Guest blog by Patrick Vernon OBE, Windrush campaigner and cultural historian
Thanks to years of campaigning, June 22nd is now recognised in the UK as Windrush Day, a time to acknowledge the contribution of a generation not only from the Caribbean and African but other parts of the Commonwealth. But due to policy from the UK’s Home Office over the last few years, the term ‘Windrush’ no longer makes us think only of that generation of hopeful Caribbean migrants who willing came to ‘the mother country’ in the 1950’s to help rebuild it. The term has also become synonymous with the scandal of institutional racism, as campaigner Patrick Vernon explains..
On 22 June 1948, over 500 passengers of Caribbean heritage arrived at Tilbury Docks in Essex, on the HMT Empire Windrush. The name of that ship has since come to stand for a whole generation of post war immigration from the Caribbean and rise of multicultural post war Britain.
After World War II, the United Kingdom's economy was on its knees, and to help get it back on its feet, the British government turned to the citizens of its Commonwealth, inviting them to come and help to rebuild the ‘mother country’.
But despite the official invitation, the reception from much of the host community, was often less than cordial.
In the 1940s, black people were banned from buying or renting houses, paid far less than their white co-workers and discriminated against and bullied in the workplace, as well as harassed by the police. Learie Constantine took the Imperial Hotel in Central London to court for discrimination during the height of WW2. This “colour bar” was the catalyst for riots in Notting Hill and Nottingham in the 1950s.
In the 1960s, Paul Stephenson organised a boycott to force the Bristol bus company to stop discriminating against black people and Asquith Xavier took British Rail to court after being refused a job at Euston Station. That is why, since 1965, we have had a series of legislation and government bodies tackling structural racism and discrimination due to the campaigning efforts of the Windrush generation.
By the 1970s, black men were regularly stopped and searched, despite not being suspected of any crime, simply because of their race under “sus” laws; the toxic legacy of this continues today.
In the 1980s we had riots in Brixton, Tottenham, Bristol and Toxteth, where young black people rebelled against the police, discrimination, and mass unemployment. The 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence led to major changes in race relations law.
But despite this history of struggle, the successful integration of the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren on those original Windrush migrants, and the way they have impacted the wider culture of the UK, is something to be celebrated.
Patrick Vernon (pictured third from right) alongside Windrush campaigners including with Glenda Cesear, Michael Braithwaite and Anthony Bryan outside Downing Street
I launched a petition calling for the commemoration of "Windrush Day" in 2013, which was followed by a further campaign in 2018. Official backing was finally given when it was announced by the government that an annual Windrush Day would be celebrated on 22 June, supported by a grant of up to £500,000, to recognise and honour the contribution of the Windrush Generation and their descendants and to "keep their legacy alive for future generations, ensuring that we all celebrate the diversity of Britain's history."
But what the government gave with one hand, it took away with the other. During this same period, the Home Office was busily trying to forcibly remove the children of those original settlers who came to this country on their parent’s passports -a shameful episode that has since has become known as ‘the Windrush Scandal’.
In April 2019, the government launched the Windrush Compensation Scheme in response to the scandal. The Home Office estimated it might pay out compensation worth between £120 million and £310 million to 15,000 people.
By the end of March 2021, the Department had received 2,163 claims. The Home Office to date have paid £14.3 million to 633 people. The National Audit Office discovered that massive delays and a back log of outstanding cases, many having not been resolved in the last two years. They also found out there are only six full time case workers to support over 15,000 potential claims.
The compensation scheme was meant to help people get their lives back on track and for the government to acknowledge and apologise for how they abused the rights of Black British and other Commonwealth citizens. But instead, it has been far too complicated for victims to use, with very little support for those making claims. Over the last two years there have numerous reports and news stories on the failure of the scheme. During this time over 21 people have died without receiving a penny.
One such person is Paulette Wilson who died in July 2020.
Her daughter Natalie Barnes said “Home Office still operate the Hostile Environment policy which contributed to the death of my mother. Before she passed, she was struggling with the forms and lack of support and respect from the Home Office. The scheme needs to be removed so there is proper justice to families like mine.”
The scheme, designed as a discretionary ex gratia payment to circumvent legal action in the courts by victims of the scandal, has failed because of the nature of anti-Blackness (Afriphobia) and institutional racism in the conduct, behaviour and procedures of the Home Office staff and the executive and political leadership.
For the last 18 months I have been campaigning that the scheme should be removed from the Home Office and managed independently by a non-governmental agency to provide trust, respect, empathy and confidence to the victims and the families.
I have launched a petition which almost 94,0000 people have signed to support this campaign: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/improve-the-compensation-scheme-for-windrush-survivors-and-family-members
I am hoping that we get over 100,000 signatures during the week of Windrush Day on the 22nd of June. How much more evidence do we need to prove there is no accountability or scrutiny in resolving the Windrush Scandal after three years, despite a Windrush Cross Government Advisory Group?
I hope that the Home Affairs Select Committee, Public Accounts Committee and National Audit Office step up their investigations and reviews in the conduct and behaviour of the Home Office and culture of Anti Blackness which is pervasive in gaslighting the victims and families of the scandal.
The recent debacle over the Sewell Report which failed to acknowledge and explore the impact of the scandal regarding structural racism, demonstrates no commitment to righting the wrongs around the compensation scheme.
We hope the Prime Minster rejects the commissioned race report and makes a commitment to support existing race equality legislation and best practice by promoting the Public Sector Equality duty.
It is important that he acknowledges the lived experiences of minoritised communities and especially those experiencing the hostile environment and the ongoing impact of the Windrush Scandal.
Institutionalised racism is still alive and kicking in Britain today.
Patrick Vernon OBE, Windrush campaigner and cultural historian