Today a damning report confirms the government broke equality laws by ignoring evidence that its flagship hostile environment policy would lead to racial discrimination. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) also found that the Home Office had failed to address concerns that were raised with ministers.
It is the second major, independent review of the Home Office to be published this year (the exhaustive Windrush Lessons Learned review was published in March). Both inquiries have concluded that the Windrush scandal may well have been avoided if only ministers had thought through the inevitable consequences of their policy choices or listened to the warnings being shared early on by experts, charities and communities.
The Windrush scandal – first revealed by the Guardian in 2017 – led to British citizens who had arrived, mainly from the Caribbean, in the postwar years being denied healthcare and benefits, and in some cases being deported.
In 2012, when the then home secretary Theresa May announced her intention to create “a really hostile environment” for people who could not prove they had the right to live here, organisations such as ours, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), warned immediately that this would inevitably lead to tragedy.
We knew this because, as early as the 1970s, our organisation had sent caseworkers and volunteers across the country to help register mostly black and brown families who had travelled here freely from across the empire. The 1971 Immigration Act had stipulated that their residence in Britain would be regulated in a way it had never been before, and imposed a deadline to register. Even then, it was clear that potentially tens of thousands could fall through the gaps as the government rushed to pull up the drawbridge.
So after May’s announcement, in report after report, hearing after hearing, and meeting after meeting, ministers and MPs were warned of its impact. They were told their plan to deny people the right to work, to rent a home or access healthcare without the right papers would lead to black and brown residents, especially those with the “wrong” accent, being treated with suspicion or being stripped of their rights because they could not provide their papers.
We at the JCWI even went as far as doing the Home Office’s homework for them, commissioning an independent assessment of their proposed “right to rent” scheme, showing them the effects their plans would have. Everything, it seems, was ignored.
Today’s report from the EHRC finds that these concerns were valid but “repeatedly ignored, dismissed, or their severity disregarded … particularly where they were seen as a barrier to implementing hostile environment policies in a highly politicised environment”. In other words, the government’s view was that as long as the polls, the front pages and the media pundits said that tightening the screws was OK, the evidence and the warnings could be damned.
The Equality Act requires all public bodies to work towards the elimination of unlawful discrimination. This means that ministers and departments must ensure their decisions won’t lead to discrimination against, or reduce the rights and opportunities of, people because of their race.
The EHRC finds that the government went as far as “downplaying the number of people potentially affected”. Experts were sidelined, critics ignored, communities stonewalled. Today’s home secretary, Priti Patel, may rail against “activist lawyers” but the EHRC found that the only time her government explicitly considered its duties under the Equality Act was after our threat of litigation over its failure to properly assess the right to rent scheme.
Ultimately, after the high court found that the scheme led to racial discrimination in the housing market, the government spent tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money on lawyers to have that decision overturned. Every single one of us should be troubled to know that, even when matters of life and death hang in the balance, this is how the government makes decisions.
We count the cost of those decisions today, in the lives stolen, the families ripped apart and the dreams crushed by the brutal regime of sanctions, detention and deportation that was unleashed on mostly elderly, mostly black women and men, who had given their best years to this country. And we will continue to count this cost for years to come, as those who have lived here their whole lives continue to be shut out of work, denied medical treatment and made homeless for want of the right papers. In building a hostile environment for them, the government makes the world a colder and more hostile place for all of us.
Not every policy can be used to fight racism. But no policy should be used to encourage it. No minister should be quite so comfortable overseeing or defending policies that lead to such despair, devastation and discrimination. No minister should so casually dismiss evidence or the concerns of experts and communities.
The hostile environment has always been indefensible, but today’s report confirms that the decisions that built it were unlawful, too. The government now has an opportunity to listen: it should learn the lessons of Windrush and dismantle the hostile environment for good.
• Satbir Singh is chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants