Windrush ‘engagement’ meetings maintain hostile environment, activists say

The cross-government working group’s reputation is so poor within the Windrush community that they’re informally referred to as the ‘not working group’
race correspondent

The government’s Windrush engagement meetings are excluding those they are designed to help, activists and victims of the scandal have said. Senior Home Office representatives are also failing to regularly participate in advisory events facilitated by grassroots organisations such as the Windrush National Organisation and Windrush Lives, they say.

Before Covid-19 restrictions, the Home Office ran a series of public events around Britain to raise awareness of the Windrush Compensation Scheme and the work of the Windrush Taskforce. Events are now taking place online on a monthly basis. However, these have been criticised as a “waste of time” by attendees and the most recent one, held on 27 April, was no exception.

Speaking to The Independent, campaigner Ngozi Chinegwundoh said the ineffectiveness of these sessions recently prompted her to lodge a formal complaint with the government. “There are new speakers we’re not familiar with, you can’t speak at the end, they don’t have the usual question and answer session where people can raise their hand and ask a question,” the Londoner explained, referring to the previous in-person meetings.

The Windrush scandal continues to unfold (PA)

Attendees can submit questions during these online sessions – but only some will receive answers at the end, leading some people to question whether the Home Office is deliberately screening queries to avoid proper scrutiny. “The Home Office need to allow people to speak and they need to set up events where people who submitted claims, either for compensation or to regularise their status, can make enquiries,” Ms Chinegwundoh added.

Immigration lawyer Jacqueline McKenzie described the last engagement meeting as “insulting”, suggesting that it was further evidence of the Home Office’s lack of regard for victims of the Windrush scandal. During the recent session, attendees were shocked to be told by a government advisor that compensation claimants do not need to be assisted by lawyers.

Claimants such as Glenda Caesar were previously given low offers by the Home Office before asking legal professionals to advocate on their behalf. She said she was initially offered “peanuts”, but is “really happy” with her ultimate offer. “They are treating victims of the Windrush Scandal with contempt. How can you have an engagement event with no engagement? The information isn’t even accurate, ie telling people that they don’t need lawyers. Some people will need lawyers, some might not, what they need to say to people is that it’s their choice,” Ms McKenzie said.

Euen Herbert-Small is a second generation Windrush descendant (Supplied)

“The Home Office is the tortfeasor, the person that’s done the wrong. There’s no arms length between the might of the Home Office, with its entire team of lawyers, and some little old Caribbean man, who’s in his eighties, wanting to put in a compensation claim. The Home Office has not yet shown that it’s serious about righting the wrongs of the Windrush scandal. There’s a lot of work to be done and they haven’t even started.”

Only 15 per cent of Windrush victims claiming compensation have received payouts, official figures suggest. Campaigners say the cross-government working group (CGWG), set up by the Home Secretary in the summer of 2020, has had little public engagement with victims until its recent appearance at the Windrush National Organisation Zoom meeting in April, which The Independent also attended.

Euen Herbert-Small, a second generation Windrush descendant, was present and said the group’s presence was “overshadowed by a massive failure to empathise with victims”. This included “shocking” behaviour such as one CGWG member appearing to laugh at serious concerns coming from a victim, Anthony Brown, who was frustrated by the processes of the compensation scheme.

A heated exchange also ensued between this member and Windrush campaigner Ms Caesar while most of the CGWG members’ cameras remained off. “The group spent most of the time fending off questions from attendees, instead of retaining serious concerns from victims for reflection and promising to do better,” Mr Herbert-Small said. “We have a massive scandal, an apology from government and promises to do better but nothing reflected by the attitudes from the Home Office.”

Born in Saint Kitts as a British subject, Mr Herbert-Small, 41, is an IT engineer who has himself struggled to secure his immigration status due to the government’s hostile environment policies. “The idea of the transgressor in this case being the Home Office and also being the administer of justice to right its own wrongs puts the victims at risk of being open to more harm. It is difficult enough for a victim to have to face their abuser, much less to rely on said abuser for redress,” he added.

Ms Caesar, Windrush campaigner, said the CGWG’s reputation is so poor within the Windrush community that they’re informally referred to as the “not working group”. “They don’t represent us. They gave us the impression that they’re supposed to act as a go between between Priti Patel and the victims. How will you know the problems if you don’t speak to the victims and advocates?” she told The Independent.

Glenda Caesar sought legal advice after a low offer from the Home Office (Glenda Caesar)

“It’s like they put themselves in another class away from us and don’t want to understand what we’re going through. No matter how much we ask them to engage with us, they don’t.” She added: “Everyone of the working group are more right leaning in terms of politics, and this is another reason why they don’t represent us.”

Echoing Mr Herbert-Small’s views, Ms Caesar said “the compensation scheme needs to be taken away from the Home Office”.

The Home Office said: “We are determined to right the wrongs of the Windrush generation and make sure they get the compensation they deserve for the injustices they faced. This is why we offer a wide range of engagement opportunities, each of which is carefully designed for different audiences and developed following feedback from attendees about what they are looking to get out of these sessions.

“Nearly 160 outreach and engagement events have taken place reaching over 3,000 people. This includes over 40 public outreach engagement events on a digital platform since March 2020. Online engagement meetings are just one way the Windrush generation can get in touch with the Home Office.”