Home Office told to review hostile environment policy as Windrush review finds 'institutional ignorance' on race

Home Office was slow to react to reports of injustice and ignored warning signs, Wendy Williams finds

Home secretary Priti Patel said review should help ensure “this can never happen again”.Photo: Matt Crossick/Empics Entertainment

The Home Office must carry out a full review of its “hostile environment” policy and measures, as part of an effort to completely reform the department’s culture in the wake of the Windrush scandal, a damning report has said.

Home secretary Priti Patel should commission civil servants to undertake a “full review and evaluation of the hostile/compliant environment policy and measures – individually and cumulatively,” the long-awaited Windrush lessons learned review, published yesterday, said. 

The recommendation is one of 30 outlined in the review, which said the Home Office had displayed “institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness” on race throughout the Windrush scandal.


The recommendations of former police watchdog Wendy Williams, who led the review, are intended to prevent a repeat of the scandal in which members of the Windrush generation were denied access to public services, housing and jobs, and even deported despite being in the UK legally.

Williams said the causes could be traced back through policy and legislation decisions dating back to the 1960s. She said warning signs were “simply not heeded by officials and ministers”.

“Even when stories of members of the Windrush generation being affected by immigration control started to emerge in the media from 2017 onwards, the department was too slow to react,” she said.

“While I am unable to make a definitive finding of institutional racism within the department, I have serious concerns that these failings demonstrate an institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race and the history of the Windrush generation within the department, which are consistent with some elements of the definition of institutional racism,” she concluded.

Williams said officials must examine whether hostile environment measures are “effective and proportionate in meeting their stated aim” – to make it difficult for immigrants to live and work in the UK illegally – and their impact on both British citizens and migrants who are in the country legally.

“This review must be carried out scrupulously, designed in partnership with external experts and published in a timely way,” Williams said.

The review also sets out a comprehensive set of steps to change the culture of the Home Office – beginning with a clear purpose, mission and values statement from the home secretary which must have “at its heart fairness, humanity, openness, diversity and inclusion”. 

The Home Office must devise a programme of “major cultural change for the whole department and all staff” to encourage them to uphold these values. This process should be led by permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft – who starts in his new role next week – and second perm sec Shona Dunn, and be based on input from staff across grades sharing their experience of working in the department.

The review called for better training and development of staff, stemming from both a review of existing diversity and inclusion and unconscious bias awareness training and new training programmes. It also called for refresher training and better monitoring of its effectiveness.

Meanwhile, the department should “re-educate itself fully” about immigration and nationality law and take steps to improve its institutional memory, Williams said, by ensuring staff understand the history of immigration legislation and carry out historical research when considering new legislation.

Immigration and policy officials should also undergo training on the Equality Act, the Human Rights Act and the department’s public sector equality duty. Staff should also be given a new learning and development programme covering the history of the UK and its relationship with the rest of the world – including Britain’s colonial history and the history of black Brits, the review said.

The review also called for better guidance on the burden of proof for visa applicants; clearer criteria for increasing contact with applicants where needed and working with vulnerable applicants; and a review of the Borders, Immigration and Citizenship System complaints procedure.

The work should be supported by a new strategic race advisory board, chaired by the perm sec and including external immigraiton experts, to inform policymaking and how the Home Office works, Williams said. 

And she said the department should appoint a migrants’ commissioner to act as an advocate for migrants and “those affected by the system directly or indirectly”. They would engage with migrants and different communities to identify systemic concerns and work with the government and the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration to address them.

The Home Office must also review the remit and role of ICIBI, Williams said, and consider giving the inspector more powers to publish reports. She also said ministers should have to publish “clearly articulated and justified reasons” explaining why they have not implemented any of the watchdog’s recommendations.

At the moment it is up to the Home Office to make ICIBI reports public – but last year the department did not publish a single one within its own eight-week timeframe, and some are still unpublished.

‘This can never happen again’

Patel said the review’s publication was “part of an ongoing mission to put this right and ensure events like this can never happen again, because there were far too many victims of Windrush”.

“As this review makes clear, some members of this generation suffered terrible injustices, spurred by institutional failings by successive governments spanning several decades – including ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the race and the history of the Windrush generation,” she said.

She added: “I’m sorry that people’s trust has been betrayed and we will continue to do everything possible to ensure that the Home Office protects, supports and listens to every single part of the community it serves.”

Williams said the Home Office must come up with a “comprehensive improvement plan” in the next six months, taking account of all of her recommendations.

Among her other recommendations, she said the department must carry out a series of “reconciliation events” to allow people to share the impact of the scandal on their lives; and work to proactively identify people affected, particularly those from beyond the Caribbean, as previously recommended by the National Audit Office. 

Williams will review the progress the department has made in 18 months’ time.

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