Leading article in The Times yesterday: Windrush Shambles
Mass deportation is a policy associated with tyrannical states such as apartheid South Africa. It is scarcely conceivable that thousands of people in Britain have been at risk of that fate. They are immigrants from Commonwealth countries who have made this country their home for decades and conscientiously contributed to its betterment. Quite rightly they believed that they had the right to stay. Yet until a belated reversal yesterday, they were being required to prove that they had been continuously resident in Britain since 1973.
To have kept records showing residency over nearly half a century is a bureaucratic obstacle that few people can surmount. This state of affairs is not some anomaly. It is the predictable outcome of policies pursued by Theresa May when she was home secretary to increase the onus on people lawfully settled in Britain to prove their entitlements.
The prime minister has shown scant imagination in anticipating the problems that this approach would throw up or a sense of urgency in rectifying the injustices it has stoked. For Mrs May and the government, a rethink appeared to start only yesterday in response to public outrage. If these second thoughts are to mean anything, they need to be unsparing in their assessment of the damage caused by Mrs May’s draconian attitudes to lawful immigration.
The people affected are part of the “Windrush generation” of immigrants. This label refers to the ship, the Empire Windrush, that brought nearly 500 immigrants from the Caribbean to Britain in 1948. Most were ex-service personnel who had helped the allied war effort and were seeking a better life. These passengers were pioneers in a wave of immigration from Commonwealth countries to Britain. They put down roots and greatly helped their adopted country through willingness to do lower-paid jobs that British workers were reluctant to take on. The fledgling National Health Service was a particular beneficiary.
These immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s naturally brought their children with them and these children have long since grown up. They have worked and lived in Britain all their adult lives and are now of pensionable age. Their rights were guaranteed in the 1971 Immigration Act, passed by the Conservative government of Edward Heath, which gave Commonwealth citizens living in Britain indefinite leave to remain.
So they have done, and they are valued members of society. They withstood an inflammatory and infamous speech 50 years ago by Enoch Powell, whose warnings of racial strife have since been amply refuted. Yet the corrosive assumption that immigrants are a problem rather than a benefit, and that they are raw numbers rather than real people, has bedevilled Mrs May’s policies.
As home secretary, she introduced what she termed a “really hostile environment for illegal immigrants”. To that end, checks are required of businesses and landlords whose employees or tenants are legally entitled to be in Britain. The same is true of hospitals treating patients. Some people have lost jobs, been refused operations or even been deported as result.
No sensible person doubts that a government must manage immigration and thwart illegal entry. The Windrush generation are, however, fully entitled to be in Britain. Amber Rudd, the home secretary, has admitted that she does not know whether any Windrush children have been deported. Clearly embarrassed, Mrs May has reversed a decision not to meet heads of governments from Caribbean countries to discuss their concerns on this issue. Her change of course is welcome but not enough. Controls are one thing; instilling fear among lawfully settled citizens is quite another. It is a scandal that matters have come to this pass.