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Book review: The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment, by Amelia Gentleman (Faber & Faber 2019)

Book review: The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment, by Amelia Gentleman (Faber & Faber 2019)




This is a story about who gets listened to in Britain and who gets ignored. It’s about race, poverty and marginalisation.’

Amelia Gentleman, The Windrush Betrayal


By Margaret Doyle


There are many stories told by Amelia Gentleman’s The Windrush Betrayal, all touching on the important role of listening and looking in administrative justice. The book tells a story of the way dry legislation and Whitehall policy can pull the ground out from under people who are invisible to the State. It tells a story of Home Office frontline staff working to unattainable targets under pressure, not allowed to use discretion or offer face-to-face meetings. It tells a story of failure of the mechanisms for people to hold government to account. It tells a story of silences and blind spots and shoulder shrugs – of, as Gentleman writes, ‘a scandal hiding in plain sight’.


Fundamentally the book is the story of an investigation carried out by a journalist who waded in to uncover deeply rooted wrongdoing even when she was not sure the wrongdoing was there to be found. The story unfolds like a thriller; it has villains and victims, but what Gentleman reveals at the source is a rotten core, not a bad apple, not even the Home Secretary who was forced to resign. Gentleman traces the roots of the ‘hostile environment’ policy campaign – an official term that was only discarded once the scandal was exposed and the government renamed the policy ‘the compliant environment’. Its roots go back further than the 2014 Immigration Act, back to the growth of immigration enforcement under New Labour, but the narrative adopted by Theresa May as Home Secretary, and the measures brought in with the hostile environment policy, were designed not to address illegal immigration but to pander to a newly emerging political force raising alarms about net migration overall. Those roots of the hostile environment are deeply implicated with the threats felt by the Conservative party with ‘UKIP breathing down their necks’.


‘We are here because you were there’

The book also tells the many stories of those affected by the Windrush scandal – men and women in their 50s and 60s who were born in the Commonwealth and who moved to the UK as children, as citizens moving from one part of the British empire to another to join parents who had been recruited to help rebuild Britain after the war. They went to school, worked, had families, paid taxes and National Insurance. Those who arrived before 1973 were eligible for citizenship but may not have been aware of the requirements. Like most people, they had no need to keep abreast of the many changes to immigration rules and visa requirements that have taken place in the past 30-40 years. They had lived here for many decades and felt British to their core.


What most had in common, a factor that meant they and not others in similar situations were hit hardest by the hostile environment, was that they not travelled outside the UK since arriving. They had had no need for a passport, no need to verify their status. The questions, triggered by the transfer of immigration enforcement responsibilities under the hostile environment policy, came from nowhere and everywhere – from employers, the JobCentre, the Council housing office, the hospital. In some cases, the application for a passport – to visit elderly relatives in Jamaica, for example – triggered a refusal and a frightening letter from the Home Office threatening deportation.


‘Britain’s immigration legislation had profoundly changed since they arrived, without them noticing, pushing them across the invisible but crucial line that stands between legality and illegality.’ [p191]


Gentleman ties the struggles of these individuals today to the legacy of colonialism and slavery and to the bleak reception and a particularly ‘English’ form of racism experienced by Caribbean migrants when they arrived in the 1940s and 50s. The sense of betrayal is palpable.


The story starts when Gentleman hears about Paulette Wilson, who arrived in the UK from Jamaica aged 11 in 1968, the same year that Enoch Powell delivered his Rivers of Blood speech. As part of The Guardian’s coverage of the 2015 General Election, Gentleman went to Powell’s constituency in Wolverhampton to probe voters’ views on immigration. (Gentleman found a peaceful and diverse community whose main preoccupations were jobs and the economy, not immigration.) On that visit, she spoke to staff at the Refugee and Migrant Centre. Two years later, the Centre contacted her to ask her to look into a case of a local resident being threatened with deportation. Aged 61, Wilson had been sent to Yarl’s Wood detention centre and was being threatened with imminent deportation to Jamaica, a country she had not been to since she was a child. Her deportation was stopped at the last minute after intervention by the media and her MP. She was granted indefinite leave to remain in January 2018, not long after Gentleman’s story on her ran in the paper, and the following summer she obtained her British citizenship. But the harrowing experiences she endured up to then are told in stark and shocking detail.


The unfolding story

Gentleman is subsequently contacted by others – other individuals affected as Wilson had been, law centres working with clients. (One of Gentleman’s explanations for why the scandal remained hidden is that legal aid cuts had so decimated the sources of legal advice for individuals who can’t afford lawyers.) Anthony Bryan, who arrived in the UK from Jamaica aged 8 with his brother, had been detained twice and was now threatened with deportation. He referred Gentleman to four friends, including Hubert Howard, who came to the UK aged 3. Bryan’s MP, Kate Osamor (Edmonton), reported to Gentleman that she had seen at least 10 such cases, older constituents who had lived their whole adult lives here and were sent to detention. But the hostile environment is not only about detention and deportation – it is about instilling fear, and as such it targets people’s homes and jobs and access to health care.


‘…I began to realise that this problem was not just about being wrongly locked up and threatened with deportation. It was about a much wider issue of fear and humiliation, losing jobs, losing hoes, being refused the right to visit family, denied the chance to see dying parents, having your identity ripped away from you by brutal, invisible bureaucratic processes.’ (p.72)


Gentleman writes honestly of her doubts, of coping with evening phone calls from disgruntled press officers from the Home Office, of the way the investigation entered her life and stayed there, moving into the family home, interrupting Sunday lunches. She describes feeling as if she were looking at the situation through fog, fumbling for the shape of the problem. She became adept as scanning immigration case files, learning the language of the Home Office. It was all consuming, and the entire time she was filled with outrage, an outrage that speaks from every page.


‘The ability to feel outraged is a powerful tool. …in order to feel outraged about what happened, you needed to have a strong belief in the responsibility of the state to behave differently, in a fair and just manner to everyone.’ [p293]


The Windrush Betrayal weaves these personal stories into the unfolding of the political scandal. With that unfolding come fascinating insights into the workings of government bureaucracy. We learned from the evidence given to the Home Affairs Select Committee that then Home Secretary was unaware that the statutory route of appeal for these immigration cases had been removed. We learned that the then Director General responsible for Borders, Immigration and Citizenship believed that it was misjudged to have removed Home Office caseworkers’ power to interview people and exercise discretion. We learned that the Home Office had no idea how many people were affected. (For more on the evidence session see this UKAJI blog post.)


Gentleman explains one of the causes: between 2012 and 2015 Home Office staff dealing with immigration cases were cut by about a quarter. First-instance decision-makers were moved down a grade, so that these cases were dealt with by more junior staff, often outsourced agency staff, who lacked the experience and knowledge of immigration rules. Discretion to engage in face-to-face interaction was removed.


‘…it is extremely troubling that in the immigration and asylum system people can be deprived of their liberty through an entirely paper-based exercise by officials where no one involved in the decisions ever interviews the potential detainee.’ Home Affairs Select Committee


All the signs

Gentleman’s investigation shows us that there were warnings during Parliament’s scrutiny of the 2014 Immigration Act, warnings that highlighted that the hostile environment policy would affect a much wider group than intended and would disproportionately affect older people and people from black and minority ethnic groups, and that these warnings were ignored. (Just such a stark warning was included in the impact assessment on the ‘right to rent’ policy, a part of the hostile environment that was determined by the High Court in 2019 to be discriminatory and to breach human rights, although the policy remains in force.)


In 2013 and 2014, specialist advice centres were seeing an increasing number of clients receiving threatening letters and texts and warning the Home Office that mistakes were being made. In 2014 a report published by Legal Action Group, Chasing Status by Fiona Bawden, drew attention to the ‘virtually invisible – and rarely acknowledged – group who can’t easily prove their status (because of lost documents, or poor government record-keeping)…’. Gentleman knows the Home Office read this research because it asked to comment on The Guardian’s reporting of it in 2014. For months from late 2017 the Windrush scandal featured on the Guardian’s front page.


Recently, a colleague of mine described Windrush as a ‘clerical cock-up’. He sympathised with those affected but saw the debacle as an administrative error, one that has been uncovered and has delivered a neat package of lessons learned. Gentleman’s book proves otherwise, exposing the systemic nature of the problem, the reason it is a scandal and not a cock-up. In its response to the call for evidence for a ‘lessons learned’ review of Windrush, the Joint Council on the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) also countered the ‘administrative cock-up’ explanation, urging resistance to the ‘temptation to think of the underlying issues as inevitably complex, as unforeseen side-effects of well-intentioned policies acting upon a chaotic system. … it is easy to lay the bulk of the blame at complexity, incomplete knowledge, poor communication, and failures in internal Home Office systems.’ But ‘to reach such a conclusion’, the JCWI continues, would be to ignore the truth, that at the heart of the problems is ‘political will and intention at the highest levels of government’.


What particularly interests me is the absence of the Parliamentary Ombudsman in this story. Gentleman’s book shows us that although MPs may have been slow off the mark in responding to the crisis, individual cases were coming to light years before her investigation. The absence of the ombud in this story suggests it was never considered – by law centres, migrant advice centres, and even MPs – as a means to hold the Home Office to account. On the face of it there appear to be many angles involving maladministration and injustice that the ombud could have investigated if it had received a complaint, not least the failure to act on warnings that the hostile environment policy was potentially discriminatory and the emerging knowledge of the systemic nature of the problem. In its inquiry report, published in 2018, the Joint Committee on Human Rights emphasised that the wrongful detentions of Anthony Bryan and Paulette Wilson were not due to ‘a series of mistakes’ but were cases ‘in which information was repeatedly assessed and a series of decisions were taken by different people within the Home Office over a long period of time’. There was also what Gentleman describes as a disconnect between the emotional language used – Prime Minister May referred in Parliament to the ‘anxiety’ caused, and Gentleman notes that none of the individual she interviewed spoke of ‘anxiety’. They spoke instead of fear, humiliation, betrayal, and outrage. As with May’s reaction to the Grenfell Tower fire, there is a marked gulf between the trauma experienced by those affected and the emotionally starved language used in response. An ombud, one with her ear to the ground, could have played a pivotal role in bridging that gulf.


‘Windrush on steroids’

 Once exposed, Windrush led to inquiries and reports from Parliamentary select committees and the National Audit Office as well as to a ‘lessons learned’ review and the announcement of a compensation scheme. Gentleman believes the ‘national shame’ felt over Windrush has brought about some significant changes. More than 6,000 individuals affected have had their status regularised. The number of people in immigration detention centres fell following Windrush, which the Home Office links to changes made in decision-making. She points out, however, that a shared sense of shame over the Windrush scandal has not developed into a discussion we need to have nationally about the debt owed to immigrants and the positive impact of immigration.


The book is also a cautionary tale. Labour MP Yvette Cooper warned that the situation post-Brexit for many of the more than 3 million EU27 residents living in the UK could be ‘Windrush on steroids’. The JCWI has said that the situation faced by Wilson, Bryan and so many others – of being ‘turned into undocumented migrants or undocumented citizens by the creation of a system of immigration control’ – is one that could affect the millions of others in the near future. Questions remain about whether all the EU27 citizens resident here will apply for settled status before the deadline, as do questions about the lack of physical documents for those who obtain settled status. In an analysis of the EU Settlement Scheme on UKAJI’s blog, Joe Tomlinson and Alice Welsh recently warned that as numbers of people being granted pre-settled status increases, awareness of the need to apply for more permanent status may decline, impacting access to public services. Whatever the current Government decides to dress it up as, the hostile environment remains.



About the author:

 Margaret Doyle is a Visiting Research Fellow with the UK Administrative Justice Institute at the University of Essex. She is also an independent mediator in special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). She is co-author, with Nick O’Brien, of Reimagining Administrative Justice: Human right in small places (Palgrave Macmillan 2019).


About UK Administrative Justice Institute

Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, we link research, practice & policy on administrative justice in the UK

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