May’s crocodile tears
The Windrush scandal has shone an unintended light on the position of present-day immigrants, writes Eddie Ford
By now only coma patients do not know about the Windrush scandal, in which some children of Caribbean migrants who settled in Britain from the late 1940s to the 1970s had been declared illegal immigrants and threatened with deportation - or found themselves not allowed back into the country after visiting a relative or attending a funeral abroad.
It was a neat paradox that this particular story broke almost exactly 50 years after Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech - an anniversary highlighted by the BBC’s recent controversial recital of the full text by an actor. As commented upon last week in this paper, what was interesting about the actual broadcast was the BBC’s strict adherence to the ‘official’ anti-racist ideology by interrupting Powell’s speech with critical commentary by various experts in order to undermine his case. Frankly, it was foolish to think - as claimed by some BBC critics - that a speech from 50 years ago is so dangerous that it could cause society to explode, let alone that her majesty’s broadcasting company had become a “custodian” for racism.
Anyway, as we all know, people from the Caribbean were positively encouraged to come to the UK from the late 1940s onwards to staff the national health service, work on the buses and railways, and so on. In other words, they came over not only to rebuild Britain after the destruction of World War II, but also to supply labour for the boom which began at the end of the 1940s and continued well into the 1960s. Adults had passports, obviously, but not necessarily their sons and daughters - those that did not were therefore ‘undocumented’.
Of course, that would not matter at all if there had not been a batch of legislation acts from 1972 onwards that increasingly put the squeeze on migrants - culminating in David Cameron’s clampdown on both European Union and non-EU migrants, which saw near endless scare stories in the rightwing press about ‘health tourism’ and how hordes of people were coming to the UK to live on benefits. No longer, said a stern Cameron: you will now have to produce documents to get employment, NHS treatment, housing benefit, etc - ‘Papers please.’
At the same time, Cameron made his absurd pledge to reduce net immigration to the “tens of thousands” - a fantasy figure plucked out of thin air that nobody serious could take seriously. And in London we had the obscene situation of the government sending out vans for a month telling migrants to “go home or face arrest” and advertising a ‘helpline’ for those who were persuaded to leave.1 After a torrent of criticism, the home secretary of the time - a certain Theresa May - eventually dumped the pilot scheme as “too much of a blunt instrument”, while Yvette Cooper, shadow secretary at the time, not entirely inaccurately accused the Tories of “using the language of the National Front”. But on the other hand, the Labour Party under Ed Miliband could not bring itself to vote against the 2014 act. To his credit Jeremy Corbyn was one of six Labour MPs who did.
Pathetically, and totally unconvincingly, it has been claimed that May was not responsible for the anti-immigrant vans. Nick Timothy, the prime minister’s former special advisor, and the genius responsible for her stunningly successful 2017 general election campaign, would have us believe that she intended to block the rollout of the vans, but the scheme was “revived and approved in a communications plan while she was on holiday”.2 Actually, Theresa May not only authorised the wretched vans, she wanted to toughen the messages. Thus we read in a home office email from Matthew Bligh, May’s private secretary at the time, that the home secretary believed “it is right to advertise enforcement action”, but “we should not be advertising that we will pay people to leave, which is the effect of the proposed advertisements”. Therefore “can officials consider how the material can be revised to get the messaging right and not expose the agency to criticism for giving tax payers’ money to illegal migrants?”
Interestingly, when Jeremy Corbyn asked the prime minister who was responsible for the Windrush crisis, she immediately tried to shift the blame onto the opposition - coming out with the supposed killer punch that the decision to shred the Windrush disembarkation cards was taken under Labour. Once again, the prime minister was being economical with the truth. The landing cards had been stored in a basement for decades, but the UK Border Agency approved a business case in June 2009 to dispose of paper records, including the cards - nominally in the interests of “confidentially”, whatever that means exactly. However, the decision to actually destroy the cards themselves was taken in October 2010, after the coalition government had come to power.
But the fact of the matter, as remarked before, is that the destruction of the landing cards would have been neither here nor there if it had not been for the legislation introduced by David Cameron and his loyal home secretary, Theresa May, which was deliberately designed to create a “hostile environment” for migrants - something they boasted about. Whatever dubious policies Labour governments might have pursued, it is beyond doubt that it was the changes introduced by May in her flagship 2014 Immigration Act which meant that those who lacked documents were soon being told they needed evidence to continue working, access key services like the NHS or even remain in the country. In order to prevent people from thinking “they can come here and overstay because they’re able to access everything they need”, as May put it, the legislation laid down a raft of new requirements:
- private landlords have to check the entitlement to residency status of their tenants;
- temporary migrants (such as overseas students) are to pay a “levy” to the NHS;
- banks are expected to check against a database of known migration offenders before opening a bank account;
- new powers were put in place to check the status of driving licence applicants and revoke the licences of ‘overstayers’;
- A ‘deport first, appeal later’ policy was introduced for thousands facing removal and the grounds for appeal were reduced from 17 to four.
Of course, at the time, leading lawyers, landlords’ associations, migrant welfare charities and housing organisations warned that the bill would lead to a real risk of increased homelessness, including of families, and widespread discrimination. For example, the Immigration Law Practitioners Association told May that her plan for millions of private landlords to face “proportionate” fines of up to £3,000 if they fail to conduct checks on the status of tenants was unworkable and unjust - whilst the Residential Landlords Association pointed out that there were potentially 404 types of European identity documents that landlords may need to know about in order to operate the scheme (also warning that some landlords will simply refuse to house migrants for fear of falling foul of the new rules).
In the same way, the government ignored warnings in a prophetic 2014 report by the charity, Legal Action Group. Entitled Chasing status: if not British, then what am I?, it highlighted the plight of thousands of long-term UK residents who were unable to prove their status or had “irregular” status. Referring to the Windrush migrants, the report worried about a “virtually invisible - and rarely acknowledged - group, who can’t easily prove their legal status (because of lost documents or poor government record-keeping) or whose status is ‘irregular’ for a variety of legitimate reasons”. Indeed.
In what was par for the course, a succession of ministers have insisted that the Windrush victims are suffering merely from a failure at official level - not from bad policy in and of itself. David Gauke, the justice secretary, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show that the flaws were in the implementation, as “it is right that we take illegal immigration seriously”. Of course, he quickly added, “we are not talking about illegal immigrants in the Windrush case - definitely not - but it is “perfectly reasonable” to want to “ensure that when we are providing public services they are being provided to people who are entitled to them.”
This is all complete crap, it goes without saying. The Windrush migrants, and others, are the victims of a cruel and rotten policy that originated from the highest levels of government - the result of of which was eminently predictable. Amber Rudd, the current home secretary, is trying to act contrite now - claiming in parliament on April 23 that she was “concerned that the home office has become too concerned with policy and strategy and sometimes loses sight of the individual”. Very touching.
But, unfortunately for her, she was exposed as the cynical hypocrite she is by a four-page memo leaked to The Guardian and written just months before long-settled Windrush migrants were threatened with deportation. In very aggressive language, she had pledged to escalate the “hostile environment” created by her predecessor by setting out her “ambitious” plan to increase removals of 10% more people than May ever managed and “focus” officials on “arresting, detaining and forcibly removing illegal migrants”. At the same time she would “ruthlessly” prioritise home office resources for the programme, partly by switching money for crime-fighting to her immigration enforcement programme. Her goal implied that she wanted to throw out an extra 4,000 migrants every year. Finally, she wrote:
illegal and would-be illegal migrants, and the public more widely, need to know that our immigration system has ‘teeth’, and that if people do not comply on their own we will enforce their return, including through arresting and detaining them (my emphasis).
The “nasty party” at work.
Anyhow, Theresa May has been forced to issue a grovelling apology about how “genuinely sorry” she is for the “anxiety” caused to those threatened with deportation, and has declared that anyone treated “unfairly” will receive “speedy” compensation - though what form this will take, or how much and when, remains mysterious. Similar crocodile tears came from Amber Rudd, who told the Commons she recognised the “harrowing” experiences of Caribbean migrants and was “determined” to right the wrongs that had taken place - firstly by granting British citizenship to the Windrush generation, who will doubtless be thrilled to be given something they thought they already had.
As part of the home office’s new-found humanitarian spirit, it will now waive citizenship fees for the Windrush generation and their families and any charges for returning to the UK for those who had retired to their countries of origin after making their lives here - it will also scrap the ridiculous language and British knowledge tests. In theory, though we wait to see, the free citizenship offer will apply not just to Windrush families, but anyone from other Commonwealth states who settled in the UK over the same period - just as a growing number of cases of home office mistreatment of non-Caribbean Commonwealth-born citizens are beginning to emerge, involving individuals from India, Kenya, Cyprus and Canada.3
In terms of the Windrush generation, it is quite a spectacle to see people that Enoch Powell specifically targeted as a mortal threat to the nation - who if allowed to stay would unleash “rivers of blood” - now praised as a national treasure. Can we hear someone turning in their grave?
The Windrush scandal should also make us think about what life is like for the present generation of migrants. Can they or their children go back for a funeral or wedding in Brazil, Nigeria, Syria or Turkey - then return to the UK without facing an impossible hassle from immigration officials? Or will they be barred or detained? Meanwhile, those who are here live a precarious life, are forced into the worst-paid section of the working class and into the hands of criminal and semi-criminal elements.
Communists aim for the assimilation of migrants into British society - inevitably a two-way process of change. Communists also want to see free movement and the abolition of anti-migrant laws. Anyone who has been resident in the country for six months ought to have the right to take up citizenship.