Priti Patel has promised to revolutionise the culture of the Home Office in the wake of the Windrush scandal, pledging a more compassionate, “people first” approach to immigration to meet the recommendations of an independent review into UK government failures.
While Labour welcomed the home secretary’s response to Wendy Williams’ review of lessons learned from the scandal, it said the government lacked credibility on the issue, and queried the slow pace of compensation payments to those wrongly targeted for immigration enforcement.
Patel, questioned by the shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, said the Windrush compensation scheme had so far received 1,342 applications and had made offers of payments to 154 individuals, or about 11%. She did not say how many people had received their money.
The most recent Home Office figures, from May, show that of 1,275 applications received by that point, only 60 payments had been made, or 4.7% of the total. This was marginally up from statistics in February, which showed that in the first 10 months of the scheme’s existence 3% of applicants, or 36 people, had been paid.
A key element of the response will be a review of the UK’s “hostile environment” immigration enforcement policy, under which people are obliged to prove their status to access public services or keep their jobs, one of the main causes of the Windrush cases.
Introduced in 2012 under the then home secretary Theresa May, this has been rebranded the “compliant environment”.
“What happened to the Windrush generation is unspeakable, and no one with a legal right to be here should ever have been penalised,” Patel said in a statement to the Commons about the Home Office’s response to Williams’ review.
“I’ve tasked my officials to undertake a full evaluation of the compliant environment policy and measures, individually and cumulatively, to make sure the crucial balance is right.”
The 276-page report into the Windrush scandal, in which thousands of legal UK residents from Commonwealth backgrounds were misclassified as illegal immigrants, despite many having lived in Britain for decades, found the Home Office displayed “ignorance and institutional thoughtlessness” on the subject of race, in part consistent with institutional racism.
Williams, a solicitor and one of the Inspectors of Constabulary, found the Home Office was characterised by a “culture of disbelief and carelessness” and that there was a “lack of empathy for individuals”. Patel first responded to the report last month, saying she accepted its recommendations and would set out how this would happen.
Patel told MPs on Wednesday: “My ambition is for a fair, humane, compassionate and outward-looking Home Office, that represents people from every corner of our diverse society.
“This will ensure sweeping reforms to our culture, policies, systems and working practices to reach across the entire department, an approach that Wendy Williams has welcomed.”
The home secretary said the changes would involve engagement with community groups and others: “I have been clear to my officials that this is not a box-ticking exercise. A delivery plan has been drawn up to ensure meaningful and rapid action.”
Patel laid out five key areas for change, in what she called “a genuine cultural shift in the department”:
Mandatory training for Home Office staff on the history of migration and race in the UK.
• A more inclusive workforce, with a higher proportion of BAME staff in senior roles.
• Making the Home Office more open to scrutiny and ensuring it better engaged with others.
• A commitment to inclusive policymaking, with impact assessments about how changes could affect vulnerable individuals or communities.
• A more compassionate approach, based on “people, not cases”.
Patel said Williams would review progress in September next year.
“The injustices of Windrush did not happen because Home Office staff were bad people, but because staff themselves were caught up in a system where they did not feel they had the permission to bring personal judgment to bear,” she said.
In response, Thomas-Symonds cited some of the individual experiences of people caught up in Windrush, saying: “It’s all the more shocking that just 60 people have received compensation from the Windrush compensation scheme in the first year of operation.
“Ministers must get a grip of this scheme. The review is clear that the Home Office must be more proactive in identifying people affected and putting right any detriment detected.”
He also asked Patel for more information on the review into the hostile environment policy, and when this would be completed.
He said he was worried the Home Office was still being too slow to change: “The Black Lives Matter movement highlighted the need not just to recognise the discrimination and racism that black people continue to face, but to demand action. Looking at the failure to act on so many previous reviews, the government is falling woefully short on that action.”
Yvette Cooper, the Labour MP who chairs the Commons home affairs select committee, said she welcomed Patel’s commitments, but questioned the home secretary on what she called “huge delays in the compensation process”, with some applicants waiting more than a year even for an initial response.
“We’re hearing case after case where that is happening,” Cooper said. “Could she now urgently review the operation of the compensation scheme so that initial payments can be made far, far more quickly? This is an ageing generation – it is urgent that they get support.”
Patel replied by saying she would look at any individual cases Cooper brought to her attention.