The Home Office has failed to make adequate progress in reviewing its hostile environment policies and must swiftly prove that it is not merely paying “lip service” to the idea of reform, the author of a damning report into the Windrush scandal has told MPs.
Wendy Williams, whose Lessons Learned review into the causes of the immigration scandal was published earlier this year, said the department risked losing a once-in-a-generation opportunity for change. She also voiced surprise that only 168 people had received compensation two and a half years after the government first apologised for mistakenly misclassifying thousands of legal British residents as illegal immigrants.
The home secretary, Priti Patel, has committed to implementing all 30 of the recommendations made in the report. However, Williams expressed concern that there was no immediate plan to appoint a commissioner to represent the unheard voices of migrants.
She said she was also concerned there had been so little progress in reviewing the compliant immigration environment policies – previously known as hostile environment policies – which Theresa May introduced to reduce net migration, and which caused most of the difficulties experienced by those caught up in the Windrush scandal.
“As far as the review of the compliant environment policy is concerned, there is not the detail, or the speed of activity that I would have expected,” she said. “The timescales and the activities are not ambitious enough and I would expect to see more progress made.
“The department has a choice. It can really embrace my recommendations or it can pay lip service to my recommendations, and not institute that fundamental cultural change,” she told the home affairs select committee. “This is a seminal moment for the department.”
Williams reiterated her conclusion that the Home Office required urgent reform, adding that senior members of the department failed to understand the impact of some of its complicated immigration policies. “A very senior member of the department said that they did not believe, and indeed the department accepted this, that there was anyone in the department who understood the full impact of its own policies and legislation,” she said.
The department needed to improve diversity at senior levels in order to avoid a repeat of the Windrush scandal, she said. Despite an overall “positive picture” with black and minority ethnic employees making up 26% of the Home Office workforce, “unfortunately, when you look at the detail, those staff are concentrated in the two most junior grades, and when one goes up the department in terms of seniority, the numbers dwindle away to single figures, whether in terms of numbers or percentages”.
A department that “really doesn’t understand the history of migration to the UK, British colonial history, and the impact of its own policies and where they intersect is a department that is labouring and it needs to address that”, she said.
Williams said she had often found the experience of speaking to people affected by the scandal during her research “shocking”. She said most people were bewildered and incredulous at what had happened to them. “I have to be honest: so was I,” she said.
A group of people affected by the scandal have written a letter to the Guardian setting out their concerns that the Home Office’s “comprehensive improvement plan” is “long on regrets but short on specifics of how and when appropriate changes will be made”.
“The home secretary’s priorities are very clearly not focused on ‘righting the wrongs’ of Windrush, but on doggedly pursuing the same approach of unbridled hostility that created them,” states the letter, which is signed by a group including Michael Braithwaite, who lost his job as a special needs teaching assistant after wrongly being classified as an immigration offender, despite 56 years in the UK.