24 April 2018

Amber Rudd’s statement to the Commons on Windrush does not draw a line under the issue of the Windrush generation. Marcus Shepheard argues that if there is to be accountability, then the Home Affairs Select Committee must get answers – and not just from her. 

Amber Rudd’s statement on Monday failed to alleviate concerns over her department’s handling of the Windrush affair. Public anger remains, and calls continue for her resignation.

Beyond demands for a political scalp, questions about good governance – essentially, how we got here – remain. When the Home Affairs Select Committee meets tomorrow, these issues need to be raised.

Yvette Cooper has wasted no time turning the attention of the committee to the issue of the Windrush generation. Last week she published a letter to Home Secretary Amber Rudd, outlining 23 straightforward questions which aim to help the Government move forward and resolve this problem.

This type of clear and responsive scrutiny is what the Commons committees should be doing. As one of the few standing bodies with the power to call anyone to account, it is right they lead this charge. This approach demonstrates many qualities of good accountability, as we discuss in our latest report.

Accountability means asking the right questions of the right people

First and foremost, those in government who were responsible for the design of the hostile environment policy should be called to account. This policy was specifically designed to deter illegal immigrants by depriving access to public services and requiring substantial proof of their right to be in the UK. Currently there are suspicions that the political drive to create the hostile environment led to a dropping of Whitehall standards.

The inquiry into this begins tomorrow with Amber Rudd, but also needs to include Theresa May – who previously oversaw the Home Office for six years. David Cameron, as Prime Minister at the time, owns his share of responsibility for the design of the hostile environment policy and should be answerable for its unintended consequences.

The committee should also look to the senior civil servants, Mark Sedwill and Philip Rutnam, for answers about the extent to which Home Office officials offered quality control on the hostile environment policy – working to spot flaws and mitigate against them while also adhering to the civil service’s political impartiality.

The perspective of senior officials is especially important given Amber Rudd’s suggestion that a junior civil servant may have been at fault at an early stage of the affair. This type of blame-shifting is not real accountability. Where officials have made mistakes this should be addressed, but the Home Affairs Committee must focus on the flaws in the design of the policy itself – a ministerial responsibility.

We need to understand why early warnings were missed

The Guardian picked up on stories of Windrush children being threatened with removal as early as November 2017. However, a 2016 letter to Kate Hoey from James Brokenshire – then Minister of State for Security and Immigration – suggests that concerns about the collateral effects of the hostile environment policy were raised even earlier.

The Home Affairs Committee should seek to understand the role of the ‘canaries in the coalmine’: those individuals and groups who would have been the first to pick up on the threats of deprivation and deportation being made to lawful residents. These would include individual MPs and their caseworkers, the ombudsman, the immigration inspectors, junior officials at the Home Office and other departments, and staff at their agencies as well as numerous charities and community groups. Did they fall silent? It seems not. Or were they ignored, as Jeremy Corbyn has argued, by those who had the power to take action?

Representatives of all these groups should be called to give their account of the situation and answer the committee’s questions. If accountability was working right, then there should have been multiple channels of scrutiny and oversight which would have picked up on this before it became a full-blown political issue.  

Accountability needs to move past blame to focus on improvement

Good accountability helps government to show empathy with the public who depend on its services, and thrive or suffer based on its actions. Accountability is a link back to those responsible, and in the case of the Windrush generation this link seems to have been broken.

In her statement, Amber Rudd acknowledged that the Home Office was “too slow to realise that there was a group of people who needed to be treated differently”, and that “steps to combat illegal migration have had an unintended and sometimes devastating effect on [the Windrush generation]”.

Understanding how the decisions were made that led us to this point is crucial – but this understanding cannot be reached without considering who made those decisions.

Parliament and the Government should take a lesson from public inquiries – that other institution of formal accountability – and focus first and foremost on ‘preventing recurrence’. This means moving past blame and using the platform of the Home Affairs Committee to ask questions that will help the Government learn from its mistakes. Accountability shouldn’t be used to perpetuate the culture of blame, but to create a culture of improvement.

The next step is clear – the current and former home secretaries must bear the responsibility for their policy design, which has led to a sad outcome. Then the hard work follows, building on what is learned to ensure stronger accountability structures are in place for the future and to stop anything like this from happening again.

Further information

For more information about the Institute for Government's work on accountability, read our latest report