Author: Amelia Gentleman
Several members of the Windrush generation remain stuck in homelessness hostels and are still prevented from working almost five months after the government first apologised for their plight, it has emerged in an emotional first fact-gathering roadshow designed to inform a government review.
Wendy Williams, the independent adviser for the review, was joined by Martin Forde QC, who is overseeing the design of a compensation scheme, at a packed church in north London to hear accounts from about two dozen people about the problems they had experienced as a result of the Home Office’s failure to recognise that they and thousands of other Windrushers were in the UK legally.
George Poleon, 65, became homeless after he lost his passport and then found it impossible to persuade officials he was in Britain legally, despite having more than 37 years of national insurance, tax and medical records proving he had lived continuously in the country since arriving from St Lucia as a teenager in 1968.
“At the moment I am living in a charity hostel, I can’t open a bank account,” he said. His benefits had been cut off and he was having problems accessing a pension because he was not registered with a bank. “I can’t work now; they say I am not a British national.”
Fitzroy, who did not want to give his full name, arrived from Antigua in 1980 when he was 15, before the country became independent, to join his mother who had been working for British Rail since 1966. He was in tears as he described losing his job as a residential caretaker for Hackney council 10 years ago, and explained how his life had collapsed as a result of the Home Office’s refusal to accept he had a right to live in the UK.
“I’ve had no work, no housing, no benefits for 10 years. I’ve had to sleep rough. One night I nearly died,” he said, describing how he had been sleeping rough in an electricity supply shed in Camden when it caught fire. “There was smoke, it was horrible. If I was a heavy sleeper I would not be here.” He said he had paid taxes for years but was still not getting benefits.
He was angry that the onus had been on him to provide the Home Office with proof of his long-term residence in the UK. “How come they can’t get my records? I didn’t come here illegally. If they wanted me as a criminal they would have found me, but since it is my problem they don’t want to help.”
Forde said he was concerned that there was still no clear definition of who precisely fell into the Windrush classification, and whether the compensation scheme could theoretically apply to the children and grandchildren of Commonwealth citizens who were living in the UK before 1973 and who themselves had experienced immigration-related difficulties.
He was also worried there could be many people who are unaware of the need to come forward, and that general mistrust of the Home Office could be preventing victims from getting in touch.
“The problem is nobody knows how many people are involved. My real fear is what is happening to people who are not at this meeting. I am really concerned that we are missing out on a large cohort of people,” he said.
He made a commitment that no information given to the review or to the compensation consultation would be passed on to immigration enforcement.
Forde said he was clear that there was political commitment to both the compensation scheme and the review. “It has been a tragedy, but there are some very powerful politicians and lawyers who are horrified by what has happened,” he said. “Everyone I’ve met regardless of politics has been very, very sympathetic to the plight of the Windrush people.”
Williams said she wanted the experiences of those affected by the scandal to form the bulk of her review. “Talking to you today, hearing directly from you what happened to you and the consequences you have faced as a result, is the start of my ensuring that you are at the centre my review.”
The Labour MP Dawn Butler said the compensation scheme needed to pay out to victims quickly. “We need in the interim to have a hardship fund while the compensation scheme is being ironed out because there are people struggling now.”
There will be further roadshows later in September and in October in Nottingham, Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester.
The boxer Vernon Vanriel, 63, arrived back in the UK on Thursday morning after a 13-year fight to be allowed to return to the country where he had lived for 43 years since arriving to join his parents at the age of six.
He has spent much of the last decade destitute in Jamaica, but he had his papers couriered to him last week by the British high commission and was given a free plane ticket home after the Guardian published an interview with him in August.