The Home Office has failed to transform its culture or to become a more compassionate department as it promised to do in the wake of the Windrush scandal, a critical inspection report has found.
Expressions of disappointment appear 14 times in the progress report published by independent expert Wendy Williams, who was appointed to advise the Home Office on how to reform to avoid any future crisis.
Reviewing the department’s progress in its commitments to addressing the problems that caused by the Windrush scandal, Williams concluded she was “disappointed by the lack of tangible progress or drive to achieve the cultural changes required”.
Acknowledging that some positive steps had been made, she said the department was at a “tipping point”, and unless improvements were made, it was only a matter of time before it would face another crisis, she said.
Williams was appointed in 2018 to investigate the causes of the Windrush scandal, under which the UK government erroneously classified thousands of legal residents as illegal immigrants.
Her 2020 report contained 30 recommendations for Home Office improvements, and the home secretary, Priti Patel, later committed to implementing all of them, promising “to build a fairer, more compassionate” department and committing to “a total transformation of our culture”.
But only eight of the 30 recommendations have been fully implemented, Williams said, adding that the department had yet to implement the spirit of her recommendations, and criticized officials for exaggerating the progress they have made.
“Much more progress is required in policymaking and casework, which will be seen as the major indicators of improvement,” she said.
“I have seen limited evidence that a compassionate approach is being embedded consistently across the department,” she concluded.
She was also critical of the department’s failure to review the effectiveness of the hostile environment policies (now known as compliant environment policies) that caused so many of the Windrush problems.
“The failure to complete the review of the compliant environment policy will fundamentally hamper the department’s efforts to learn lessons and move on constructively,” she wrote.
The department has failed to appoint a migrants’ commissioner, which Williams views as a key measure “to signpost systemic risks”.
More work needed to be done to increase the level of black, Asian and minority ethnic staff at a senior level. Williams had found that an insufficiently diverse Home Office leadership team had “contributed to some of the errors in thinking which gave rise to the Windrush scandal itself”. Although some steps had been taken to address this issue, “success remains elusive and a much more dynamic approach is needed”, she said.
Williams was particularly concerned by the slow pace of the compensation programme. A small poll of applicants to the Windrush compensation scheme conducted by Williams found that 76% said they had not been treated respectfully by Home Office staff, and that 97% said that they did not trust the Home Office to deliver on its commitments. Around 386 claimants have waited more than a year for their claims to be resolved, 179 of whom have been waiting more than 18 months.
“I met people who were still in severe financial and personal difficulties two years on from my original review. Some were unable to find work after time away from the job market. Others were in temporary accommodation, having to live with families or facing eviction because of unpaid bills. Some were in serious debt,” she wrote.
“Many still had unmet physical and psychological needs
and had experienced a sense of loss and devastation which had fundamentally affected their ability to cope, undermining their sense of identity and feelings of self-worth.”
Several anonymous Home Office staff interviewed by Williams also expressed concern about the scheme. One told her: “Our approach does not scream ‘righting the wrongs’ or compassion, but ‘how little can we get away with paying out’.”
The Windrush compensation scheme has paid out more than £45m on 993 claims. It has also provided more than 14,800 individuals with documentation confirming their status or British citizenship. However, this is a fraction of the amount originally estimated to be paid out, expected to be between £200m and £390m. At least 23 people have died after submitting a claim, but before receiving any payment.
Although the department has taken steps to introduce a training program to educate Home Office staff about the legacy of empire and colonialism, only 163 people (out of a total headcount of around 38,000) had visited the Windrush learning hub on its internal intranet system.
Responding to the report, Patel said: “I have laid the foundations for radical change in the department and a total transformation of culture. We have already made significant progress.
Having said that, there is more to do and I will not falter in my commitment to everyone who was affected by the Windrush scandal. Many people suffered terrible injustices at the hands of successive governments and I will continue working hard to deliver a Home Office worthy of every community we serve.”
Windrush victim Anthony Bryan was wrongly held for five weeks in immigration removal centers and was booked in 2017 on a flight back to Jamaica, the country he left when he was eight in 1965 and had not visited since.
After his case was highlighted in the Guardian, officials acknowledged he was in the UK legally. He has still not resolved his claim for compensation, and is appealing against the sum offered to him by the Home Office. “Their offer doesn’t reflect what I went through – it felt like an insult. I don’t think the Home Office has changed; when the spotlight is on them they make promises, but once the public attention moves away nothing happens.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism