A year on from Windrush: lessons to be learned

19 June 2019

So, here we are a year on since the sad debacle of Windrush, which is the phrase used to define those who arrived at Tilbury Docks, having taken the ship called Windrush from the Caribbean to the UK.  In a nutshell, they came answering the call from the “Mother Land” to help rebuild Britain after the war. As the Caribbean was part of the British Empire, those coming to the UK were allowed to do so - they had free movement, which meant they could live and work in the UK without restriction. Then, in 1971, it changed and those who were already here could continue to stay and were granted indefinite leave to remain, although no official paperwork was given to those who qualified for indefinite leave to remain.

Fast forward to today and many from that generation, who had families and built their lives in the UK, were suddenly asked to leave, lost their jobs, lost the right to medical care, lost their right to social assistance and were deported. Why?

There are a number of reasons but the main one is because of the draconian immigration laws that were introduced by the government. For example, all employers must undertake employee right to work checks. Whilst this has always been the case, many employers didn’t do so until the law was changed and they realised that if they were found to have someone working for them illegally they could face fines of up to £20,000! So employers began implementing the law and dismissed those who couldn’t provide an official document to confirm they had the right to work in the UK. The irony was many of those from the Windrush generation were so British in attitude and behaviour and simply didn’t travel outside of the UK and would holiday in Wales or Scotland, which meant they didn’t require a passport. So, they didn’t have official documents to prove that they had the right to live here.

A further example of the toughening of immigration law was the introduction of the Right to Rent scheme, which allows a landlord to refuse to rent to you if you are not able to produce a document to show that you have the right to be here. Problems were exacerbated as it transpired that the Home Office had destroyed records from the 1940s and there were no landing cards to show who had arrived and when. That’s because government officials probably thought the documents weren’t needed because such arrivals and their children would by now be British!

So, back to today. Can you see similarities? Do we think that in 60 years from now we will see the same crisis? European nationals have free movement and are allowed to live and work here. Before Brexit many European nationals didn’t bother to obtain documents that confirmed their status in the UK because they didn’t need to. Now the government has implemented the EU Settlement Scheme, whereby they can apply to confirm their settled or pre-settled status in the UK and obtain an electronic document to produce on entry which will show they have the right to enter. Isn’t it interesting how the government reacted quickly with respect to the EU Settlement Scheme and pumped millions of pounds into it to make sure that European nationals were able to apply easily and on the go? There is even an app that you can download and apply using your mobile. The government was not so forthcoming and cooperative with those who suffered as a consequence of Windrush and certainly didn’t pump in millions to rectify that wrong!

In the run up to and since the Brexit referendum there have been stories that European nationals have been discriminated against, told to go back to their country and that they are not wanted here, and experienced extreme hostility towards them. Many European nationals have left the UK and returned home voluntarily as they have felt unwanted in a country that they considered their home. They have worked hard and suffered similar anxieties and pressures to those who suffered the Windrush scandal.

Although the EU Settlement Scheme has been in operation for a few months, it still surprises me when I am talking with EEA nationals and I ask the question whether they have applied and many say no. I wonder if the government is doing enough to encourage all to apply.

The EU Settlement Scheme doesn’t recognise the European national’s history in the UK. For example, if an EEA national first came 20 years ago, they would only be granted settled status from the date their application under the scheme is approved; the grant will not be back-dated to the actual date when they acquired permanent residence. Therefore if an EEA national wants recognition of their status from the earlier date, they should continue to apply under European law for permanent residence. Many European nationals may consider applying under the EU Settlement Scheme as it is quick and easy supported by a useful app (very rarely do I give credit to the government, but in this regard the scheme is a success).

The scheme will work for those who apply during the transition period (by 31 December 2020 at the earliest, assuming the government does not end the scheme earlier), but I worry that in time we may see an impact on the children of European nationals. If an EEA parent acquires permanent residence at the time that their child is born in the UK, that child is British, but if the parent has not been granted permanent residence there is an evidential challenge to prove this and the child’s right to British citizenship.

I fear that in years to come the same Windrush-type scandal could occur with European nationals, who either didn’t apply under the EU Settlement Scheme before the end of the transitional period or who did, but their children are not protected because their parents didn’t realise what they were entitled to. We must learn the lessons from Windrush and promise to never go through this again!

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