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‘Hostile environment’ broke law, watchdog finds

Jamaican men on board the Empire Windrush in 1948 (Getty)
Deputy Political Editor

The “hostile environment” measures that caused the Windrush scandal broke the law and are “a shameful stain on British history”, the equalities watchdog finds today.

The Home Office failed in its “legal duties” towards black Britons, a damning report concludes – with the harsh effects of the crackdown “repeatedly ignored, dismissed, or their severity disregarded”. Ministers failed to listen properly to protests from members of the Windrush generation, “even as the severe effects of hostile environment policies began to emerge”.

“The treatment of the Windrush generation as a result of hostile environment policies was a shameful stain on British history,” said Caroline Waters, interim chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

The verdict comes just weeks after the EHRC found Labour’s antisemitism scandal also broke the law – a judgement leapt on by Conservative ministers as proof of the party’s unfitness.

The hostile environment policies were introduced by Theresa May, who, after becoming prime minister, was forced to apologise – in front of Commonwealth leaders – when the scandal broke in April 2018. It emerged that British citizens had been deported, detained, sacked from their jobs and made homeless because they could not provide correct documents to employers, landlords and the NHS acting as “de facto border guards”.

However, the report also shines the spotlight on Priti Patel, the current home secretary, whose “improvement plan” suggested the key measures would remain in place until at least 2022. Last week, a black official helping to run the Windrush compensation scheme quit over “racism” and the government’s failure to help victims, in a fresh controversy for the beleaguered Ms Patel, mired in the bullying row.

Just £1.6m has been paid out to 196 people in 18 months – when a bill of between £200m and £570m was expected – and at least nine people have died before receiving the money applied for.

The EHRC examined whether the Home Office complied with the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED), which requires all public authorities to consider how their decisions affect people protected under the Equality Act. The watchdog concluded that the government department did not comply with the duty.

It found that impact assessments were “often considered too late to form a meaningful part of many decision-making processes”. Exceptions to the PSED for immigration were “in many cases interpreted incorrectly or inconsistently, and there was a general lack of commitment within the Home Office to the importance of equality”.

The EHRC said its findings endorsed the conclusion of the Windrush Lessons Learned Review that the experiences of victims of the scandal were “foreseeable and avoidable”. And it piled the heat on Ms Patel by demanding her proposed Home Office action plan be shared with the watchdog by the end of January – in just two months’ time.

Ms Waters added: “It is unacceptable that equality legislation, designed to prevent an unfair or disproportionate impact on people from ethnic minorities and other groups, was effectively ignored in the creation and delivery of policies that had such profound implications for so many people’s lives.”

Describing the PSED as “a crucial safeguard to prevent injustices from occurring”, she said: “Our review has identified where the Home Office fell short of its legal obligations. The department has worked constructively with us throughout our assessment, and we are pleased that it has willingly committed to enter into an agreement with us to learn the lessons from the experiences of the Windrush generation so they can never be repeated.”

Satbir Singh, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said successive home secretaries had “ignored these warnings”. “Today’s landmark EHRC report confirms that this was not only dangerous, it was unlawful,” he said. “The time for apologies has clearly passed – this government must repeal the hostile environment.”