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Priti Patel’s broken Windrush promises

A report on the scandal said Home Office staff should be trained in diversity.. but two years on, the number of staff trained is zero

West Indian arrivals at Victoria Station in 1956. Photo: Haywood Magee/Picture Post

Outbursts of genuine shock or outrage are surprisingly rare events in the House of Commons. Phoney, manufactured outrage is a daily event – MPs routinely issue roars of disapproval or faux indignation at some claim or other from the opposite benches – but true, spontaneous, from-the-gut outrage is something much more memorable.

So when, in March of this year, Priti Patel invoked the Windrush scandal as the reason that her department was dragging its feet on offering help – or even visas – to Ukrainian refugees, the immediate and widespread gasps of shock stood out from the ordinary.

MPs had not suddenly become the most delicate of snowflakes: the sheer awfulness of Patel’s response has multiple layers to unpack.

The Windrush scandal was one which affected citizens of former British colonies who had come to the UK before 1973, usually with heavy encouragement from the British government.

At the time they had been classed as “British subjects” and so had needed no immigration papers. They studied in the UK, worked in the UK and travelled in and out of the UK just like any other British citizen – which is what they were.

And then when the government later introduced the hostile environment, ID checks and more, many of them were wrongly interrogated, detained and even deported.

Using a scandal involving the Home Office wrongly persecuting Black British citizens with every right to be in the country as a reason not to help refugees is bad enough on its own, and laced with an implication (perhaps unintended) that the Windrush victims were somehow less than British.

But Patel’s logic was more tortured than that. What lay behind Patel’s statement was an apparent belief that the Windrush scandal had been caused by pre-1973 arrivals not having the right paperwork that would be demanded by her department several decades later. This, she said, showed the risks of letting people into the country without having documentation in advance.

And in the face of this, even though numerous other countries have taken in up to literally millions of Ukrainian refugees, Patel insisted the UK’s approach of requiring visas and extensive documentation, none of it easily available to those fleeing war, was the right one.

She then justified it using a decision of her own department to retroactively change what counted as proper paperwork for immigrants, decades after the fact – meaning by her own logic the UK shouldn’t admit anyone into the country until it knows exactly what governments decades in the future will require, paperwork-wise.

While she might like that this would allow absolutely no one into the UK, at least until we developed precognition, most of us would see it as logic just as stupid as it is cruel.

The choice of Patel to invoke one of her department’s most shameful scandals while justifying inaction in a modern refugee crisis would be… interesting… enough even if the scandal was long resolved, but it is not. The full range of victims may never be known, compensation payouts were a scandal, and the official “lessons learned” review was only published in March 2020.

But Patel might, it turns out, have an obvious excuse for her ignorance. The often scathing Windrush report made 30 detailed recommendations for how the Home Office needed to change and reform itself – not just limited to addressing the Windrush scandal, but aimed at making sure it would not occur again.

Several of the most important of those inquiries involved training up Home Office staff, who had often been found to be ignorant of the UK’s history and the history of (especially) Black immigration into the UK. These were broad in range, but nothing that should be beyond the scope of a national government department – and one much less busy during the pandemic than, say, the Department of Health or the Treasury.

The first and core requirement was that: “The Home Office should: a) devise, implement and review a comprehensive learning and development programme which makes sure all its existing and new staff learn about the history of the UK and its relationship with the rest of the world, including Britain’s colonial history, the history of inward and outward migration and the history of black Britons”.

The recommendation also required the department to publish annually how many staff – and specifically senior managers – had completed this training, as well as investing in “training for the Senior Civil Service” to challenge ministers more openly, and also overhaul its existing diversity and inclusion training.

More than two years on from the publication of the final report of the Windrush report, the Home Office has not delivered on even the most simple of these promises. It has not published a single report on its training or development in the wake of Windrush, prompting even the mild, civil servicespeak official review this March to call the department out.

It was, the March 2022 report said, “disappointing that the department’s current training and development provision is so delayed”, before continuing “it was also disappointing to see that some members of the SCS [senior civil service] were less engaged when it came to identifying their own training needs.

That report did not publicly state just how “disappointing” the Home Office’s Windrush training had been – but information from the Freedom of Information Act obtained by The New European reveals how many people have received training in the two years to date.

Zero. That answer is zero. Not a single Home Office staffer has received a training course in connection to the Windrush recommendations.

In that time, researchers have managed to develop, test and bring to market multiple coronavirus vaccines. The NHS has built and dismantled Nightingale wards. Society has shaped and reshaped itself over lockdown after lockdown.

And the Home Office – which still ostensibly oversees the UK’s borders, policing, and domestic security services – could not finish creating a training course, let alone use it to train anyone.

Perhaps most ridiculously, the Home Office confirmed that none of the training courses are even finished yet. In its response to data rights and privacy campaigner Sam Smith, who lodged the FOI request, the Home Office stated “the training is currently in development and due be rolled out later in 2022”.

This is more than just a fresh disappointment among a litany of disappointments for those directly affected by Windrush – it is clear evidence of a total missed opportunity for the department to avoid a fresh tragedy, tied to its horrendous new policy to start exporting refugees to Rwanda within weeks.

The gratuitous cruelty of the policy is, of course, the point. Advocates of the policy barely deny that, saying it is a means to the end of dissuading people from making the crossing to the UK. Critics note that said cruelty may play quite well with a certain subset of voter to whom the government would like to appeal.

So far, it has not stopped the boats. Early claims from newspaper columnists that crossings had dropped to zero ignored the fact that they fluctuate from week to week – driven more by weather conditions than by policy.

Every bit of extra detail continues to make the policy worse, though. Senior civil servants had to be forced to adopt it via a Ministerial Direction, a formal override to the civil service that is rarely used – not on any moral grounds but simply on the basis that even if it works as promised it would represent an atrocious waste of public money.

The Home Affairs Committee of parliament heard earlier in the month that people claiming asylum from Rwanda would not be sent to Rwanda – a clarification whose very existence highlights the fundamental problems of the scheme.

And a necessary reassurance – that families with children will not be forcibly deported to Rwanda – contains within it the true danger and cruelty of this policy. Rather than deter people from making the deadly English Channel crossing, the new policy now encourages some to bring their children on that trip, too. Desperation can make some unimaginable choices suddenly possible.

From Windrush to Rwanda to Ukraine, the Home Office is consistent in only two things – incompetence and cruelty. For how much longer will it go on?

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