George Osborne says civil servants should take more blame for Windrush scandal

Former chancellor admits cabinet got policy wrong but says accountability needs to be shared with officials
George Osborne gives evidence to the Commission for Smart Government

By Jim Dunton

06 Nov 2020

Former chancellor George Osborne has said Home Office officials should carry more accountability for the quality of advice that led to the Windrush scandal.

Osborne, who was a senior member of the coalition government cabinet that agreed to push ahead with then home secretary Theresa May’s hostile environment for illegal immigrants, referred to the scandal in an evidence session of the Commission for Smart Government earlier this week.

Around 164 people were wrongly detained or removed from the UK because they could not demonstrate their right to be here under the beefed up rules. The majority were from the Windrush Generation and had arrived in the UK from the Caribbean between 1948 and 1971, although the documentation problem affected others who settled in the UK from Commonwealth countries over the period and also have indefinite leave to remain.

Osborne, who was chancellor from 2010 to 2016 used the Windrush Scandal to illustrate his thinking on why senior civil servants should carry a greater degree of accountability for the quality of advice given to ministers in the evidence session, looking at areas for civil service reform.

“Identifying accountability is hard,” Osborne said. “There there’s absolutely no doubt – and I was part of these decisions – that the government of the day, the politicians in charge, sat round and decided to make the regime for illegal immigration harder. That was the policy objective.

“They did not think, or intend, that that would affect long-established people who’d come from – or whose relatives had come from – the Caribbean decades ago. But they should have. We should have thought about that. 

“I’m not sure the civil service volunteered at the time the information which maybe ministers wouldn’t have otherwise known, which was: ‘by the way, if you go down this route,  this is going to happen’.”

Osborne said: “I think there’s shared accountability there: Did the civil service tell the ministers? Are the ministers accountable for the decision?”

An independent review of the scandal by former police watchdog Wendy Williams found the Home Office had displayed “institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness” on race throughout the Windrush Scandal and set out a 30-point action plan for reform.

Osborne accepted that ministers could not pass the buck, and say “we had no idea, it’s not our fault” in relation to the Windrush scandal,  but he said the issue that cost May’s successor as home secretary Amber Rudd her job was a different question.

“Amber Rudd is answering questions in parliament and gets facts wrong and has to resign because she’s given the wrong piece of paper by the civil servant,” Osborne told Wednesday’s evidence session.

Home Office director general of immigration enforcement Hugh Ind left the department to lead the implementation of the Public Sector Apprenticeships Strategy in the Cabinet Office after the scandal.

“That civil servant, I know, their career petered out but nevertheless, where was the real accountability there?" Osborne asked. "The accountability should not have been with the home secretary. I’m all for holding home secretaries to account, including Amber. But it felt to me that you could re-examine that: who is responsible for what?”

Rudd had wrongly told a 2018 Home Affairs Select Committee meeting that the Home Office did not have targets for deporting illegal immigrants 

Osborne gave a further – and more personal – example of what he believed was incomplete advice given to him by officials in relation to his 2012 Budget proposals to extend VAT to hot take-away food sold on the premises where it was baked: the so-called “pasty tax”.

“At no point in any Treasury document before the budget did it tell me that I was going to put a tax on pasties,” Osborne said.  

“That had not been surfaced in any budget document. I thought I was putting a tax on hot chickens in Sainsbury’s.”

The pasty tax was scrapped weeks later.

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