Working to make government more effective


The Windrush scandal was a failure of law, policy, politics and bureaucracy

The long-awaited Windrush Lessons Learned Review has been published.

The long-awaited Windrush Lessons Learned Review has been published. Joe Owen argues it shows just how much needs to be done if the lessons are really going to be learned, both on immigration policy and to change the culture of the Home Office 

The ‘Windrush scandal’ concerns the gross mistreatment of individuals, predominantly from the Caribbean, who had made their life in Britain under UK immigration law. Examples are many, and cruel. A 61-year old grandmother, who had spent over 30 years working in the House of Commons, was held in a detention centre for a month – her wrongful deportation only halted after intervention by her MP and a charity. Others were not so lucky.

A review in to the scandal has found that the British state wrongfully detained or deported 164 people, with more leaving ‘voluntarily’ following repeated pressure from the Home Office – despite having a right to stay. The true scale of who was affected is still unknown. The independent review, chaired by Wendy Williams, an inspector of constabulary, says the scandal affected “hundreds, and possibly thousands, of people” who had their ability to work denied and their access to vital benefits or treatment wrongfully removed. At its most extreme, people “were deprived of their liberty.”

Political fallout has followed since the British media began to report the scandal in early 2018. Home secretary Amber Rudd resigned for misleading parliament over how the Home Office managed illegal migration, and key senior officials were shuffled out of the department. But this is not a one-off failure of policy that can be pinned on a small handful of individuals. As the Williams review makes clear, this scandal has been decades in the making. All three main UK political parties must take some of the blame, while the Home Office’s deep-seated flaws span from permanent secretary to caseworker.

Windrush review shows sheer scale of government’s failure

The review is extremely successful in matching the often-horrific personal stories of individuals affected with the usually dry technocratic processes that led to them. The mistreatment of Windrush citizens stemmed from failures in every element of modern government, with the Home Office, as an institution, heavily criticised by the review.

First, it did not seem to understand its own immigration laws. In fact, the legislation, new and old, is so complex that it was almost impossible for anyone inside or outside of the Home Office to have a grip on who did or did not have rights to work and live in this country.

Policy makers also failed. They overlooked the consequences of how successive tightenings of immigration policy would affect an earlier generation who had come here legitimately. They ignored how their policy to make life difficult for illegal immigrants the so-called “hostile environment”  would affect people who had every right to be here but did not have easy means to prove it. They then ploughed on even when they had internal assessments of the impact after outside organisations warned of the consequences and cases of unjustifiable treatment emerged. Policy makers appeared to be driven forward by the imperative of cutting net migration and the belief that zero tolerance was a route to achieve it, even if there was little evidence to back that up – and little attempt to evaluate its effectiveness.     

Politicians then ignored warning signs. Ministers (Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat) refused to act when cases of hardship emerged – and did not reconsider their approach even when concerns were raised about the potential impacts on groups who were lawfully here. In 2015 for example, MPs passed the new Immigration Bill despite concerns about the impact on undocumented citizens.

And the bureaucracy – from the most senior officials down to caseworkers – failed to stop or halt a problem that was emerging a decade before Amber Rudd had to resign. They knew they were holding people to a burden of proof they themselves would find it hard to meet – but under pressure to deliver with reduced budgets, did not question what they were doing.

The Home Office is learning the lessons from Windrush, but has a long way to go

Immigration policy is contentious and, as the department responsible, the Home Office is continually under pressure from other government departments, opposition parties and parts of the British press.

The Institute has previously written about the huge challenge facing the government in fixing the problems in the immigration system, and we agree with the Williams review that root and branch reform is necessary. Our paper set out some key recommendations – systems for improving scrutiny, data transparency, strategic vision and structures.

And the pressure to reform will only become more intense. The Home Office is facing a massive challenge over the coming years with Brexit, with well over three million people affected as the UK leaves the EU. Work on the EU Settlement Scheme suggests that the department has already started to learn the lessons of Windrush – a new approach to engagement, user involvement and transparency all demonstrate a shift in thinking. But this is just one small part of the immigration system.

The Home Office will face its sternest test when it has to deal with unregistered EU residents at the end of the grace period in June 2021, at which point EU citizens who have not obtained settled or pre-settled status will be treated as any other third country national – with many EU citizens deeply concerned that they will end up in a similar position to the Windrush generation. If this situation is allowed to happen, the numbers would dwarf those caught up in the Windrush scandal.

The hardest part of learning the lessons from Windrush is still to come

The Williams review was published a year behind schedule and, as the government responds to the coronavirus outbreak, was buried in an extraordinary week. The government welcomes the findings, as does the opposition. However, the success of the review will be based on the reforms that it drives. Williams’ commitment to follow up on her report is important: too often reviews and inquiries don’t lead to change and government is not held to account as a result – as Institute work has shown.

The report is titled Windrush Lessons Learned Review, but it only identifies the lessons. Recognising past failure is the easy part. To avoid a similar scandal in the future, the government must now take serious action – and that will be far harder to achieve.

Institute for Government

Related content