UK PM to blame for Windrush scandal, says former deputy PM

By on 24/04/2018
Nick Clegg accused the PM of “stupid policy and nasty politics” on immigration issues (Image courtesy: Institute for Government/Candice McKenzie)

British prime minister Theresa May apologised at last week’s Commonwealth summit for the treatment of Caribbean immigrants who arrived in the UK decades ago. But Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister in the 2010-15 Coalition government, argues that the scandal is a consequence of the policies May introduced during her long stint as home secretary. Matt Ross reports

The ‘Windrush’ scandal has its roots in “an administrative culture that responded to the tone struck” by current UK prime minister Theresa May, Britain’s former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said last week, accusing the PM of “stupid policy and nasty politics” on immigration issues.

Clegg, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and deputy PM in the 2010-15 Coalition government, told an audience at think tank the Institute for Government that “immigration was a constant, energy-sapping, at times highly acrimonious issue within the Coalition government.” May, who served as home secretary throughout the Coalition, constantly pursued “unproven, nasty, headline-grabbing” policies, he said.

The former deputy PM added that the scandal is a result of politicians’ “constant, craven genuflection” to Britain’s mainly right-wing press. “Until the British political class gets up off its knees as far as these bullying, vile, profoundly right-wing newspapers are concerned, we’ll continue to stumble from one unjust, inhumane and – in policy terms – illogical approach to immigration to the next,” he said.

‘Hostile environment’

Theresa May was embarrassed at last week’s London Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting by revelations over the treatment of the ‘Windrush generation’: long-standing UK residents who came to Britain as children, travelling on their parents’ passports, in the 1950s and 1960s.

Although the Windrush generation have the right to citizenship, May’s strategy of creating a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants led the Home Office to refuse passports to those who couldn’t prove they’ve been resident throughout the decades since their arrival, and to introduce policies that have denied people medical care and forced them out of their jobs. Unknown numbers have been deported, or prevented from travelling or returning to the UK. It also emerged last week that in 2010 the Home Office destroyed the landing cards of Windrush generation immigrants, removing evidence that could be used to prove people’s arrival date.

Following the media coverage, current home secretary Amber Rudd has performed a rapid U-turn – promising yesterday that the Windrush generation will be able to “acquire British citizenship quickly, at no cost and with assistance through the process”, and offering compensation to those who’ve suffered. But MP David Lammy pointed out that the Windrush generation “were British citizens when they arrived here. Their citizenship is theirs by right. It is not a gift that your government is benevolently granting them.”

Roots of a scandal

The HMT Empire Windrush brought Caribbean immigrants to the UK after WW2

During the Coalition, said Clegg, “I spent a lot of time getting Theresa May to come to my office and trying to persuade her to re-introduce

exit checks, because the single biggest problem with the UK immigration system is people coming in legally and then overstaying their visas, and we didn’t have the administrative capacity to identify them as we don’t check people as they leave.

“And the weird thing was that, for reasons I can’t understand, she and her very odd collection of immature and very over-excitable special advisers dragged their feet on what would make a difference – the exit checks – and spent all their time doing these really silly, pernicious things like ‘go-home’ vans” – sending vehicles to drive round London displaying signs warning illegal immigrants that they should leave.

May was chasing a target of limiting net immigration to 100,000 per year, Clegg recalled, despite his vetoing the target as a formal government policy. But instead of introducing policies “that would make a material difference” by strengthening the immigration system, said Clegg, May’s Home Office “kept resorting to these glib, silly, unproven, nasty, headline-grabbing gimmicks”.

“That does create an administrative climate in which it doesn’t surprise me at all that someone way down the food chain in Whitehall said: ‘We’ll get rid of these landing card documents,’ or: ‘We won’t take on good faith what someone from the Windrush generation is saying to us’,” Clegg added, “not because of a particular law or policy, but because that’s the climate which they’ve been encouraged to operate in by their political masters.”

“Breathtaking hypocrisy”

Amber Rudd, the UK’s home secretary, unfairly under attack.

Clegg accused press barons of helping to foster an anti-immigrant atmosphere in the UK, and criticised the “breath-taking hypocrisy” of the Daily Mail – which has positioned itself as a champion of the Windrush generation and attacked current home secretary Amber Rudd.

“Unaccountable, unelected, secretive, rich millionaires… [among tabloid owners and editors] are probably more responsible than anyone else in this country for creating this vituperative climate which led to the victimisation of the Windrush generation,” said Clegg, attacking their tendency “to shed crocodile tears for these people, and then to go after Amber Rudd.”

“But it would be a scandal if Amber Rudd ends up taking the rap for this,” Clegg argued. “If there’s anyone directly responsible it’s Theresa May, not Amber Rudd.”

“We’ve got to stop this constant, craven genuflection to these unaccountable, old, angry men, many of whom don’t even pay tax in this country; many of whom have been playing the puppetmasters of British politics for far, far too long,” he concluded.

Call for inquiry

Sir Bob Kerslake has called for an inquiry into the landing cards’ destruction. (Image courtesy: Her Majesty’s Home Civil Service).

In a related development, former head of the UK civil service Lord Kerslake called for an inquiry into the landing cards’ destruction. Kerslake, who served in the role from January 2012 to July 2014, told the BBC’s Newsnight last week that “we need to investigate this in more detail to understand what happened. What we can say is that the UK Borders Agency [which destroyed the cards] was effectively part of the civil service and it took its advice from ministers.”

Kerslake’s comments came after a dispute over which administration oversaw the cards’ destruction. Asked by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn whether she signed off on the decision in 2010, when she was home secretary, May retorted: “No, the decision to destroy the cards was taken in 2009, under a Labour government.”

But a Home Office statement, issued the same day, said: “In 2010, the decision was taken by the UK Border Agency to securely dispose of some documents known as registration slips.”

Additional reporting by Liz Heron. Global Government Forum will soon publish a further report on Nick Clegg’s comments at the Institute for Government, covering his views on the outlook for Britain’s Brexit negotiations.

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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