|Tue 21st April 2020||
Windrush Compensation Scheme (Expenditure) Bill
2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
3rd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Committee negatived (Hansard): House of Lords
|8 interactions (4,304 words)|
Windrush Compensation Scheme (Expenditure) Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Baroness Williams of TraffordMain Page: Baroness Williams of Trafford (Conservative)
Department Debates - View all Baroness Williams of Trafford's debates with the Home Office
(5 months ago)Lords Chamber
My Lords, I commend the Minister on her appearance in the virtual Questions earlier. As the only Liberal Democrat speaking in this debate, I am in several respects in a most unusual position. I am speaking from an unaccustomed place and in place of a number of colleagues, in particular my noble friends Lady Benjamin and Lady Hamwee, who are unable to be in their places because they are self-isolating as a result of Covid-19. However, I am grateful to the Government for agreeing to schedule a debate in government time, virtually, on 6 May to discuss the Windrush scandal, which will enable my noble friends and other colleagues across the House to discuss not only the compensation scheme but the broader issues covered so comprehensively in Wendy Williams’s Windrush Lessons Learned Review.
The individual stories of victims of the Windrush scandal are of lives damaged and destroyed because of the actions of the Home Office. They shame every politician who, over decades of public debate, has chosen to use pejorative language and stoke up resentment about decent people legitimately living in the United Kingdom and contributing to our economy and our way of life. It is particularly poignant that we are discussing this scandal when those of a BAME back- ground, and those of a Caribbean background, are making such a major contribution, at a disproportionate cost of their own lives, in fighting the coronavirus crisis.
The Bill before us is extremely brief and its aim obviously worthy, but its very language—that it is providing compensation
“in recognition of difficulties arising out of an inability to demonstrate … immigration status”—
shows how the Home Office got into this mess in the first place. We are in this mess primarily because Home Office officials failed to recognise the rights of the Windrush generation to British citizenship, and applied the law disproportionately and insensitively in a manner that brought about the scandal. We are not in this mess primarily because of failings on the part of the victims of the injustice.
On the compensation scheme itself, I have a number of questions. First, the impact assessment states that the cost will be between £20.5 million and £301.3 million. The fifteenfold degree of uncertainty is almost certainly unprecedented and suggests that the Home Office really has no idea of the true scale of the problem. Can the Minister explain why such a high degree of uncertainty still exists?
The latest figures we have show that, of 1,108 claims, only 36 awards have been made, at an average award of just over £1,700. Therefore, the number of claimants is low, the number of claims accepted is low, and the amount of compensation looks—to me at least—low. Can the Minister give any indication of how long the Home Office is taking to deal with claims on average and, of the applications so far made, what proportion have been accepted, either in whole or in part, and what proportion rejected?
Despite what the Minister said in her opening speech, is she really satisfied that the claim form does not discourage claimants, given that it is 18 pages long and comes with 44 pages of notes? Will she consider simplifying it in the light of experience? What help is the Home Office prepared to give to those—particularly the old and vulnerable—who will find completing the form by themselves a simply insurmountable challenge?
The number of people who have so far come forward is a very small proportion of the possibly eligible claimants. The noble Baroness talked about looking to the citizens advice bureaux and national tendering for support, but does she accept that the most effective support for many claimants will be from small, very locally based community and faith groups and civil society organisations? Does she accept that some people who do not have the relevant documentation, or who have a criminal record, are holding back from making claims because they retain a fear of being deported? For such people, the work of the local intermediaries I have just mentioned will be crucial, if they are ever to make a claim at all.
What efforts has the Home Office made to publicise the scheme to those currently living in the Caribbean? What support will they get in completing their applications?
As this is a money Bill, we cannot have a proper debate in Committee about the details of the scheme. To me, some of the tariffs and caps look low and arbitrary. Why is denial of access to higher education limited to compensation of £500, for example, when the average benefit of a degree to an individual’s lifetime earnings is many times that amount? Why, unlike other large-scale compensation schemes such as PPI, are legal and other fees not eligible? Why is interest on such outgoings not eligible?
If the Government really want to ensure that all those who could possible benefit do so, why have they set a deadline for claims of two years from now? Why not make it longer—for, say, five or six years?
Finally, why are some components of the claim required to meet criminal standards of proof—the very requirement which led to some of the worst injustices in the first place and which is justified neither in law nor by common humanity?
The reason such detailed questions matter is that unless they are satisfactorily resolved, the compensation scheme will fail in its purpose. It will not be accessed by many who are entitled to do so, and it will become another source of grievance, rather than helping to bring an element of closure to those directly involved. But even if the compensation scheme is successful and all those who are eligible to receive compensation do so in a full and timely manner—that is a very big if—it can deal with only one aspect of the past failings of the Home Office.
As Wendy Williams eloquently points out in the introduction to the recommendations section of her review, there are three elements to her recommendations on what needs to change. The first and easiest is to
“acknowledge the wrong which has been done”.
The Government have largely done this; the compensation scheme is part of that acknowledgement. The other two elements are arguably of even greater importance. They are that the Home Office
“must open itself up to greater external scrutiny; and it must change its culture to recognise that migration and wider Home Office policy is about people and … should be rooted in humanity.”
To me, this last phrase is the crux of the problem and the challenge now facing the Home Secretary and her senior officials. It is abundantly clear from reading the review, and from press coverage of the Windrush scandal over the past three years, that Home Office action has not been rooted in humanity. If it had, the distressing individual cases which pepper the review could simply not have happened.
How is this approach to be changed? The review makes some 30 recommendations, all of them very sensible. I would be grateful for any further information the Minister can give on how the Government will respond to and implement them. For me, there are two central things which have to change. First, we must see an end to the demonisation and belittling of those who live in the UK and who come from a different country or culture. The history of immigration policy over the last 50 years has been for Governments to welcome the economic contributions made by immigrants and indigenous BAME communities but all too often to pander to intolerance and the semi-racist language of parts of our national media.
The hostile environment was not just a Home Office policy. It was what immigrants and BAME communities faced in their daily lives. While the worst excesses of the discrimination faced by the Windrush generation have been removed by legislation and changing social mores, the discrimination faced by many Europeans, who have also settled in the UK over several decades, has increased exponentially in recent years, since the Brexit referendum vote.
Against this background, it is hardly surprising that those working in the Home Office have often reflected the culture around them rather than showing the humanity which we ought to have expected, particularly when ministerial rhetoric has inflamed rather than calmed public debate on the issue. Today, the Government lost a High Court case which found that the right-to-rent scheme causes racial discrimination. They could signal a new approach to these issues by scrapping that scheme. I hope that the Minister will be able to say that they plan to do so.
The second thing that has to change—which the Covid-19 crisis and Brexit will, I fear, make more difficult—is that the resources in the Home Office have to match the task in hand. If you ask officials to achieve an ever-increasing throughput of cases with ever-diminishing resources, they simply do not have time to deal with them thoughtfully and with the thoroughness which the applicants have every right to expect. A change of culture and the increased resources needed to make it possible are now urgently required, not just to deal with remaining Windrush cases but because there is a danger of similar injustices flowing from the operation of the EU settled status scheme. Some of the case histories from this, which have already received publicity, have all the hallmarks of another Windrush scandal in the making.
These broader issues will rightly be the subject of the debate on 6 May. In the meantime, I hope that the Government will look carefully at the issues which I and other noble Lords raise on the Bill today, to ensure that the Windrush compensation scheme achieves its stated aims and does not become another source of grievance.
Break in Debate
My Lords, this has been a short but very good debate, with some very powerful contributions from around the House, and I am delighted to be able to speak in it today. At the outset, I offer my full support to the Government for this short, two-clause Bill, which gives them the necessary parliamentary authority to make payments under the Windrush compensation scheme.
As we have heard, there would normally have been a much longer debate on the Bill. Like other noble Lords, I am really pleased that we will have a virtual debate on 6 May, when I know that many other noble Lords from all sides of the House will make the points that they would have made today. We know that there has been a ministerial direction to allow compensation payments to be made ahead of this Bill becoming law. However, as we have heard again today, there has not been a huge number of payments and we have to be a little concerned about that. As we have also heard, people have suffered terrible injustice, and the sooner that financial compensation and a proper and fulsome apology is made to them, the better. I concur with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, about the contribution that the Windrush generation has made to our country, and we will forever be grateful to them for that.
Any financial compensation and apology can go only so far to alleviate the hurt and injustice that has befallen people who have been treated so badly, as was highlighted by many noble Lords. That is something that we should not forget. What of the people who have since passed away and are not alive to see the action being taken today to at least correct the wrong that was done to them?
When we discussed these matters previously, I made the point that it is important to have a robust communications plan so victims are informed that there is a scheme in place to compensate them and to right the injustices they have suffered. The Government have been very imaginative with their communications plan. I welcome the Minister outlining that a fund has been made available. That is very important, because we will not get away with a few Facebook posts and a couple of tweets; that would not be good enough. Particularly when we look at the age now of some of the people who suffered this injustice, careful thought has to be given to how we are going to contact people and get in touch with them so that they understand, first, that they have suffered an injustice and, secondly, that the Government want to put this right and that there is a scheme in place.
People have suffered real financial and other hardships. They have been split from their families and friends. It may well be that people have lived or are living very difficult lives elsewhere in the world; we should not forget that. It may well be that people are living off-grid, as it were, where they are presently. We must recognise that.
There also needs to be an acceptance from the authorities that claims for compensation have to be as easy as possible and that excessive form filling, an insistence that items must be submitted online and other bureaucratic obstacles will not be accepted. The description of the form by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, is an example of a bureaucratic obstacle; that is just not acceptable. We cannot have a situation in which people have to fill in these forms and submit them online, or cannot get the file through because the file of evidence is so big that the server will not take it. That is just not acceptable. I look forward to the Minister answering the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Newby. We have to get this right. If these obstacles become another source of grievance, we are just making a dreadful, terrible situation even worse. I know that many noble Lords in this House will not accept that.
The noble Lord, Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick, asked the key question of where communities will be. How can they be assured that the officials operating this scheme will now get this right? What assurance can the Minister give that the Home Office will now get this right? People are genuinely worried about that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Watkins of Tavistock, made the powerful point that we need to be flexible in accepting people’s claims. We will also need an extension of the scheme. I understand why maybe they do not want to extend it over a number of years, but I do not believe that everyone will be covered in the relatively short time the Government have outlined. It will have to be extended, and I fully support the noble Baroness’s call for an extension of the scheme. That would just be plain common sense. I hope Ministers will make sure that the attitude of the officials administering the scheme is right. The last thing we want to hear of in this House or anywhere else is further injustices. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, can outline how she will assure the House how she, other Ministers and in particular the Home Secretary will review what is happening. How will they apprise themselves of the scheme as it develops, keep it under review and ensure that nothing is mentioned ever again about hostile environments and how people are treated? It would also be good to hear from the Minister what has been going on since the scheme has been up and running. What has the Home Secretary done to ensure that it is being administered properly? It would be good for the House to hear that.
The noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Warwick, highlighted the contribution his parents made—a contribution typical of people who came from the Commonwealth to fight in our wars and to work in our armed services, the NHS and our other public services.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, made a similar contribution on the Windrush generation. Her speech and that of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, reminded me of my friend Sam King, who came from Jamaica, fought in the RAF in the Second World War, then came back and served as a postman. He was a councillor in Southwark—I was privileged to know him—and was its first black mayor. He was a wonderful man who did so much for the Caribbean community and the wider community in Southwark and beyond. He was awarded the MBE for his contributions. He died in June 2016, an example of service and a life well lived. It was a privilege to know him.
We also need to remember that we live in a great country. I am very proud to live in this country and to have been born here, but when you look at our country and its achievements, you see that they were made by immigrants who came here to make a better life for themselves and their families and to contribute to their country. Quite a lot of Members of this and the other House are immigrants, or the children of immigrants. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, is an immigrant, and I am the child of immigrants. Her parents came here as doctors; my mum came here to work as a nurse in the National Health Service. That is quite typical. I recall the Irish embassy a few years ago doing some work which identified how many Members of the other place had parents who were nurses who came over from Ireland to work in the health service. That highlights to me how lucky we are.
As we battle this terrible Covid-19 pandemic, I am struck by how many people in our police and other blue light services, how many people keeping us safe in our hospitals and care homes, how many people ensuring that our bins are emptied, keeping our children safe from abuse, protecting women from domestic abuse, working in local authorities, keeping the shelves filled in our supermarkets are immigrants. What a disaster would fall on us if they were not here keeping us safe and looking after us. I have seen NHS staff many times holding up signs saying what countries they have come from. That shows what a small world we live in and how lucky we are that they are here.
I am very pleased that the purveyors of awful politics have been silent recently. I hope we hear less and less from these people. They are absent from our screens, and long may that continue. They are not elected and they are appointed to nothing. I certainly hope we never see them again.
I give my full support to the Government on this Bill. Clearly more needs to be done, but it is a step in the right direction. I thank the Government for that and I look forward to the contribution of the noble Baroness in answer to the points we have made.
Bill read a second time. Committee negatived. Standing Order 46 having been dispensed with, the Bill was read a third time, and passed.