Stuart McDonald – 2020 Speech on the Windrush Compensation Scheme

Below is the text of the speech made by Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, in the House of Commons on 10 February 2020.

It is good to have the opportunity to take part in this debate. Of course we must pass this ​Bill, because the victims of the outrageous Windrush fiasco must be compensated, but it must be done fairly and fully, and compensation must accurately reflect the impact that this scandal has had on their lives. It must happen as quickly as possible, because the process has been slow and drawn out. I concur absolutely with the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee and the shadow Home Secretary about the operation of a hardship fund.

I recognise that a lot of work and consultation has gone into designing the scheme, but although that work is welcome, it does not mean that we have to accept that the design is right. Indeed, the changes to the scheme announced last Thursday illustrate that changes can and should be made. Scottish National party Members think that those changes were steps in the right direction, but that others are required. The Bill gives us the opportunity to air those concerns. I will set out a few examples in a moment, but first it is important to put those concerns into context, and to reflect on what it is that we are compensating victims for and who the victims are.

Windrush must be among the most outrageous acts of negligence by a Government Department impacting its own people in modern British political history. In fact, the word “negligence” probably does not do it justice at all. “Recklessness” would be closer to the mark. As we have heard, the consequences have been disastrous: people wrongly subjected to the hostile environment; homes and jobs lost; and healthcare, pensions and access to social security refused. Some victims were subject to immigration enforcement, including the serious trauma of immigration detention. Some were removed or deported. Some felt compelled to leave. Some were refused re-entry when they went abroad for what they thought would be short periods of time. People were prevented from travelling to visit dying relatives or to attend funerals.

Why do we say that these harms were caused by recklessness on the part of the Government? Quite simply, because the Home Office knew that the implications of their ever more noxious hostile environment policies included that significant groups of people who were lawfully in the UK would be caught up in its tentacles. The Department was warned via inspectorate reports, by the 2014 “Chasing Status” report by the Legal Action Group, by high commissioners, by analysis of the right to rent carried out by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, and by others. The National Audit Office was clear that there were briefings to Ministers about the many thousands of lawful residents who did not hold biometric residence permits from at least 2013. As the NAO said, outsourced hostile environment policies

“predictably carried a risk of impacting on individuals who were, in fact, entitled to residence, but who did not have the necessary documents. The Department had a duty of care to ensure that people’s rights and entitlements were recognised…We do not consider that the Department adequately considered that duty in the way that it introduced immigration policy.”

In short, it seems that all the warning signs were ignored or deemed acceptable collateral damage. People quite rightly ask, “If all these warnings had related to white middle-class people with a louder voice, would those warnings have been ignored?” Instead, it was not until ​they were shamed into action by journalists such as Amelia Gentleman that the Government actually started to respond.

We also need to consider who these victims are. In the light of the history, I think it has already been accepted that there is little doubt that Windrush victims will have no trust in the immigration and nationality system or in the Home Office. In fact, they would be entitled to despise institutions that have heaped so much misery upon them. That is not the only thing we need to consider and remember about the victims when we go on to assess the design of the compensation scheme. Speaking to those who are working with and supporting the Windrush victims through the compensation scheme, it is repeatedly pointed out to me that we are often talking about fairly or even very marginalised, and sometimes vulnerable, individuals. Many are poor or not well off; hence there was no need for passports for foreign trips. Vulnerabilities can range from poor literacy all the way through to signs of post-traumatic stress disorder because of the ordeals that people have been put through. Many will have had other experiences of discrimination and racism in housing, employment and criminal justice.

Against that background, the compensation scheme must be generous and comprehensive, and also designed to allow even the most marginalised, terrified and vulnerable to access it. There is a workable scheme on which we can build, but many have expressed concern about its design, and I hope the Government will listen. The Minister has already made changes, and I hope we will continue to consider possible improvements to the scheme.

I will briefly mention a few concerns, many of which we will come back to in more detail in Committee. First, on the independence of the compensation scheme, it would surely be better for it to be operated independently of the Home Office. We are asking people to contact and apply to the same Department that caused them such misery in the first place. If the scheme must remain within the Home Office, then there must surely be strong, independent routes to challenge the decisions that it makes. We are far from convinced that the scheme has that feature.

Secondly, we need to scrutinise the application process. Has enough been done to ensure that it is as simple as possible? The application form declares that the Home Office does not think that people will need an immigration lawyer to complete it, yet question 1 alone asks about lapsed status, settled status, whether people were ordinarily resident, and the right of abode. How many people in this Chamber could provide a coherent description of all those concepts?

That leads me on to a further issue: funding for groups advising and supporting people to make applications. Funding for Citizens Advice is well and good, but it is not sufficient. People should have a choice. For some victims, Citizens Advice was one of the organisations unable to help them to rectify their terrible situations in the first place—not, I should say, through any fault of Citizens Advice. It is welcome that the Government are tendering for advice services, but I hope that it is possible for a range of different providers to be selected and not just one.

Suella Braverman (Fareham) (Con)

In 2018, the Government appointed Martin Forde, QC, to independently advise them on the compensation scheme, and the ​Government have also committed to having an independent adviser to oversee its delivery. Is the hon. Gentleman challenging the views of the independent expert who has made the recommendations, which the Government have largely followed?

Stuart C. McDonald

As I said at the outset, I welcome all the consultation that is happening. I also welcome the role that Martin Forde has played, but we do not have to simply take every chapter and verse of the design that he comes up with. Ultimately, we are the politicians and this is the Government, and we can do things slightly differently if we wish to. The Immigration Minister has already made some changes to the scheme. All I am saying is that there are changes that can make the scheme fairer and more generous, and I will continue to make that case. I absolutely respect the role that Martin Forde has played and I do not mean to diminish it in any way at all.

As we speak just now, lots of folk are having to be helped through the system by pro bono lawyers, volunteers and even students. Not only are difficult concepts of immigration and nationality law involved, but the process of documenting losses and damages is often not easy. Given the significance of these applications to the people making them, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), it is only right that legal aid funding be made available. Ultimately, is it not a bit rich for the Home Office, an institution that completely failed to understand its own immigration rules and laws despite employing an army of policy experts and lawyers, then to turn round and tell victims of those failures that they do not need legal advice? The Home Secretary herself referred in her speech to applications being complicated. That is why legal aid funding should be made available to all the victims.

The fourth issue is the time limit. We welcome the Minister putting the deadline back—the original might even have been capable of legal challenge—but we suspect that there may need to be a further rethink in future. We are also concerned that if a deadline remains, there must be generous provision for those who miss it and a very low threshold for considering reasonable excuses. That is necessary, given the vulnerabilities and isolation that many victims will have suffered. It is also necessary because the Home Office has limited its proactive search for victims to Caribbean countries, despite being told by the NAO that its reasons for not proactively searching for victims elsewhere do not add up. That must be revisited.

Fifthly, we share concerns that many of the limits, tariffs and caps in the scheme are wholly inappropriate. The range of immigration application fees that are recoverable is unduly restrictive, and so too are limits placed on legal fees related to those applications. Some of the lump sums seem surprisingly low. Right across access to social security benefits, housing, employment and education, we cannot accept restrictions on possible total awards. Why is the scheme not aiming to come closer to providing restitution for actual losses, rather than very limited broadbrush payments?

Sixthly, we are concerned about provisions that allow for compensation to be restricted for what essentially seems to be a form of contributory negligence, as well as for serious criminality. On the first point, how can it ​be right for the Home Office to say, “If only you’d contacted us, things would have been sorted,” and use that as a reason to reduce compensation? For many, simply looking at the eye-watering application fees would have been sufficient to think that fixing the situation was impossible. Others who did try to contact the Home Office to remedy their status ended up the subject of enforcement action and in immigration detention.

It seems that unsuccessful applicants were automatically placed in the migration refusal pool and therefore were at risk of removal, so who can blame people for not attempting the dangerous and seemingly insurmountable task of proving status and contacting the Home Office? After all, this Department was sending out “Go home” vans, but now we are saying in retrospect that at that same time, people suspected of being here illegally should have got on the phone to the Home Office to rectify their situation. That seems wholly unrealistic. The insistence that people would usually have contacted the Home Office within 30 days bears little resemblance to reality and could have severe implications for significant loss of earnings claims. We welcome the Minister’s announcement that the range of actions that the Home Office will accept as attempted mitigation is to be broadened, but we seriously question whether any such deductions are appropriate at all.

On criminality, we are unconvinced by the appropriateness of the provisions. Part of the guidance on this has been redacted from public view, and another section refers to situations where the

“offending was of such a nature that makes it inappropriate to make an award in whole or in part”,

which is vague and lacks clarity. As a point of principle, the fact that someone has a criminal record surely does not mean that the person is not owed compensation when they are wronged by the Government.

Finally, there is a huge issue over what caseworker guidance says about the standard of proof in certain cases. As a general rule, the guidance states that caseworkers should

“take a holistic view of the claim where there is a lack of supporting evidence and decide the claim on a balance of probability.”

That is welcome and as it should be, but a list of exceptions is then provided, including claims for loss of earnings, reimbursement of private medical fees, reimbursement of international student fees and loss of access to banking. The guidance demands that caseworkers

“must be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt before making an award in these cases.”

That is the criminal standard of proof. I cannot for the life of me see why a loss of earnings claim for a Windrush victim should require to be proved to the criminal standard of proof, rather than the usual civil standard. That seems pretty outrageous, and I look forward to hearing why that is in the guidance. Members have raised various other issues with the scheme, and I look forward to exploring those in Committee.

Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)

My hon. Friend has laid out issues with the scheme as it stands and improvements that could be made. There are still ongoing cases with the Home Office where people such as highly skilled migrants have lost huge sums of money, had to fight in the courts to get their status proven and ​had decisions overturned in their favour. Does he agree that there needs to be a further look at compensation schemes where the Home Office has clearly got it wrong?

Stuart C. McDonald

My hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point, and I fully support what she says about those individuals.

That brings me nicely to the concluding part of my speech. The Secretary of State was right to say that compensation cannot be an end to the matter. As one victim, Judy Griffith, said:

“I do think that we deserve compensation. But there is no amount that can truly reflect the fear and anxiety, frustration and ill health we have suffered.”

Indeed, the way we respond to what has happened must go way beyond the compensation scheme. It is about completely overhauling the institutions and hostile environment policies that led to this situation in the first place. Instead of defending the right to rent scheme in court, the Government should be scrapping it. It is about asking whether the public sector equality duty, at 10 years old, is working properly, particularly when it comes to making immigration policy; I think it is self-evident that it is not.

It is about listening to concerns that many EU citizens will face an even worse prospect if they miss the settled status scheme deadline; the shadow Home Secretary was right about that. It is about ensuring urgent publication of the Williams lessons learned review and responding. It is about no longer pricing people out of their rights, especially their right to British citizenship. And it is about a full-blown apology—not just for the fact that this all happened, but for the fact that Government caused it to happen.