The Home Office failed to act on reports that members of the Windrush generation could be adversely affected by its ‘hostile environment’ immigration policy and has shown a “lack of curiosity” about the full scale of the scandal, according to a damning report.
Poor use of data, badly thought out policies and implementation, and a target-driven culture all contributed to members of the Windrush generation being wrongfully detained, deported and denied access to public services despite having a legal right to be in the UK, the National Audit Office said.
“The Home Office did not deliberately deny the Windrush generation of their legal rights to be in the UK, but it failed to protect their needs when it designed and implemented its immigration policies,” its report, published today, said.
And not only did officials neglect to consider how immigration policies would affect Windrush migrants, but they also failed to act on "credible information" that they could be adversely affected, it said.
These warnings included concerns raised with the govenment by Caribbean ministers in 2016, and reports from, among others, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration about the wider impact of the hostile environment policy.
“It is our view that there were warning signs from enough different sources, over a long enough period, to collectively indicate a potential problem that merited further investigation,” the NAO said.
The scandal erupted after it emerged that some British citizens of Caribbean descent had been stripped of their rights to work, denied access to public services and threatened with deportation under so-called “hostile environment” immigration policies – which the government is now referring to as “compliant environment”.
The furore led to the resignation of then home secretary Amber Rudd, after she accidentally misled Parliament over the existence of illegal immigrant removals targets in her department. Her successor Sajid Javid announced a review in June, to be overseen by Wendy Williams, Britain’s only black inspector of police, fire and rescue services.
However, according to the NAO, the Home Office has shown a "surprising" lack of initiative in investigating the true scale of the problem, even as it is working to identify and compensate individuals affected by the scandal.
The department holds records on around 171,000 Commonwealth nationals aged over 45 who may have been detained or removed since 2002, but has so far reviewed only 11,800 of these, related to Caribbean nationals.
The Home Office has said reviewing the remaining 160,000 files relating to non-Caribbean Commonwealth nationals would be “disproportionate”, but the NAO said it did not have the data to prove this was the case and urged the department to “be more proactive in identifying people affected and put right any detriment detected”.
Historical failures identified in the report included the fact that the Home Office did not give Windrush migrants any documentation demonstrating their settled status and did not keep records to that effect.
More recently, it said, poor use of data “increased the risk of wrongful removals, detentions and sanctions on public services for the Windrush generation”. This was despite warnings on several occasions over the last four years from both the NAO and the chief inspector about the data and controls underpinning the immigration system, it said.
The situation has been worsened by enforcement targets and performance metrics that are “geared towards prioritising decisions within agreed timeframes rather than the outcome or impact of the decision, which may have contributed to incorrect decisions”, it said.
The extent to which targets for removing people who were in the UK illegally directly contributed to the Windrush scandal is not yet known, but the report said their existn “would have influenced how enforcement staff carried out their work, in a way that may have increased the risk of wrongful removals”.
“In its implementation of the policy with few checks and balances and targets for enforcement action, we do not consider, once again, that the department adequately prioritised the protection of those who suffered distress and damage through being wrongly penalised, and to whom they owed a duty of care,” the report said.
The NAO set out a series of recommendations to improve the Home Office’s handling of the scandal and to prevent a similar situation arising in future. It called for a department-wide strategy to support potentially vulnerable individuals using the immigration system, and to increase independent scrutiny of its policies.
It also said the department “should place greater emphasis on outcomes in its assurance of immigration decision-making”.
“It should develop a system that seeks actively to improve decision quality and is based on a broad understanding of the risks and impact of incorrect or inconsistent decisions,” including additional checks on applications that have been refused, it said.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The home secretary has issued a profound apology to the Windrush generation for the experiences they have faced and, as the NAO’s report acknowledges, our taskforce has taken thousands of phone calls and helped over 2,400 people of any nationality prove their status in the UK.”
The spokesperson said that although it has primarily helped people of Caribbean origin so far, the department has “always been clear” that the taskforce was open to members of the Windrush generation of any nationality.
“The home secretary is absolutely determined to right the wrongs of the past,” they added, pointing to Williams' review.