I asked the Government a written parliamentary question on how many Commonwealth citizens legally resident in the UK had been detained and deported, and would the Government apologise in those cases? The Immigration Minister, who is here today, which I welcome, said it would be too costly to give the numbers. However, the Government have since committed to doing that, so when can we expect to have those numbers? Will the Minister and the new Home Secretary undertake to write to those who have been mistreated to give them an apology? When can we expect the compensation scheme to be in place? Will the Government consider putting in place legal aid for those willing to come forward?
I have been troubled by a briefing I received—other Members will have had the same briefing—from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. The departing Home Secretary said in the House recently that she could guarantee there would be no future enforcement action against the Windrush generation if they made themselves known to the new taskforce. However, according to the briefing document that I have, the head of the taskforce told the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants that referrals to immigration enforcement would be made case by case. Will the Minister clarify that, because it is still not clear what the Government expect in terms of documentation from people of that generation who come forward? We cannot blame them for being fearful of coming forward, given what has happened to my constituent and many others.
The focus of the past few days, and particularly yesterday evening, was what the departing Home Secretary knew about local regional targets, and whether she—unknowingly or not—misled Parliament. She said that she did not knowingly mislead Parliament, but in a way, that is now an irrelevance. I want to know why there are regional targets for removal. Why are the Government treating people as numbers, not human beings? What will be done about the targets? Are the Government going to get rid of them?
It is a terrible irony that the Government destroy landing cards and then accuse my constituent and others of not having evidence of their entry to the UK. It is a terrible irony that the Government collect taxes and national insurance contributions, but disbelieve individuals when they produce that evidence—I do not know why the Government cannot look for it themselves. It is a terrible irony that the departing Home Secretary is apparently not on top of her paperwork, but the Government accuse my constituent and others of not having their paperwork in order to prove their status.
The Home Office seems systematically to distrust and disbelieve people, and now it is asking the Windrush generation, who perhaps do not have the paperwork they need, to trust that the Government will believe them. It is not a surprise that that generation still feel betrayed, and still feel distrustful of the Government.
The Government need to get a grip on the situation very quickly. They still need to explain what went wrong and why it took so long for the scandal to come to light. I would like personal apologies to everybody who has been mistreated, including my constituent, and the compensation scheme needs to be dealt with properly and urgently. On top of all that, the Government need to look at their policy. They need to get rid of the removal targets and start treating people as human beings, not numbers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I, too, thank the campaigner Patrick Vernon for pulling together and launching the petition, and my right hon. Friends the Members for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) for their work in Parliament challenging the Government’s handling of the Windrush scandal. They speak with great power and authenticity. I also want to put on record how proud I am that my constituency secured the third-highest number of signatories to the petition.
“I am grateful, and would thank the Gods…that I have finally mastered this art of forgetting—of murdering the memory.”
He is probably talking about slavery and a number of other things there, but it is very relevant to today’s debate. I challenge us, as a Parliament, not to murder the memory of the Commonwealth and, in particular, of the Windrush generation.
I have permission to mention a couple of constituency cases. One of my constituents came to the United Kingdom with her parents in 1964 when she was a year old. Her representatives were eventually able to use medical records to persuade the Home Office that she had been here continuously since before
The Passport Office refuses to accept that the grandmother had indefinite leave to remain when her daughter was born. Therefore, she is not a British citizen and neither is her daughter. The Passport Office is now also contemplating withdrawing my constituent’s British passport. I would be grateful if the Minister responded—perhaps not today, but in writing if I raise the case with her—specifically about the grandchildren.
As a Commonwealth citizen, I recall that in the old days my grandmother always referred to the UK as “the mother country”, and we used to travel on our parents’ passports. It is therefore easy to see how such confusions arose. I think we are all saying in today’s debate that we need to give people the benefit of the doubt, and the wonderful story from my hon. Friend Emma Reynolds is so moving, in all its complexity.
Even though the debate is not strictly about other Commonwealth citizens, will the Minister touch on those from Cyprus and other areas? Due to the publicity, many other people are starting to ask questions. For example, I met a woman well into her 70s who came to the UK from Cyprus, who is now having to do a citizenship quiz. She has worked as a seamstress in north London for years and years. Given that her daughter represents us on the London borough of Haringey, it seems almost an insult to ask her to do a citizenship quiz at her advanced age.
I hope that this can bring more transparency not just to the way that some people are dealt with, but to others who are affected. On Friday, I had another woman come to see me in tears. Her job in another local authority has been outsourced to a large company that has asked her to do a biometric test at the Home Office. She did it, and she does not qualify for thresholds she cannot cross. Yet she showed me the stamp in her passport—she has been in the UK since 1970, with indefinite leave to remain.
Given all the expense that the citizenship process entails, why would that woman think to claim citizenship? I think what upset her was not so much the paperwork—slowly we can resolve those issues with the excellent caseworkers that so many MPs have, myself included—but the fact that for all these years she had felt part of the furniture and part of us, yet now she feels she is other, outside or different, and has a strong sense of not belonging.
We had a hug, and I hope that we can sort this out, but I am not sure that MPs can just provide tea and sympathy. It comes down to a policy response that needs to be more transparent, with equality at its heart. There are not enough MPs, hugs and cups of tea to go around. We need equality and genuine transparency in our system.
I welcome the fact that the outgoing Home Secretary has paid for this with her political career, and the trail probably leads higher than her. Once again, we will not give up. We must continue to ask questions, and we have the wonderful example of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham and others, who have continued to hammer away at this question and to keep alive the flame of equality and not murdering our history. As Leo Docherty noted, the new Home Secretary has said
“that could be my mum...my dad...my uncle...it could be me.”
I hope—I always try to end my speeches with a sense of hope—that with the new Home Secretary, given his personal experience, we can continue to work together to solve this and to have a genuinely equal society, where we are all the same under this sky.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I, too, thank the petitioner and the signatories for bringing the debate before the House today, the Petitions Committee for scheduling the debate, and Steve Double for ably introducing it. We have had lots of powerful and thoughtful speeches.
The arrival of 492 passengers onboard the Empire Windrush at Tilbury docks in June 1948 was a pivotal and iconic moment in British history. The pictures and TV footage from the time, which can still be seen on the internet, show people’s faces brimming with optimism. These people were legally full citizens of Britain for the first time, thanks to the British Nationality Act 1948, which was aimed at preserving a united Commonwealth.
Despite a labour shortage, which one Government survey estimated at between 600,000 and 1.3 million people, it is fair to say, as hon. Members have pointed out, that the arrival of the first of the Windrush generation was initially neither welcome nor encouraged. An emergency meeting of the Cabinet Economic Policy Committee was called to discuss the situation, and urgent reports sought the ringleaders of the so-called incursion. The Minister of Labour had to reassure MPs that
“no encouragement will be given to others to follow their example.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 451, c. 1851.]
As many hon. Members—especially Mr Lammy—have pointed out, despite that less than enthusiastic initial welcome, that generation went on to make a massive contribution to rebuilding the country after the war, enriching it both economically and culturally. If there is one tiny silver lining in this disastrous episode, it is that a light has been cast once again on their extraordinary role in our history. I join other hon. Members in paying tribute to them and thanking them for that.
Fast-forward seven decades, and that tiny silver lining will be of scant comfort to those who have been treated so appallingly by the Home Office. This appalling episode can and should be seen as a not just predictable but inevitable consequence of the UK Government’s migration policy. It is not simply a matter of an administrative cock-up. The truth is that the Home Office and the Prime Minister entirely neglected those Commonwealth citizens when they went about ramping up the hostile environment and demanding checks on status at every turn. It seems that little thought was given to the fact that it would often be close to impossible for many Windrush children and others to prove their legal situation. Over time, they were dismissed from jobs they had done for years, they struggled to access NHS treatment and services, and they even faced detention and removal, as we have heard from hon. Members today. Some who went abroad were not allowed to return.
The Home Office knew that this sort of scandal could happen. It is not just that MPs raised individual cases with it: non-governmental organisations, including the outstanding Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, warned it, the high commissioners representing Caribbean countries raised concerns, and, later, its own equality impact assessment for the Immigration Act 2016 flagged up precisely what would happen. It is almost as if the implications for the Windrush generation were seen as little more than unfortunate—they did not require action, never mind the urgent action that was desperately needed.
Quite rightly, there is a widespread public outcry, as Lyn Brown described. Parliament is rightly angry, and hon. Members have asked a number of important questions. Given that confidence in the Home Office has been utterly shattered, surely the Government must now provide legal aid for those who believe they may be required to contact the Home Office helpline. Otherwise, many will simply not do so.
Will the Minister discuss with the Ministry of Justice the absolute necessity of providing legal aid? Will she assure us that no one from the Windrush generation is in detention or being asked to report? As Emma Reynolds asked, will she make it absolutely clear that information from the hotline will not be passed on and used in enforcement action? How broad is the Home Office search for others who have been wrongly detained and removed or not allowed re-entry? What standard of proof does the Home Office require for citizenship or settled status here? What rights will there be to challenge negative Home Office decisions, and what will the compensation scheme look like? Can we have an absolute assurance that Home Office staff are not under pressure to remove or deport individuals, and that there is not a target that incentivises them to ignore or not explore the possible right to be in this country? All those questions require an answer.
A number of hon. Members have rightly said that we have to see this scandal in a broader context, because it is just the tip of the iceberg. The Windrush children are just one of several groups of utterly innocent people who have been treated almost as if they are expendable, while the Prime Minister relentlessly pursues her now widely ridiculed and utterly bogus net migration target. Her policies mean that tens of thousands of children across the UK have been separated from a parent living abroad. Even more couples are kept apart by some of the most draconian, restrictive family migration rules in the world.
The checks that the Prime Minister imposed on landlords in England have pushed landlords and landladies into the role of immigration officers, with the result that the fear of getting it wrong has driven discrimination against prospective tenants who look foreign or have a foreign-sounding name. Despite the fact that the Home Office has been regularly criticised for poor decision making, the Prime Minister has removed in-country rights of appeal, which means that folk have to leave their jobs and families for months on end—sometimes longer—to try somehow to overturn those decisions from abroad. Thousands of innocent students have been arrested and deported, without even getting to see the evidence that the Home Office used to decide their guilt, never mind having the chance to challenge it in a tribunal. At the same time, the Home Office has commissioned a review of the complexity of its immigration rules, yet it insists that they are not complex enough to justify legal aid in England and Wales. Fees for citizenship and passport applications have soared. The list of injustices goes on and on.
Two weeks ago, the then Home Secretary said she was concerned that the Home Office has become too concerned with policy and strategy and sometimes loses sight of the individual. She is right, but that is the fault of Ministers, including the Prime Minister, who have created policies and strategies that forget the individuals and families whose lives are being destroyed. It is the “computer says no” approach, as Simon Hoare aptly described it.
All the while, there is not a shred of evidence that any of this has achieved anything other than division and messed-up lives. Since the Immigration Act 2014 came into force, voluntary returns have actually gone down. Evidence that the Home Affairs Committee received suggests that the hostile environment sometimes actually makes it harder, rather than easier, to enforce immigration rules, because it drives folk into the black private rented market and the black employment market.
There has been some talk today about illegal migrants, as if they are one body of very wicked and evil people whose removal we should celebrate, but they include husbands and wives unable to secure status because of the very strict immigration rules that I described. We heard today that the Home Office is trying to remove somebody who served in Afghanistan—an Afghan national who worked alongside our forces in that country. He is an illegal migrant, too. There are lots of people who came here as children who did not understand that they needed to regularise their status here, and could not even afford to do so. I will come back to that point in a moment.
Before we can go around talking about a hostile environment, we need a system that gets decisions right, that commands public confidence, that has appropriate oversight and systems of appeal, and that has a clear and simple way to determine who is here lawfully and who is not. None of that remotely exists at the moment, so the hostile environment must be reined in urgently. It is essential that MPs from across the House start standing up to the hostile environment and finally put the notorious net migration target out of its miserable existence.
Sir Peter Bottomley rightly asked what can be done. An early test for Parliament will be the Data Protection Bill and the Home Office’s attempt to help itself to a massive immigration exemption. There is absolutely no doubt that stripping people of their right to know what data the Home Office has about them, and to challenge inaccuracies, will create further burning injustices. As the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East pointed out, we need to prevent a repeat of the Windrush fiasco.
What work has been done to identify other groups—Commonwealth citizens or otherwise—who may be at risk? Let me suggest two things the Government can do. First, tens of thousands of children who were either born in the UK or have lived most of their lives here are undocumented. They are entitled by law to British citizenship if they register, but if they cannot register and become citizens, they face exactly the same issues as the Windrush generation. I cannot see how the Home Office can justify charging more than £1,000 for the privilege of registration. Those children are entitled to British citizenship, and they should not be charged to exercise their rights in this country, any more than the Windrush generation should. That must be put right immediately.
Most obviously and urgently, as my hon. Friend Deidre Brock said, we must look after the 3 million and more EU nationals in the UK. The Government must urgently update us about their progress in establishing a system for seeking settled status. Regardless of how successful that system eventually proves to be, it is very hard to see how, at the end of the grace period, we can avoid there being tens of thousands—probably hundreds of thousands —of people who have not successfully navigated the system to secure a document proving their status. If that happens, it will be Windrush on an even more desperate scale.
Those are the immediate priorities. If Parliament is seriously angry about the hostile environment, it will get down to the business of a root-and-branch review of the Immigration Act 2014 and the Immigration Act 2016. We must indeed start putting in place a system that properly respects people, their human rights and the rule of law. The one we have now too often fails to do so. Windrush is an awful and extreme example, but it is far from the only one.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson.
I, too, have a Commonwealth heritage, and I understand and support every word said by my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy. I thank him for his excellent and impressive work against this injustice. I also thank the petitioner and the 178,000 who signed the petition.
The Prime Minister tried to hide behind the previous Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, but, in reality, she was the architect of those terrible policies and their awful consequences. The previous Home Secretary simply carried on her work. The news coverage of the past few days has been wall to wall on the politics of the resignation of the previous Home Secretary and the appointment of Sajid Javid. The petition allows us to recentre the debate on the most important issue: the Home Office’s appalling treatment of the Windrush generation. They are British citizens who have been made homeless, been denied healthcare, lost their jobs, and been detained and potentially deported.
Thanks to The Guardian, a number of cases are now well known. We have also heard many cases in today’s debate, such as Paulette Wilson’s. Another case I want to share is that of Sarah O’Connor, who arrived in this country aged six. She worked in a computer shop from age 16 until last October. She lost that job when the benefits agencies challenged her immigration status. Other employers refused to hire her when they realised she had no passport. Only last month when her case received national media attention did the Home Office promise to waive her fee for a biometric card application. As we know, there are many more such cases and, at a Windrush meeting in my constituency, I came across similar heartbreaking cases.
The scandal is wider than the Government want to admit. It includes those who came from other Commonwealth countries, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, many African countries and others. The Migration Observatory estimates that 57,000 such UK citizens from the Commonwealth are directly affected. The scandal also affects children who were brought to this country after 1973, by parents who had arrived here before then. Immigrants who are starting out in a new country cannot always afford to bring their children with them. Although those children did not arrive in the UK before 1973, they are clearly part of the Windrush generation.
How did this scandal come about? Two words: hostile environment. That was a policy that was supposed to apply to illegal immigrants but, as was predicted, it affected anyone even suspected of being an illegal immigrant. That is exactly what happened to the Windrush generation. In 2014, the Tory-led Government removed protections for Commonwealth citizens who had arrived in this country before 1973. When she was Home Secretary, the Prime Minister brought in the 2016 Immigration Act, which obliges landlords, employers, the NHS and benefits offices to demand written proof of nationality, which many people do not possess. The Government knew that the early arrivals from the Commonwealth—British citizens—did not possess such proofs, but they went ahead anyway.
We have heard many questions from Members in the debate. What needs to happen now? We need answers. How many of the Windrush generation have been deported or detained? How many left voluntarily, under threat of deportation? How many have been refused re-entry after travelling abroad? Will the victims be fully compensated for all costs, all loss of income and services, and distress? Will the helpline report cases for deportation enforcement where it believes people are here illegally? Did the Home Office issue advice to immigration tribunals and judges of the change in the earlier Immigration Act 2014, which removed protections for Commonwealth citizens?
The Government have attempted to introduce red herrings in the debate, but illegal immigration is opposed on all sides, and Labour is in favour of deporting illegal migrants—we have pledged 500 extra Border Force guards to tackle the problem. The Commonwealth citizens who came here legally are still legal. It is only this Government’s policies that have treated them in effect as illegal. It is that scandal that the Government have created and should end.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend Steve Double and all right hon. and hon. Members across the House who have participated in the debate. They have spoken with passion, knowledge and indeed determination.
As we can clearly see, there is significant public interest in today’s debate, and rightly so. I thank members of the public who have attended, as well as all those people—nearly 200,000 of them—who added their name to the petition. The debate was obviously scheduled before the tabling of the urgent question, and I am probably at somewhat of a disadvantage compared with those Members who could be in the main Chamber for at least some of the earlier debate. The message conveyed by the new Secretary of State for the Home Department makes it clear that he is absolutely, personally invested in this issue.
Let us be in no doubt about the debt of gratitude that this country owes to the Windrush generation. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay described in his opening speech, they were invited to come to the United Kingdom immediately after the second world war and in the decades that followed to help us to build modern Britain.
As I said, the new Home Secretary was on his feet in the main Chamber when this debate began. He has rightly made it his clear priority to address Windrush, building on the work of his predecessor, my right hon. Friend Amber Rudd, who showed commitment to addressing the issue. It was a pleasure to work with her in the Home Office, and I look forward to supporting the new Home Secretary in continuing that vital work.
I would like to do justice to the comments, questions and individual cases raised by Members this afternoon. All of them are important. Many Members will have noticed that I took copious notes throughout the debate, but I mention first Mr Lammy even though, somewhat shamefacedly, I wrote very little about his contribution. That is because I preferred to listen—to his passion and to his determination to convey to me, Members, the public and the Government how strongly he feels that we must right this wrong. We are determined to do so.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Alex Chalk, who is not in his place, on his tone. In fact, I congratulate all hon. Members who have contributed on their tone. There has been real consideration of the issue and real determination to convey the message to me as powerfully as possible. I therefore wish to start by saying that of course I feel shame and of course I am deeply, deeply sorry.
Siobhain McDonagh raised three cases, highlighting real and personal stories, which were similar to the personal stories that I heard over the weekend when I was in Croydon and in Sheffield with caseworkers who are on the frontline, doing their best to help people through the process. I have to say that I was very impressed with the determination of those caseworkers to be sympathetic and understanding, and to talk people through the process as gently as they possibly could while at the same time enabling them to give their stories and to provide a picture of their life in the UK—helping them through a process with which we should have been helping them much earlier.
We cannot fail to be moved and to be ashamed when confronted with the individual stories, but as a result, be determined to get the wrong righted, to sort the cases out and to make sure that the legal status is confirmed. Siobhain McDonagh mentioned three cases; we have done a very rapid trawl of those appointments that are already scheduled and I believe that one of those cases will hopefully be resolved tomorrow.
It is important that we as Members convey to our constituents and to the public at large the fact that this process is designed to be constructive and to help. When I first spoke on this issue, I tried to impress on everyone the fact that we needed to have confidence built in the system, so that people would have the courage to come forward. Undoubtedly, the strongest advocates are the people who have been for their interviews and had their status confirmed, who have been willing to speak to the media to confirm that that has happened.
My hon. Friend Simon Hoare spoke of the melting pot of Cardiff; I represent part of the city of Southampton, another area that has a very large port. I was very fortunate last Thursday night to go and meet, albeit in the road that crosses the edge of the constituency, one of my constituents called Don John, who for many decades has been a leader of the Caribbean community in Southampton.
I discussed the issue with him, knowing very well that this weekend, Thangam Debbonaire was holding an event in her constituency attended by Home Office officials, in order to give confidence to those from Bristol who might be affected that the Home Office is there to help. I said to Don on Thursday night, “Let’s see how the event in Bristol goes, but what I can do as a local Member is to make sure that people in Southampton have the opportunity to have an event. I will make sure that there are Home Office officials there.” I say that to all Members: where there is a significant community that they think will be affected, let us reach out to communities; let us not be just a reception centre in the various places that we have up and down the country; let’s make a real effort to go to communities and make sure that events take place in places that are comfortable for people.
I am the first to acknowledge that there can be barriers to coming and making contact with the Home Office. Working with my right hon. Friend the new Home Secretary, they are barriers that I am determined to beat down, because they should not be there.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to talk about trust, which is why I take her comment on the chin. We have a duty to rebuild that trust, and I am determined that we must do so through demonstration and through action, and through and assurance from me and those working on the taskforce that no case will be passed to immigration enforcement. When somebody contacts that helpline, we have absolutely undertaken that none of those details will be passed on to immigration enforcement.
The Minister will recognise that the Government still say that there is a burden of proof, although they have lowered it. If there were Windrush generation or Commonwealth people who contacted the Home Office who did not meet that burden, so did not get their status, would they be subject to enforcement? That fear is very real.
The right hon. Gentleman raises an important question. I give that assurance. People may well come forward who cannot not produce the proof. It is imperative, if we are to build trust, that we say, “We will not pass those details to immigration enforcement.” The message has to be what I saw on Saturday: we want to be able to help people to build their own story. We want to be able to use whatever disparate pieces of information they may have. A gentleman came to Croydon on Saturday morning who could produce his City & Guilds qualification in horticulture, I believe. That one certificate was pretty much the only evidence that he had of where he had been at school. We have to listen to people and use our own records.
Does the Minister have a view about the legal aid question? In the old days, we all had legal aid centres that people could go to, but they simply do not exist in communities in the way that they did, due to Government reductions. [Interruption.] Will she comment on the possibility of legal aid?
The hon. Lady is right—it is absolutely freezing. I have been shaking throughout the debate, although that may not be due just to the temperature.
That is an interesting question, and we are already working with the Ministry of Justice on a review of legal aid. I do not want people to have to use lawyers; I want them to be able to go through an easy process. I get the message from Lyn Brown that we have to build trust, and I am determined to do so.
I will finish this point. I do not want people to have to incur more stress and cost—we will reimburse them for their legal costs already, as part of the compensation scheme, which I will address.
There is an important aspect here: we are determined to make this easy, by having the most senior and able caseworkers—who we are trying to empower, through a change of culture in the Home Office—to take decisions. We want not the “computer says no” attitude, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset and many others have referred to, but a position where, better than the computer saying yes, the human says yes. That is a real change.
I am one of the second generation of Windrush; my parents came in 1954. I really do not understand why people have to prove that they live in this country when they have children aged 30 or older and probably have grandkids, too. Why are we talking about having to prove it? Why can we not just give them a blanket exception? I do not understand why, if people have entered the country from 1948 onwards, and up to 1974, which is about 45 years ago, the Minister is talking about having to prove that they live in this country. Is that what she is saying?
There is a significant question of deemed leave and processes in 1973 that did not give people a legal document that demonstrated their status. That is the failing that we have to put right. There may well be people out there who do not come forward. We have to work to give people confidence, but also to give them an important document that enables them to go on and get their British citizenship—all at no cost. I do not want anyone to fall foul of this going forward. If we just grant deemed leave again, we may find ourselves in this situation again.
Many Members have mentioned the difference from EU settled status. That is an important and difficult point. Since I came into this job, a great deal of my time and energy have been taken up with making sure that the settled status scheme, which we will open later this year, will work. It matters to me that it works digitally and easily, and that, rather than the “computer says no” mentality, we have a default position whereby if people are here, the computer will say yes.
Catherine West asked about whether the app will work on iPhone; we have been working on that for many months. It works on an Android phone, but Apple as yet has not released the update that would enable it to work on iPhones. I recognise that that is a problem. I encourage all right hon. and hon. Members to talk about that, because I cannot force Apple to participate—I wish I could, but I cannot. It is important that, for those EU citizens, many of whom have been here for years just like the Windrush generation, we make the process simple, straightforward and digital.
I thank the Minister for the clarification that no case will be passed on for enforcement, but we have seen that this is not simply a question of enforcement. There is the health issue—people are suffering from cancer and dying—and people are becoming homeless or losing jobs. What will she do to help them?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. It is absolutely right to say that the taskforce is prioritising appointments for people in vulnerable positions—those who are out of employment or at risk of falling out of employment, those with health conditions and those with problems with tenancies. There is a significant group of people with whom we must work, but it is right to prioritise people on the basis of need. We are working really hard. In Sheffield, it was great to see call-backs going on, appointments being made and people having conversations.
My right hon. Friend the former Home Secretary made it very clear that we will compensate people for loss, but it is right that we get the compensation scheme right from the outset. Members have raised interesting points about what should be included in that, many of which might seem really self-evident and straightforward—it should cover legal costs, loss of employment and housing, and so on—but there might be other aspects to it. A number of people have talked about counselling for stress and trauma. It is important that we have an independent person who enables and empowers us to get that right from the outset. That will take a little time, but it is important that we have someone independent of the Home Office who is able to engender trust.
I thank the Minister for the welcome remedial measures she is outlining, which could help to deal with the outcomes, but does she not recognise that this issue comes from deep systemic and cultural problems inside the Home Office? Members of Parliament raised cases and pointed out the flaws in the Home Office’s arguments, but it utterly refused to reconsider them. This is not just about the computer, or the initial person at the end of the line, saying no; it is about a failure of management then to remedy things. That is why we are having to get into compensation, taskforces and everything else. The Home Office will still have those deep problems. What is she going to do about that?
Unfortunately, the right hon. Gentleman takes me away from the contributions that have been made and towards the—I do not know how to describe it—somewhat drier technical detail provided to me by officials. I am happy to move on to that, but I would like first to respond to the points made by Members who have been here for the whole debate.
I have addressed some important points about settled status for EU citizens and the responsibility for getting that right, but I would like to highlight the history lesson and information provided by my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley. He painted a picture of how the Government can use evidence that is already at our disposal. That is really important. We can share data with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Work and Pensions, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs—the list is long. That is exactly what the taskforce is doing. We are trying to lift the burden from individuals and place it on ourselves so that we provide the information and ensure we get it right.
Emma Reynolds rightly started by thanking all those from the Windrush generation who have contributed so much. She raised difficult and important questions for me about how we stop this happening again, and she was absolutely right to do so. We have to stop it happening again. We have to ensure that the same cannot happen to future cohorts.
My hon. Friend Leo Docherty mentioned the Gurkhas—that Nepalese community —who are so numerous at their base in Hampshire, and we must be mindful the whole while that other communities may well be impacted. I have indicated time and again that uppermost in my mind is the truly enormous number of people from the European Union—3.3 million—who are already here. I do not underestimate the scale of that task.
The hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East asked how we can right the wrong done to her constituent, Paulette Wilson. Mrs Wilson absolutely deserves a personal apology. I am not sure that me saying sorry today is adequate. If the hon. Lady would like me to do so, I would be very happy to meet Mrs Wilson. Every one of us was struck by the severe and cruel injustice that was done to her.
The hon. Lady and the Opposition spokesman raised questions about how many people have been affected, how many have been detained and how many may have been subjected to letters asking them to leave the country voluntarily, or potentially even to removal. We are trawling through the Home Office computer system—the caseworker information database, which goes back to 2002—and scrutinising cases very carefully, using both date of birth and nationality information to verify that, as one might expect. I do not wish to get into numbers until I can be confident that they are correct. We have an absolute duty to ensure that we get that right. To date, we have not found any single individual who has been removed from the country wrongly. However, I wish to ensure that we get it right.
There is an important group of people who may not have been removed but who are watching and listening to this debate and communicating with their families in this country. That is the group of people who went back to the Caribbean, most often to attend a funeral, and were not allowed to come back to this country. It is very important that those people have access to the hotline and to compensation—many of them lost their jobs and are still there—and that they are properly tracked and attended to.
May I conclude my point before more people jump in? The right hon. Gentleman is right to point that issue out. As the former Home Secretary said last week, we will facilitate those people’s coming home if they wish to. Of course, we must also ensure that visas are available to those who have settled back in their country of origin or elsewhere, should they wish to come here on a visit or relocate here permanently. That is crucial. It is important that we ensure that we enable that to happen for them.
It may be that the Minister wants to write to the right hon. Member for Tottenham after the debate. Officials may want—not today, but in time—to consider and advise Ministers on checking with airlines. Often, those people went with a valid ticket to an airline desk and were refused boarding by the airline because they might be refused entry to the country. The airlines will almost certainly have a record of that. It would be useful information.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, which I have made to officials. I was very concerned that people might be turned away at airline desks. We absolutely must not let that happen. Equally, the Border Force in the UK has to understand that this is a generation of people to whom we owe a duty to get things right from this point forward. We cannot allow this dreadful situation to arise again.
On the issue of trust, my constituents are concerned that deportations are continuing, despite our debating the issue and despite reassurances from the Minister, the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister. One of my constituents, Zita, contacted me to ask about flight PVT070, which she tells me is about to go to Jamaica with people on board who are being deported.
It is absolutely not. We are looking very closely at all our enforcement practices to make sure that nobody can be impacted in this way, and that is crucial.
I hope hon. Members will not object if I move on somewhat. I apologise, but there are some important matters that I must get on the record, and I intend to do so.
I am very clear that there has been a failure by successive Governments to ensure that individuals who arrived before 1973 have the documentation they need. We are putting that right as a matter of urgency. My right hon. Friend the former Home Secretary made a statement to the House last week in which she set out our approach to the Windrush generation, including the compensation scheme, which I have already referred to.
I am a pragmatic politician, and I do not apologise for that. I have always been focused on finding solutions, and that is exactly what we are trying to do now. When we saw Windrush cases emerging, we became focused on the operational side of helping those individuals. As the former Home Secretary said, we were too slow to identify the pattern and recognise it as part of a wider issue. For that, I am very sorry.
I want to make sure that we not only put this right but improve our mechanisms, to ensure that if a similar systemic issue were to arise again, the Home Office would be able to identify and resolve it much more clearly. The new contact centre will be at the centre of that, monitoring trends from incoming calls to understand where the problems are. We will supplement that with insight and customer feedback to UK Visas and Immigration. I was asked whether there would be a time limit, and I can reassure Members that there will not be.
I am absolutely unaware of any bonus scheme for removals. What I want to focus on today is not removals but making sure, for the Windrush generation, that we get their British citizenship granted as swiftly as we can and at no cost to them.
I have been listening, and I wanted to hear the contributions—I will want to speak in the debate on Wednesday. My hon. Friend’s question is important, because I heard rumours that the head of immigration enforcement and senior enforcement officials have had bonuses linked to enforcement performance, including meeting removals targets. I appreciate that the Minister may not know the details right now, but it is really important that she finds some urgent clarity on that. It would be very disturbing to have a target-driven system that rewards people for removals they make, when there are no independent appeals against many removals and enforcement.
The right hon. Lady has asked a specific question about bonuses, and I have said on the record I am not aware of any such system of bonuses. However, I will undertake to go away and find out, prior to Wednesday’s debate, when I look forward to being able to go over this issue in more detail, with more time, in the main Chamber.
I know, as everyone here and—I believe—everyone in this House knows, that we regard the Windrush generation as being of us and part of us. I believe the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green referred to them as being “part of the furniture”. We regard them as British, but we need to ensure that they have the legal documentation confirming that. Nationality law is incredibly complicated, and I want to ensure that their legal status is cemented as soon as possible. We have made it clear that we wish the process to be simple and that nobody should have to undergo a life in the UK test or attend a citizenship ceremony unless they wish to. Some may, and we would want to make that available to them.
Of course, some may not wish to be British citizens at all. We respect that position, but we still need to confirm their status here—free of charge—as someone able to remain in the UK and access services. This point was made earlier: there will also be people in the Windrush generation who, having worked all their lives in Britain, have retired to the country of their birth but obviously retain strong ties here. We should respect and nurture those ties. Should they wish to come back, we will allow that.
I sympathise with anyone who has found the process difficult, and I would like to assure hon. Members that we are doing everything we can to ensure that it is as smooth as possible. I am pleased that more than 100 people have now been issued with the documentation they sought, but please be assured that I am in no way complacent about that. We will continue to improve the service provided.
There is another important point. The Minister will understand that some important Caribbean countries—St Kitts, Antigua, St Lucia and others—got their independence after 1973, and a bunch of people are concerned about the 1973 cut-off. Will she say a little more about the situation for those people, some of whom may have come to this country as British subjects from countries whose independence did not come until later in the 1970s or early 1980s? Antigua’s was as late as 1981.
Of course, my right hon. Friend the previous Home Secretary addressed how we solve the status and situation of those who may have come here between 1973 and 1988. I am aware of this issue, and, going forward, I want to ensure that we have a comprehensive package for those whom I am going to regard as the Windrush children, of whom there are very, very many.
As I have said, I was in Sheffield and Croydon over the weekend, listening to the calls being made and the quality of the conversations going on—they were conversations; they were in no way interrogative. In our process, we have a script that is evolving over time. At the end of every day, the script changes and the lessons that have been learned from those conversations during the day are used to ensure that things are better going forward. It is an evolving, iterative process.
I think I have addressed most of the questions raised. If important aspects have been raised that I have not addressed, I will make them very clear to the House on Wednesday. We are working hard to resolve the situation. The new Home Secretary has made his position, personal investment and commitment very clear, and we are working to ensure that it cannot happen again.
As we have heard, this year is the 70th anniversary of the Empire Windrush arriving at Tilbury docks, which makes the situation all the more poignant and tragic. The Government will be celebrating Windrush day, and in the next few days I will have the opportunity to speak to the new Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government about how we can use that occasion to build trust with those we have let down. It is not lost on me that our new Home Secretary has come to the Home Office from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and, of course, he introduced the paper on integration, which is so important going forward. He has a strong ally in the new Secretary of State in his old Department, which I am sure will provide a strong link.
I reassure right hon. and hon. Members that the Government are committed to righting the wrongs for the Windrush generation, to ensuring that those who have the right to be here in the United Kingdom are never treated in such a way again and to restoring trust in the Home Office to deliver the outcome that people deserve. I am proud of the work that has been done over the past fortnight to set us on the right course, and I look forward to working with colleagues and officials in the coming months to accomplish those aims.
I want first to thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. It has at times been passionate; it has been clear; and there have been excellent contributions from across the House, including many deeply moving personal accounts. I also thank Mr Vernon, and all those who signed the petition that enabled the debate to take place today. We are very grateful and I am delighted that it has been possible to hold the debate, through the Petitions Committee.
There has been great agreement across the House that we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Windrush generation, and to all those who have come from Commonwealth countries and played such an important role in our nation, and contributed so much, over past decades. There was agreement that wrong has been done to them. I am grateful to the Minister for her clear message that there is no hiding from it—that something has gone dramatically wrong and needs to be put right. There was also agreement that there are lessons that have to be learned to ensure that where things have gone wrong changes will be made, so that what happened can never be allowed to happen again.
I want, as many Members have done in the debate, to give once again the clear message that we are incredibly grateful to those who have come as part of the Windrush generation, and to others since who have contributed so much to our country. We are sorry about the experience that they have had to go through, and the clear message from this House is that we want them to stay. They belong here and are part of our nation. We want to do everything we possibly can to make sure they know that they are welcome here. We will do everything we can to resolve the issue, so that they have the documentation they need to feel secure, and to feel they belong here for the future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered e-petition 216539 relating to people who entered the UK as minors between 1948 and 1971.