Like everyone in the UK, I watched the Windrush scandal unfold with dismay and horror.
But as the UK’s only elected mayor of Caribbean descent, sadly I did not watch it with huge surprise. For as the Lessons Learned review published last week makes clear, this shameful injustice has deep roots.
The Windrush scandal is a product of racism. Absolutely. But to focus only on that would miss the fact that this scandal was also fundamentally a product of centralisation, and the deadly effect of policy being made by people who are distant from, unrepresentative of, and frankly uninterested in the people they are supposed to be serving.
One of the most shocking elements of Wendy Williams’ report is the extent to which former ministers and senior civil servants are still unable or unwilling to take responsibility for the devastating consequences of their actions. This lack of repentance is symptomatic of the profound distance between those setting the rules in the Home Office and the people in communities affected by them.
As a city leader, if I spent more than £3m on setting up and running a compensation scheme that then gave out only £62,000 to 36 people, council taxpayers would be appalled.
And yet that is exactly what the Home Office has done with the Windrush Compensation Scheme.
The Lessons Learned review describes “a culture of disbelief and carelessness” in the Home Office. Of course, part of what enables and encourages this culture is the chronic lack of representation among politicians and civil servants. How else can it be explained that an entire section of the population had their history “institutionally forgotten” by one of the largest government departments?
Local government is far from perfect on this front, but in Bristol, we are making huge efforts to ensure that those running the city are representative of those who live here.
As mayor, I bring with me the experience of having grown up as a mixed-race child in a single-parent household. My deputy mayor for communities is a Rastafarian daughter of the Windrush generation, while my advisor on migration is a former journalist and refugee from Zimbabwe.
We may have a home secretary with a migrant background, but the Home Office needs to go much further, much faster in terms of the diversity of those setting and implementing policy. Only then do we have any chance of moving away from our tired public conversation on ‘British identity’.
But even more important than central government becoming more diverse is the desperate need for decision-making powers to be more effectively devolved. What Windrush reveals is the chronic disposition of national politics to prioritise slogans and soundbites over practical policies. The “hostile environment” will go down in history as one of the worst examples of political leaders trying to look and sound tough without any interest in what the adverse consequences might be for the individuals who might suffer as a result.
As Williams’ report puts it, “both policy makers and operational staff lost sight of people the department had a duty to protect”. Of course, when it transpired that people who were legally resident in the UK were being deported and discriminated against, there was rightly a national outcry, but these same “hostile environment” policies continue to make life a misery for countless people in our communities.
And when the deadline passes for EU citizens to register under the Settled Status scheme next year, there will be a new set of people who will have been here for years, contributing to our economy and society, and who will suddenly become liable to deportation and discrimination.
So as we digest the full implications of the Windrush Lessons Learned review, we need to recognise both the moral failure and the political culture that makes that failure more likely. Of course, the urgent priority must be to make things right for those who have had their lives turned upside down. Then there must be reform of the Home Office and an end to the “hostile environment”.
But more than that, there must also be a serious reflection on how we can push power away from distant and indifferent Whitehall and down to the regional, city and local levels. Only then will we get the policies that reflect the real needs of people in our communities.
Marvin Rees is the mayor of Bristol
This article was originally published in the Eastern Eye.
Main photo by Thomas Katan