UK hostile environment immigration policy condemned

by Chris Bertram on November 25, 2020

The UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission has just published a report into the Windrush scandal. The report shows that policy makers ignored warnings about the likely impacts of the “hostile environment” policy on groups such as the Windrush generation. As a result of the policy, many people who had difficulty in proving their right to reside in the UK, often because the Home Office imposed a ludicrous evidential burden on them, lost their jobs, their homes, were denied access to vital health care, were detained in prison-like immigration detention centres or were deported and excluded from a country they had lived in all their lives.

The report makes grim reading, but what emerges clearly from it is that ministers and their civil servants, seeking to display a “get tough” message on immigration, were not disposed to listen to the people telling them about how things would turn out. They were already set on the policy and were going to stick to it whatever. Critics were to be ignored and rebutted and the UK government were not interested in finding evidence that would get in the way. Legal duties to promote equality and non-discrimination were not seen as goals that ought to inform policy but, at best, as obstacles to circumvented.

After the Windrush scandal broke in 2018, thanks to the work of activists and journalists, including Amelia Gentleman who wrote an excellent book about this, the Home Office pledged to put things right. But the compensation scheme for victims that the Home Office was forced to put in place has paid out a pittance to a very few of the victims, and a senior civil servant has resigned suggesting that racism is an important part of the explanation. Almost weekly new absurdities come to light, such as the case of a man who the Home Office illegally excluded from the country who has now applied for British citizenship, which the Home Office is denying him on the basis that he spent too long out of the country.

The British press, with the exception of the Guardian, has given little prominence to this story. Another report from the EHCR into anti-semitism in the Labour Party was all over the front pages, but one into the impact of immigration policy on the lives of thousands of people is, well, not. Too late to affect this report but ominously for the future, the UK government has now appointed David Goodhart, a prominent advocate of the hostile environment (who now says he was always against “abuses”), as one of the commissioners for the EHRC. As US Republicans have learnt from the experience of the Supreme Court, the answer to the problem of referees giving decisions against you is to appoint new, more pliant, referees.



J-D 11.26.20 at 4:26 am

She was troubled by the fact that several Home Office staff responsible for the compensation scheme had previously helped implement the hostile environment policies that had originally caused claimants so many problems.

Not incensed, outraged, appalled? Just troubled?

‘The scheme is more inclusive and open than any other compensation scheme in the UK.’

It is even possible that this is true, but there’s no comfort in that thought.


John Quiggin 11.26.20 at 10:49 pm

The cruelty is just so gratuitous.


Neville Morley 11.27.20 at 6:22 am

It’s just relentlessly predictable – the callousness, the utter lack of conscience or shame, and the willingness of so many people to go along with it. Is the idea of British exceptionalism so deeply embedded that nothing the government could do would ever shake the assumption that ‘we’ are noble and decent and superior to other nations so we can’t possibly be living in a dystopian racist kleptocracy?


Chris Armstrong 11.27.20 at 9:04 am

It’s such an appalling story. I can’t decide if it’s immensely cruel, or immensely callous, or both. Are they vindictively persecuting people they (wrongly) think are exploiting our good will, or are they playing to the right-wing voters, via the right-wing press, and just don’t give a stuff about the victims either way? Either way, it’s depressing, as you say Chris, that the righteous anger shared even by some conservative journalists about the Windrush scandal seems to have largely melted away.


CasparC 11.27.20 at 9:41 am

Yes this is terrible. But just who is at fault here? The government policy has been to sort this out and the Home Office have failed to do it. Yet when the Home Secretary asks the obvious and reasonable question “Why are you all so fucking useless?” Suddenly she is a bully who should be fired.

Just fire everyone in the home office and outsource all activities.


Chris Bertram 11.27.20 at 2:10 pm

@CasparC the EHRC report makes clear that the situation was caused by the civil service being, if anything, rather too keen to give ministers what they wanted. We don’t know the precise frustrations that led to Patel’s misbehaviour, but they are as likely to be caused by civil servants telling her that some intended course of action is unlawful as anything. Certainly there’s no evidence that Patel has made righting the Windrush wrongs a priority beyond pro forma declarations she’s made for PR purposes.

As for outsourcing, well, the Home Office is currently talking about outsourcing asylum assessments to private companies. Most people who work with refugees think this is a recipe for disaster. Outsourcing of detention to Serco or G4S has let to horrible outcomes, and putting asylum seeker housing in the hands of ClearSpring hasn’t been great either.


Hidari 11.29.20 at 10:01 am


The solution to all these problems is to remember that this is not a ‘failure’ of the system, or a mistake, or anything of that sort.

This is not the system failing.

This is the system working.

The next question (indeed, the only question) is to ask: working for whom?

Cui Bono?

(In any case, if British intellectuals could use even the most basic concepts of logical and rational analysis, which they can’t, they would be capable of drawing clear conclusions about how seriously one should take anything the EHRC says about anything, ever (i.e. not at all) and this has obvious political implications).


notGoodenough 11.29.20 at 3:35 pm

As repulsive as this is to anyone with any degree of morality, it is worth bearing in mind it is only one example in the UK’s long history of antipathy and outright hostility to any considered to be “not the right sort”.

It is difficult these days to muster much hope for the future. I suspect that Brexit will help usher in even stronger isolationism and nativism, and with the dark clouds of climate change and ever increasing oligarchical strength on the horizon, it is difficult to remain optimistic. It is important to keep fighting, of course, but sometimes it feels less a struggle for a better world and more a final last stand.

There is a broad swathe of discriminatory forces in UK society, and one suspects that the best chance to successfully combat these is with a strong left-wing civil rights movement built upon a foundation of solidarity and (dare I use such a provocative term?) with an intersectional approach. The chances of that happening within my lifetime seem, at least to me, to be vanishingly small.

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