A letter from a Home Office minister dated May 2016 and obtained by the Guardian shows that the government has known for years about the impact of its “hostile environment” policy on the Windrush generation.
As the government struggles to contain mounting pressure on both Theresa May and the home secretary, Amber Rudd, Home Office sources indicate that legislation could be rushed through parliament to give citizenship to those affected.
The letter the Guardian has obtained relates to Trevor Johnson. In a story that has shocked even veteran immigration rights campaigners, both Trevor and his brother Desmond have had their lives wrecked by hostile environment policies.
They arrived as boys from Jamaica in 1971. Trevor has faced threats of deportation, while Desmond has not been allowed to visit Britain, where he has a daughter as well as a brother, since he went back to Jamaica for his father’s funeral in 2001. Desmond has not seen his daughter for 16 years.
The letter was sent by James Brokenshire, immigration minister from 2014 to 2016, to Kate Hoey, the Labour MP who had raised the case of Trevor, her constituent.
The letter set out that Johnson was liable to be deported despite having lived in Britain for 45 years because he could not show that he had arrived before 1973, when the law changed. Nor could he provide the documentary evidence the Home Office demanded of continuous residence over other periods in the 1980s and 1990s.
In 2014 he was told he was here illegally, and his benefits were stopped.
Asked about the letter on ITV’s Peston on Sunday programme, Brokenshire – who is now on the backbenches and has been receiving treatment for lung cancer – said he had not seen the letter before.
He said, however, that he had always tried to be compassionate. “We did, as a Home Office, look compassionately over a number of individual cases. And you do try to make the right decisions. It is about being firm but fair. And I think that’s the issue that’s been striking for me.”
Ministers insist that the Windrush victims are suffering from a failure at official level, not from a bad policy in and of itself. The justice secretary, David Gauke, has said that the flaws were in the implementation.
“It is right that we take illegal immigration seriously – of course I stress we are not talking about illegal immigrants in the Windrush case – but it is perfectly reasonable to, for example, want to ensure that when we are providing public services they are being provided to people who are entitled to them,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
“The objective was for this to be focused on illegal immigration … most people … believed it would be possible to tighten up the provision of public services without there being an impact on people here legally.”
A former cabinet minister, Sayeeda Warsi, has said however that there was bitter opposition in cabinet to some of the policies May pursued while she was home secretary between 2010 and 2016.
Warsi, who is also a former Conservative party chair, told ITV’s Peston on Sunday it was a failed policy caused by the party’s obsession with bringing down net migration. “I think we were all responsible. I would hold myself responsible as part of the government,” she said.
“What happened unfortunately during those years and has continued is that we had an unhealthy obsession with numbers. We were wedded to unrealistic targets, targets that we still haven’t met unfortunately a decade on, and yet we continue to remain wedded to targets.
“And what we ended up with was, I think, the unintended consequences of the policy we are now implementing.”
Warsi’s remarks, which reinforce criticisms made before the weekend by the former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who chaired the cabinet subcommittee on immigration from 2010 to 2015, undermine Rudd. The home secretary has insisted that the problem was merely that officials lost sight of people in their concern for implementing the policy.
Rudd was further embarrassed when the Guardian was passed a document she sent to May pledging to escalate the hostile environment. In it she set out her “ambitious” plan to increase removals and focus officials on “arresting, detaining and forcibly removing illegal migrants” while “ruthlessly” prioritising Home Office resources for the programme.
In further evidence that the government has been aware for many years of the problems experienced by children of Windrush immigrants, a blog from as long ago as May 2013, written by a Foreign Office official responsible for resettling deported Jamaicans, is still on the ministry’s website. “Many consider themselves British, having moved to the UK as a young child with their parents or grandparents and granted indefinite leave to remain [ILR].”
The blog does not address policy issues, but it shows clearly that there were recognised and worrying issues related to Home Office policy.
On Sunday night an email from a junior government whip, Mike Freer, the MP for Finchley, emerged in which he dismissed any government responsibility and instead blamed Labour.
“It is so sad that opposition parties would seek to deliberately misquote and misinterpret what Theresa May said. The Windrush issue is absolutely nothing to do with immigration reforms introduced under the Cameron government. Then the policy was to make it harder for ILLEGAL immigrants to settle in the UK. The Windrush people were and are legal. Wholly separate and unconnected.
“I would also point out that the decision to destroy the landing cards of the Windrush people was taken by the last LABOUR Government, so it really is the height of opportunism and hypocrisy for the Opposition to take some moral high ground.”
Freer has not responded to requests for a comment.