Black History Month: The Windrush Generation 

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Specialist

This Black History Month Paula Waites reflects on the history of the Windrush Generation and the current problems they are facing.

In June 1948 the Empire Windrush arrived in Essex carrying hundreds of people from the Caribbean. This was the first ship to arrive after the British Nationality Act was passed and so Commonwealth nationals who settled in the UK before 1973 became known as the Windrush Generation.

An invitation to live and work in the UK

In the aftermath of two devastating World Wars, the UK desperately needed workers. The British Nationality Act granted citizenship and right of abode in the UK to all members of the British Commonwealth.

Between the late 1940s and the early 1970s, nearly half a million men, women and children left their homes and answered the call to live and work in the UK. Many took up invitations to work for the newly created NHS as nurses, midwives, cleaners, cooks and porters, or for bus, underground and rail services.

Confusion over citizenship

Commonwealth citizens arriving in the UK between 1948 and 1973 were considered subjects of the British Empire. This meant they were able to live and move freely and work in the UK on a permanent basis.

The free movement of British subjects ended with the 1971 Immigration Act, which took effect from 1 January 1973. After this date, Commonwealth citizens arriving in the UK were subject to a different immigration process. 

This caused some confusion among members of the Windrush Generation who had the right to remain indefinitely. To get official documentation confirming their citizenship that would have been straightforward but for many it was not clear that they needed to.

The ‘hostile environment’ and the ‘Windrush Scandal’

From the 1980s, successive Governments introduced various measures to combat illegal immigration. In 2012 the ‘hostile environment’ policy was introduced. 

A 2018 House of Lords briefing described the ‘hostile environment’ as "a range of measures aimed at identifying and reducing the number of immigrants in the UK with no right to remain". This included restrictions on illegal immigrants renting property in the UK, driving, having bank accounts and accessing benefits and free healthcare

The ‘Windrush Scandal’ emerged as an issue in late 2017. Journalists including Amelia Gentleman began to publish stories about the poor treatment of people who were lawfully resident in the UK but had no documentary proof of their rights. Many were regarded as illegal immigrants and therefore denied access to vital services. Some were detained or deported.

In January 2018 the Home Affairs Select Committee published their Immigration policy: basis for building consensus report. This flagged the issue that "While the hostile environment is currently aimed at non-EU nationals without valid leave to be in the UK, there are regular reports of people with a lawful right to be here [ … ] being caught up in the system.” The Windrush generation are one example of this.

In June 2018 a further Home Affairs Select Committee report, Windrush: The need for a hardship fund, found that “people from the Windrush generation face destitution, are unable to settle legal bills; or are facing bailiffs due to debts run up when they were forced to give up work or had their social security payments stopped, through no fault of their own.”

The Windrush Compensation Scheme

In 2018, once these issues had come to light, the Windrush Scheme was created. This allowed anyone who had arrived, or whose parents had arrived, before 1989 to apply for documentation confirming their status.

In 2019 the Windrush Compensation Scheme was set up to compensate anyone who had been wrongly categorised as an illegal immigrant. However, a recent House of Lords Research Briefing highlighted significant political and media criticism of the way the scheme is operating, including slow response times.

Windrush complaints and the Ombudsman

Last week we published a case summary about Mr R, who lost his job and his home because of failings in the way UK Visas and Immigration dealt with his application to remain in the UK. We fully upheld the complaint.

At a recent Administrative Justice Council webinar about Windrush, Ombudsman Rob Behrens expressed concern at the low number of complaints PHSO had received about the Windrush Compensation Scheme. He highlighted poor signposting from the Adjudicator’s Office as a barrier to justice.

People who are not satisfied with the way their Windrush compensation claim has been dealt with must first complete the Home Office complaints process. If they are still not happy with the final response they get, we encourage them to bring their complaint to us via an MP.

Find out more about making a complaint or call our helpline on 0345 015 4033.