Tackling the Windrush Mess: Ending the ‘Hostile Environment’ – Diane Abbott Speech
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On June 22nd 1948, The Empire Windrush sailed into history. It had begun its journey in Jamaica and finally docked at Tilbury England. The 492 passengers were the earliest group of post-war Caribbean migrants and achieved an almost iconic status.
Few people have not seen the contemporary newsreel footage of the determined and excited men and women disembarking, eager to embrace a new life.
And the Empire Windrush has given its name to a scandal which obliged the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to apologise and the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, to resign.
And millions more people have marvelled at how we could have treated, a cohort of ageing West Indians, who had travelled to this country legally and completely certain that they were British, with such harshness and cruelty.
The Windrush scandal meant that: members of that cohort were refused medical treatment even when they were suffering from cancer: were refused benefits that they were entitled to including housing benefit (so some were made homeless); lost their jobs when a new owner of their company insisted on documentation they had never had; some were locked up in immigration detention centres; still more were refused entry back into this country, when they had only gone to the Caribbean for a holiday. And unknown numbers were actually deported. The Government now claims this is 63. We shall see.
They all had the humiliation of being consistently treated as liars by a harsh and unfeeling bureaucracy.
Let me be clear, we need a full and open investigation into the entire Windrush scandal. The government cannot keep denying, and then drip feeding us information.
So in my remarks this morning I will set out why this happened, how it happened, and what a Labour government would do to ensure it does not happen. Finally, more generally, I want to set out some of the changes in immigration policy that a Labour government would make.
It is one of the most common bits of urban myth about immigration and migrants, that we are not allowed to speak about the subject.
But, since the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury, the British Parliament has passed: the British Nationality Act 1948: the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968; the Immigration Act 1971; the Immigration Act 1988; the the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996; the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999; the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002; Asylum and Immigration Act 2004; Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006; UK Borders Act 2007; Borders Citizens and Immigration Act 2009; the Immigration Act 2014 and the Immigration act 2016. This is not the legislative record of a political class that DOESN’T want to talk about immigration.
But in truth, the scandal surrounding the Windrush generation relates to HOW we have been talking about immigration. More accurately, the scandal relates to how too many politicians, too many newspapers and too many commentators, have been talking immigration. Too many people using negative language, and promoting negative views, should have known better.
Many of the Windrush generation were invited here. My mother, for instance came as a pupil nurse who had been recruited in Jamaica and came here under as a special scheme organised by the government.
The Windrush generation came here in numbers after the end of the war to help rebuild this country. They often did the jobs and shifts that others were unwilling to do.
A number of those same politicians, newspapers and commentators, now pay tribute to the hard work and contribution of the Windrush generation. They are right to do so. Some might even say it’s long overdue.
But I would say this. There is nothing uniquely saintly about that generation. They reflect what migrants do generally. They move for better opportunities, for themselves, and for their families. They work hard, they contribute. They also hugely enrich our culture, our society, and our diversity. In general, that is what all migrants are trying to do.
But because there was always consistently negative narrative about migrants it became gradually easier to treat them in a way which, when held up to the public gaze by journalists like the Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman, seemed insupportable, harsh, and inhumane.
Migrants have always been demonised by racists and xenophobes.
But they are increasingly demonised by those seeking political advantage. And guess what? That increased the number of genuine and avowed racists. So, the answer of some politicians was to pander to that racism even further. And so, the vicious circle takes another turn.
Well, I and others intend to break that vicious circle. I want there to be a new, virtuous cycle. This is a new virtuous cycle where people see the terrible consequences of demonising migrants and recoil. Where politicians call out racism and the demonization of migrants. Where they try to correct terrible policies that have been implemented. Where migrants are allowed a voice.
Meeting women in Yarl’s Wood and hearing their stories proved to me just how powerful these voices are. I met a woman who had lived here for 30 years and had 5 British children. A woman with a British husband who cried because she was in detention whilst her 2 children, both under 5 years old were left without her.
And who could forget the story of Opelo Kgari and her mother Florence – the young Yarls Wood hunger striker, came to the UK as a child and has lived here more than half her life – locked up in detention and threatened with deportation.
When migrants are allowed a voice then fewer and fewer people feel it is acceptable to espouse views that demonise migrants.
The underlying narrative that underlay the Windrush scandal was an increasingly negative view of migration, but the HOW it happened was the rise and rise of the “hostile environment.”
The Government claims that this is a crisis owing to the policies of successive governments, not just the Tory administrations since 2010. This is simply an outrageous fabrication, piling scandal upon scandal.
I am not here to defend the actions of previous governments or their treatment of migrants, including migrants from the Caribbean.
But it is a complete distortion of recent history to suggest that the Windrush scandal is anyone but this Government’s fault. The Windrush generation are really the first, and among the most heart-rending victims of this Government’s hostile environment policy.
They did not need papers to claim their rights to NHS treatment or benefits until that policy was introduced under Theresa May. It was her policy which made them unemployed or homeless or deprived them of their pension. It was her policy that detained some, it may have deported others and certainly refused re-entry to people who had the right to be here. This is all a product of the hostile environment.
The source of the Windrush scandal is the hostile environment. The Prime Minister’s policy is also the source of so much else that has recently brought the immigration system into such a state of disrepute.
Minister’s say it is regrettable that people weren’t given documentation. But in 1948, who had documentation? Most people had little beyond their birth certificate. Items like passports and drivers’ licenses were almost unheard of then for the whole population. They were the preserve of a small minority.
The new situation was not created by lack of documentation. It was created by the new insistence on documentation for some people, under the ‘hostile environment’.
The hostile environment policy has infected almost every area of life, from schools and universities to employers, state agencies and landlords. They have all been turned into internal border guards.
It was politically-motivated and driven. It is not a product of analysis of our economic our social needs. It disregards our previous obligations. It rides roughshod over the rights of tens of thousands.
UKIP is no more. But it’s rancorous and rancid politics are alive and well. They have found a home in the policies of this Government. Enoch Powell was thrown out of a Tory Cabinet for espousing policies that this Government now enacts.
Where did this deeply damaging policy come from? This Government and this Prime Minister are obsessed with the idea of reducing net migration below the annual level of 100,000. This is one of the most ill-conceived and unworkable policies of modern times. The target has never been met. Never even close.
For a while Ministers wanted to blame this on Freedom of Movement in the EU. But non-EU net migration, the bit entirely under the Government’s control, exceeds 100,000 on its own. In the last 10 years, long before the net migration was dreamt up, Non-EU migration has always exceeded the 100,000 target alone.
It’s almost as if the policy was designed to keep out those people, overwhelmingly from the Commonwealth. It hasn’t worked.
It is ironic that this Government and its predecessors were busy cutting border guard numbers at the same time. But this irony seems lost on Ministers.
It is as if we have a system of ID cards in this country, without any system. And only a section of the population gets into trouble for not having them. Instead, the Government relies on people who ‘looks’ foreign, or ‘sounds a bit foreign’ or has a ‘foreign-sounding name’ to be reported to the authorities.
The Migration Observatory estimates that there are 57,000 people who came from across the Commonwealth before 1973, who effectively now have the same precarious status that this Government has imposed.
It is like being made stateless by your own government, our government. A non-citizen, a non-person.
It is not confined to the Caribbean. We have already seen a number of people from South Asia, here legally and working here, who have been caught out in a similar way. These numbers will grow, and their countries of origin will include most counties in the Commonwealth.
I would add that there are also all their children who came here. They should also be included in what we call the ‘Windrush generation’. It’s grotesque to invite people to come and work here and then say, decades later, “sorry we didn’t mention it at the time, but we didn’t mean your children could stay”.
In some cases too, grandchildren are caught up in this scandal, as parents and grandparents don’t have the necessary documentation. All of this must end.
The Government now admits people have been wrongly deported. But it wants to cover-up three other important categories.
Firstly, those who were wrongfully detained in the immigration system. Secondly, those who were wrongfully refused entry back into Britain.
And then, thirdly, there is the category of so-called ‘voluntary removals’, where people were bullied and brow-beaten into leaving under threat of deportation, even though they had a right to be here.
The issue of compensation is especially important. As you can imagine, there is deep anger and much concern on this.
The Government’s response should be this:
Anyone who has lost their income, or access to the NHS, or been made homeless will demand compensation. There will almost certainly be justified claims for compensation for loss of liberty, being deprived of citizenship rights and being removed from your own country must surely be even greater. Emotional distress barely conveys what people have experienced. Delays and parsimony will be treated with justified outrage.
And the Government, and this Prime Minister must come clean. How did this policy come about? It is not as if they weren’t warned. I and others told them in 2014 that this scandal would be the predictable consequence of their policies. They cannot claim ignorance. They were warned. But they pressed ahead anyway.
The entire hostile environment policy must go. We demand that the Government abandons it now, not rebrands it.
A Labour Government will repeal all those parts of the immigration legislation that were introduced to support it. We will rescind all Home office instructions to carry it out, and we will remove all obligations on landlords, employers and others to enact it.
We will end this obligation on everyone else too, such as school teachers, universities and others.
You know what? I want nurses to nurse, teachers to teach, jobcentre workers to help people into work, and border guards to be border guards.
We intend to treat people with dignity and with humanity.
But the entire Windrush scandal and the hostile environment and other Government policies have revealed a string of failing and institutionalised injustices. They have to end.
I have previously made a commitment to all immigrants here now or in the future that the future Labour Government will respect that right to a family life.
Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights states (in the somewhat outdated language of its time):
1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.
2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Clearly, the Windrush scandal breaches the right to a family life. On many levels.
We also have to recognise, sometimes families don’t work. There is a particular concern regarding women, overwhelmingly it’s women, who may be the subject of domestic violence. They can have their uncertain immigration status held over them by domestic abusers. This must end.
Labour will issue instructions that immigration status can be part of domestic violence and abuse. The statutory definition of domestic violence must recognise threats concerning women’s immigration status can be domestic violence.
We will protect vulnerable women. This is essential to fulfil our obligations under Article 59 of the Istanbul Convention.
Family has both a very broad as well as a narrower meaning. In the generally accepted meaning, we have committed to upholding the right to a family life.
Labour in Government will allow spouses to come here without any Minimum Income Requirement, and we will always allow children here of anyone who is entitled to be here.
Labour in government will never deport the children, or the spouses of anyone entitled to be here. We will also never deport anyone born here, they should be treated as British citizens. Children that have been born in Britain should not have to pay over a thousand pounds for the privilege of obtaining citizenship, simply because their parents were not born here. It should be theirs as a right. Just like it is mine or most people’s in this room today. We will end this scandalous practice.
We will also the end the scandalous treatment of people that came here when they were very young. I cannot tell you how many cases I have heard of young people who came to this country when they were children, whose parents did not regularise their status.
So many have had their lives turned upside down having studied and in some cases worked and paid taxes here. We will show the obvious compassion to those that have found themselves in this situation. We will not deport them to a country where they know nothing, and no one. We will allow them to remain with their families, in the country that they call home.
Labour in government will never prevent the re-entry of people to this country who already have the right to be here. We will allow all reasonable requests too for visitors’ visa. As it currently stands, people who want to come for family visits, for weddings and funerals.
And, I am announcing today that the next Labour Government will close Yarl’s Wood detention centre. We will also close Brook House. Both are rightly infamous.
People are being kept in detention for months, even years on end. They include the Windrush generation, victims of torture, women who are refugees, victims of sexual exploitation.
The Government announced the Modern Slavery Bill with great fanfare but no resources. They are gearing up to do exactly the same with the upcoming Domestic Violence Bill. This is simply not good enough.
Under the Tories services for the most vulnerable women in society have been slashed again and again. So today I am announcing that Labour will take the millions that are used annually to fund Yarls Wood and Brook House immigration detention centres, and put this directly back into services to support the survivors of modern slavery, trafficking, and domestic violence. We pay ten million pounds a year to private contractors Serco to run Yarl’s Wood and over eleven million (£11.2mil) for Serco to run Brook House.
Yarl’s Wood in particular has already caused so much pain to vulnerable women that we should have been protecting. We believe that diverting these resources directly to them is not only essential, but the right thing to do.
Further to this incarcerating victims of abuse and torture breaches obligations under international law. It is inhuman. Under Labour, it will go.
When detention centres were introduced we were told in parliament that there would be no need for strict rules of due process because no-one would be detained longer than 28 days. This simply isn’t true.
So not only will we end indefinite detention, Labour in government will uphold the 28 day time limit. By processing cases efficiently we will be able to shrink the detention estate considerably. Those with a right to be here should be granted that right speedily. Those who don’t have a right to be here should be removed speedily.
We will introduce a system of reporting and monitoring of people who are subject to potential removal. It is much more rational, humane system. It will also end the outrages at the detention centre. It will also save money.
One another aspect of the current scandal is that the burden of proof has been shifted to the accused. This breaches natural justice. We will issue instructions to end this practice. Instead, overworked Home Office workers will be issued guidance that they must work on the balance of probabilities to initiate any case, and that the burden of proof will lie with the Home Office.
If we are going to deprive people of the right to be here, we must be clear that they do not have the right to be here.
It shouldn’t need saying, but unfortunately it does: We cannot deport our own citizens.
We will also restore proper rights to appeal removal orders, to ensure there are proper checks and balances, and we will introduce legal aid in these cases. This can be funded by the closure and reduction of the detention centres.
We will put an end to the new measures that came in earlier this year which now mean that anyone claiming asylum is on “immigration bail”. These measures are preventing young asylum seekers from studying, including their ESOL classes. Education is a human right and we cannot deny them this, if we are to uphold the British tradition of honouring international law, and meeting our moral obligations to some of the most vulnerable in the world. We cannot continue to treat people as if claiming asylum is a crime.
Indefinite leave to remain must mean just that. We will end the system of annual NHS access charges. If people have a right to remain, and are paying National Insurance, there is no justification for hefty additional charges. We will end annual charging.
Indefinite leave to remain must also mean other rights, such as the right to work.
Of course, we will remove the net migration target. This was never a workable policy. Instead, it allowed the Government to mount a permanent anti-migrant campaign.
Instead, we will establish a system for the fair and reasonable management of migration, putting the interests of our economy first.
I will set out the basis of that system in my next speech. But I will give you an example now:
The NHS is struggling in part because of low pay and terrible condition for the workers. There are around ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND vacancies in the NHS. It is TEN THOUSAND doctors under-staffed.
But this Government is turning away doctors, scientists, engineers and other others under their stupid and ridiculous monthly cap on Tier 2 visas for skilled workers. They even have a so-called ‘market mechanism’ where the pay threshold of allowed skilled workers rises sharply with demand.
So, doctors are barred, but derivatives traders are allowed. The outrage of Tory immigration policy. The Tier 2 visa cap should go immediately. It is making us worse off. Labour in government will definitely end it.
The same logic applies to students. International students literally enrich us all, and in so many ways. Under Labour we will be encouraging international students to come. Not barring them. We will harness their presence to the benefit of the entire education system, to improve the education of our young people.
There is something coming up in parliament where the Tories intend to add to the hostility of their hostile environment. In the Data Protection Bill currently going back and forth, you don’t really have any data protection. Not if you’re an immigrant, or if someone suspects you of being an illegal immigrant.
Do I need to paint a picture as to who that will include? And it affects us all. It can affect anyone of you, if someone else claims you are an illegal immigrant. Labour will oppose this Bill unless the exemption for immigration is removed. Otherwise, this data protection bill is simply a draconian bill.
I must address one issue before I conclude. That is the issue of ID cards. They area a bad idea.
I understand why some would support it. It gets the Tories out of their mess. It actually introduces a system where now there is just prejudice and chaos.
But I will not be supporting it and this Labour frontbench will never support it. There is a reason we, like many other countries, don’t have compulsory ID cards.
The obligation to carry an ID card fundamentally changes the relationship between the citizen and state. It is not the same as accessing a right. You need a drivers’ licence to drive a car.
But you shouldn’t need an ID card to walk away around the street. And guess which citizens would be most likely to be stopped for ID? It would be black people, those of Asian extraction, anyone who ‘looks like’ they might be foreign. They are the ones most likely to be stopped, and asked for their papers.
ID cards are not the way forward. We want to treat people with humanity, with dignity, with sanity.
This Government and its predecessors have long had an obsession with enriching the private sector from the public purse. This is despite whatever the cost, either financially, in shoddy service or in human misery.
So, now we have the grotesque spectacle of G4S being rewarded for failure at Brook House and at Tinsley House. A firm which oversaw the appalling, brutal treatment of detainees, and was exposed in the Panorama programme gets more money and a longer contract. It beggars belief.
We will end this rotten system. Private firms have no business in detention. They also have no business running homes for asylum seekers too.
Labour will return this responsibility and the billions that come with it to local authorities. They are already central to integrating asylum seekers into society, so they are best placed to meet the needs of those living in their community. This is fairer for local residents and fairer for asylum seekers.
We will end the terrible costs of the G4S’s and Serco’s of this world, and offer a safe, decent and more efficient public sector system.
As I said at the outset, this is the latest speech on immigration.
My next speech will set out Labour’s framework for a fair reasonable, an entirely new immigration policy.
But today I wanted to address some of the more egregious aspects of the Windrush scandal. I also wanted to properly outline its proportions, which are far greater than Tory Ministers are willing to admit.
The Labour Party burns with the injustice of what has happened to all these people. We are outraged by what is coming down the pipeline for tens of thousands of people, many of them very far from the Caribbean.
We will seek to end these injustices. There can be no second-class, or non-citizens in this country.
A greater number of people are coming to understand the terrible consequences of Theresa May’s hostile environment policy. The scale of the human misery it causes.
Labour will end it in total. Our system of fair and reasonable management of migration will be based on prioritising jobs and prosperity.
Labours policies will always be based on our values. So our immigration policies will be based on treating people with dignity and humanity.