Charlotte Tobierre is a friend of mine and a fellow Windrush activist. Her father, Thomas, is a Windrush victim: he lost his job, his pension and his dignity when the Home Office wrongly stripped him of his status, 60 years after he arrived and laid down roots, legally, in the UK. Earlier this year, Thomas accepted an insultingly low offer from the Windrush compensation scheme. He was exhausted, having fought the Home Office and undergone two stages of its independent review process for victims who are unhappy with their awards.
Thomas’s wife, Caroline, was also due to receive compensation from the scheme, having disrupted her life to support him. She was made a lowball offer, which she refused. Caroline was also fighting cancer, and passed away earlier this month. To defray the costs of Caroline’s funeral, the grief-stricken family were promised an “urgent and exceptional” payment – a type of emergency relief intended to support victims who have a “compelling” reason why they cannot wait for the Home Office’s parsimonious, time-wasting exercise to be completed.
Earlier this week, I received a message from Charlotte. Having accepted that Caroline’s estate was due this “urgent and exceptional” payment, the Home Office was now demanding reams of bank statements to prove the family’s need for this money, which was less than the paltry sum it had already offered Caroline when she was alive. Even worse, the Home Office demanded evidence of how Thomas had spent the entirely separate pittance it awarded him, strongly implying that it had a duty to make sure he deserved this, which he wouldn’t if he had blown it all on fripperies. In fact it barely covered the debts he racked up while unemployed.
These are the realities of the Windrush compensation scheme, which was launched in April 2019 and has barely made a dent in the task of providing redress to an estimated 15,000 people. That is the finding of the home affairs select committee, which today said it believed the scheme should be stripped from the Home Office and run independently. The Home Office is once again failing a cohort of people who have been persecuted, marginalised, rendered destitute and, in some cases, dislocated – by the Home Office.
The Tobierres’ case is sadly typical. Uptake of the scheme remains low – about a fifth of the estimated total expected. The experiences of those who have applied show why that is the case. Claimants’ accounts of their own lives are not believed; documentary proof is demanded of things which cannot be proven, such as the absence of employment offers; case officers fall off the grid for months at a time, leaving claimants hanging; documents – entire applications in some cases – are repeatedly “lost”.
At the same time, the home secretary, Priti Patel, issues bizarre self-congratulatory statements lauding the value of amounts offered (crucially, not the same as amounts accepted or paid) and repeating two empty, shop-worn phrases: that the Home Office is “righting the wrongs” based on the “lessons learned” from the Windrush scandal.
That is, to put it mildly, arrant nonsense. But what did we expect? This is the same body that tells LGBTQ+ asylum seekers they aren’t at risk because there is a lively “gay scene” in their Muslim home country, tried to deport an autistic teenager to a country he knew nothing of over the (disputed) theft of a mobile phone, and pursues a policy that, up until very recently, it named “hostile”. It should never have been allowed near a compensation scheme designed to make restitution for its own wrongdoing. As many Windrushers have observed, it is the equivalent of having to beg a robber to please return what they stole.
The select committee’s findings are welcome, but do not go far enough. In paragraph 38 of its report, it states that it “believes” the scheme should be transferred to an independent organisation, then immediately equivocates by adding that its recommendations should be adopted, “whether by the independent organisation or the Home Office”. That will not compel the Home Office. And it will not trouble the home secretary, an individual who thinks “do-gooder” is an aspersion. Why start now, when almost identical findings by the National Audit Office, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and the government’s own Inspector of Constabulary, Wendy Williams, have been largely ignored?
The scheme must be taken away from the Home Office. Whatever the Sewell report might say, at the heart of this debacle lies a deep-rooted queasiness around looking at the underlying problem and calling it what it is: institutional racism. Black and brown citizens were targeted by the Home Office for harassment and removal. There is no other explanation as to why this problem almost exclusively affected them, as opposed to migrants (and their descendants) belonging to any other race.
In that sense, what they are due from the Windrush compensation scheme should perhaps be framed as reparation rather than compensation. They were systematically wronged. It is not for the Home Office or any other body to assess the merits of the harm they suffered and “award” them compensation. They are not “customers”, as the Home Office nauseatingly refers to them in its official statistics. They are victims, and they are owed redress.
This is not an administrative problem at its heart, though the scheme is beset with those as well due to the archaic structure and procedures of the Home Office. It is political. The scheme is ex-gratia; it is not underpinned by any statute. That is why report after damning report can “recommend”, and even criticise, but not force change. But that is what we must have.
This report finds that at least 23 victims have died while waiting for compensation. But the size of the affected cohort is very likely under-reported, so the true number is likely much higher. We cannot wait another year for the Home Office to make a hundred tiny ineffectual tweaks to the scheme, when it is sweeping, root-and-branch change that is needed. This ends now.
Ramya Jaidev is a co-founder of Windrush Lives, an advocacy group and victim support network. In collaboration with Good Law Project, it is running a survey to gather data on victims’ experiences of the Windrush compensation scheme