Changing language and personnel is not enough. It is time for a full inquiry and an end to the ‘hostile environment’
Victims of the Windrush scandal outside parliament on 1 May 2018. ‘The injustice and inhumanity will persist as long as this cruel immigration regime does.’ Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian
Theresa May has made a fourth attempt to draw a line under the Windrush scandal and its brutal exposure of the incompetence, dishonesty and above all the cruelty of her government. It is as cynical as the previous attempts, and should prove similarly unsuccessful.
At first, the prime minister hoped that ignoring the problem would make it go away. Then, as the outrage grew, she promised a taskforce to help those affected. Next, Amber Rudd resigned as home secretary after struggling to account for her role in the injustice. Her replacement, Sajid Javid, struck a more emollient note on immigration by disowning the “hostile environment” phrase and promising a “fair and humane policy”. Finally, faced with Labour’s demand for government documents on the issue to be passed to the home affairs committee, Mrs May on Wednesday announced a lessons-learned review with “independent oversight”. This very minimal offer was expected to make it easier for Tory MPs to obey the three-line whip in an evening vote. But it falls far short of what is needed. The numbers affected, and the far wider repercussions of the policy which spawned these cases, demand a full, independent public inquiry into what went wrong.
That inquiry would quickly lead to the prime minister’s door. Though toxic rhetoric on immigration developed under Labour, the system became vastly more punitive with Mrs May at the Home Office – hence her reluctance to acknowledge the issue, and enduring refusal to face it head-on. Her insistence on setting an arbitrary, unrealistic net migration target led inexorably to her creation of the hostile environment, with official targets for removals and ordinary, largely untrained citizens such as landlords and health staff turned into border guards.
It was Mrs May who adopted the principle “deport first and hear appeals later”: a “gotcha” culture has treated people as guilty until proven innocent. Legal aid has been all but eradicated for non-asylum immigration cases. Even on Wednesday, Mrs May repeatedly contrasted the Windrush generation with those who “break rules [and] try to play the system”.
Members of the Windrush generation are still suffering. Despite the assurances given to them, their experiences mean they will not feel secure until they have British passports in their hands. Their lives have been torn apart. Some have lost forever the chance to spend time with a dying mother or sibling. Promises of a compensation scheme are welcome, but many are struggling now: one, owed two years of wrongly withheld benefits, is being pursued by bailiffs.
And the effects of the hostile environment have spread far wider. Careers have been derailed, homes lost and families separated or broken both by harsh rules and their punitive – and frequently incorrect – implementation. Women’s groups warn that abusive men are using the spectre of potential deportation to threaten and control their partners. Worse still, “right to rent” checks by landlords in England could be rolled out to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The ill-effects have extended to those born here, too: for many, a non-white face or an evidently Asian or African name may be enough to raise suspicion.
As David Lammy spelled out in the House of Commons, Mr Javid’s promise is an empty one: “It is not possible to have a fair and humane immigration policy alongside the hostile environment.”
The injustice and inhumanity will persist as long as this cruel immigration regime does. An inquiry would help us to understand the full extent of its pernicious effects, and how they may be addressed.