The UK’s equalities watchdog will investigate the Home Office’s “hostile environment” immigration policy in the wake of the Windrush scandal.
The Equalities and Human Rights Commission announced it would launch legal action to review whether the department complied with equality law when implementing the curbs on immigration.
The move comes two years after the Windrush scandal revealed that thousands of people who came to the UK from the Commonwealth as part of a post-war rebuilding effort were denied access to public services and jobs – with some dying abroad after being deported.
A “lessons learned” review carried out for the Home Office in March this year by Wendy Williams stopped short of branding the Home Office “institutionally racist”.
But it found that the department had shown “ignorance and thoughtlessness” on the issue of race, and the ECHR’s new action will look at whether it breached equalities law with actions that the watchdog says “had such a serious and damaging effect on many members of the group known as the Windrush generation and their descendants”.
The assessment will, the watchdog said, look at “how the department engaged with affected individuals and communities to understand the relevant historical and contextual factors when developing immigration policy from 2012-18“.
It will also consider whether the department “understood, monitored and reviewed the impact of placing increasingly onerous documentation requirements” on those swept up in the crackdown.
The body will use its legal powers to determine whether the Home Office breached its public sector equality duty under the Equality Act 2006.
EHRC chair David Isaac said: “The Windrush scandal and hostile environment policies have cast a shadow across the UK and its values. We are working with the Home Office to determine what must change so that this shameful period of our history is not repeated.”
And he added: “The impact of Covid-19 and the killing of George Floyd by US police officers has resulted in urgent calls for action to end the systemic and entrenched race inequalities that exist in our country.
“The law requires that all public bodies must promote inclusivity and opportunity by considering the impact their policies have on ethnic minorities. We have long called for government to produce a comprehensive race equality strategy to tackle these injustices. This assessment and the Home Office’s response to the recommendations in Wendy Williams’ report will focus on the importance of [the public sector equality duty] to put our country’s values on track.”
Shadow justice secretary David Lammy, one of more than 80 MPs who referred the Home Office to the EHRC last year, said: "It is absolutely right that the EHRC has taken the unprecedented step of beginning legal action to review whether the Home Office broke equality laws in its appalling treatment of the Windrush generation.”
The Labour MP added: "As a result of the hostile environment, thousands of black Britons were detained, deported, made homeless, jobless or denied healthcare by their own government. These were people like my parents, who came to this country after the Second World War to help rebuild the UK’s crumbling public services, including the NHS.
"The government has admitted its own wrongdoing, but these black Britons deserve so much more than an apology. As the world demands action on racial inequalities, the Windrush Generation need compensation that is actually paid out, and structural change so that this gross injustice can never repeat itself."
A Home Office spokesperson said Priti Patel, the home secretary, was determined to “right the wrongs” experienced by the Windrush generation.
“Victims who suffered from this terrible injustice are now receiving the support and compensation they are owed. So far 12,000 people have been helped to confirm their status in the UK and more compensation payments are being made week on week," they added.
“We are carefully considering the findings of the Windrush lessons learned review and will respond shortly to those important recommendations. We will also work with the EHRC on the review they have launched.”
The EHRC said its initial assessment would be completed by September this year.