Stand up, Step Forward, Go Home: Lessons Learned from Windrush

“[t]hose aboard the Windrush...felt they were answering a call from the ‘motherland’ to help her in her time of need after World War Two. They volunteered and left their homes behind to perform their duty with a sense of optimism and excitement” (Williams’ Review 2020, p. 31).

Chief among the many lessons that the UK government needs to learn from the Windrush: Lessons Learned Review (Williams’ Review 2020) is how to appropriately treat individuals who provide the labour needed to repair damaged and depleted essential services, such as health and transport. It was intended that, over an approximate eighteen month period, the Review findings and recommendations would guide the Home Office toward incremental improvement to its cu;lture and working practices (Williams’ Review 2020, recommendation 2 at p. 138). However, from the moment that the Review was published on 19 March 2020 events were in train which have greatly compressed the time within which the Windrush lessons have to be absorbed, and which question the wisdom of confining the learning to the Home Office alone. By then, the government had begun to design and implement various strategies to combat the spread of the coronavirus. A central plank of these strategies has been to urge health professionals to “stand up, step forward” in order to deal with the acute labour shortage in the NHS - caused, this time, not by war but by years of government-driven austerity policies. Sections 2-4 and schedules 1-3 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 provide the legal framework for the NHS element of the coronavirus strategy by enabling the emergency registration of health professionals.

According to the Williams’ Review findings, the “legacy” of Windrush “...and that of others who answered the original call, is that today one fifth of the NHS workforce come from BAME backgrounds” (Williams’ Review 2020, p. 34). Taking this finding together with the fact that already BAME health professionals have been disproportionately exposed to infection from the coronavirus, I identify two of the findings and recommendations from the Williams’ Review which all government departments involved in the coronavirus effort (most especially the Department of Health and Social Care) must immediately take on board if “[t]he sense of injustice and betrayal...” (Williams’ Review 2020, p. 30) that the Windrush generation felt as a result of their treatment at the hands of the British state is not to be visited on those BAME health professionals who have responded to the UK government’s latest call for help.

The Williams’ Review identified various factors that caused the British state (through its Home Office) to dispossess (including by way of deportation) an as yet unquantified number of black people of Caribbean origin who were lawfully resident in the UK. It was suggested that “...hundreds, and possibly thousands, of people...were...denied...the right to live and work in the UK, to receive healthcare, to have a pension, claim state benefits and to re-enter the UK...” (p. 25). Two closely related factors, above all, caused the “irreparable damage” (Williams’ Review 2020, p. 25) to the lives of the Windrush descendants which the Review documents. The first was “ institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race and the history of the Windrush generation…” (Windrush Review 2020, p. 14) within the Home Office. The second, which greatly compounded the first, was the failure to adequately monitor “... the racial impact of immigration policy and decision-making …” (Williams’ Review 2020, p. 12).

Given its terms of reference, the Williams’ Review could not explore the question of whether the failings found to have infected Home Office policy and decision-making in the Windrush cases extended to other UK government departments. However, despite its limited terms of reference, the Review cannot but alert those government departments which are leading on the coronavirus strategy to the need to ensure that policies (such as the emergency registration of health professionals policy) are designed to factor in the “risk of an adverse impact on racial groups” (Williams’ Review 2020, p. 16). Such impact assessments must be underpinned by knowledge of “...the history of the UK and its relationship with the rest of the world, including Britain’s colonial history…” (Williams’ Review 2020, recommendation 6 at p. 140). The “racial element to the history” (Williams’ Review 2020, p. 138) accounts for the ambivalent status which BAME health professionals hold within today’s NHS. It is a history that includes the much discredited “hostile” or “compliant” environment policies, “...which resulted in the Home Office delegating functions to third parties like landlords and employers, over whom it had no control…” (Williams’ Review 2020, p. 148). The NHS was one of the public bodies on whom Home Office functions were delegated, and, as a result, many individuals who had helped to build up the NHS after the ravages of the second world war were unlawfully denied access to it when they sought medical help for sometimes life-threatening conditions.

Equality impact assessments help public authorities to demonstrate that they are meeting the legal obligations imposed on them by virtue of section 149 of the Equality Act 2010. The Act requires public authorities to work toward eliminating unlawful discrimination, advancing equality of opportunity and fostering good relations between those who have certain “protected characteristics” (such as race, disability) and those who do not have these characteristics. When properly conducted, impact assessments will expose for further scrutiny a policy that is likely to have a disproportionately negative impact on a group with protected characteristics. One of the more damning indictments of the Williams’ Review related to the Home Office’s approach to equality impact assessments, and, more generally, its approach to the public sector equality duty. Equality monitoring procedures within the Home Office were found to have fallen well below the standards expected of a government department. This finding led to the recommendation that “[t]he department should embark on a structured programme of learning and development for all immigration and policy officials and senior civil servants in relation to the Equality Act 2010 and the department’s public sector equality duty... [e]very year, the department should publish details of training courses attended, and how many people have completed them (Williams’ Review 2020, recommendation 12 at p. 143).

As earlier stated, the terms of reference of the Williams’ Review precluded it from looking at the practices of other government departments in terms of their compliance with the Equality Act 2020. However, as at the time of writing (21 April 2020) government records show that out of the 84 health professionals who have died from Covid-19, 58 were from BAME communities, and this gives rise to legitimate concerns over whether the emergency registration of health professionals policy was properly subjected to an equality impact assessment before it was implemented, and whether its is being properly monitored now. In a time of crisis, it is tempting for even for those government departments which have demonstrably operated according to higher standards than found to have obtained at the Home Office to do what the Williams’ Review found was a ”...common feature of the impact assessments [ ]compare one option with a “do nothing” approach, primarily in terms of costs and benefits…” (Williams’ Review 2020, p. 80).

Home Office immigration enforcement activity at the time of the Windrush dispossessions included the “...racially insensitive 'Go home or face arrest' advertising billboards and 'go home' vans” (Williams’ Review 2020, p. 13. See also p. 68). These stand as the more conspicuous symbols of the ill treatment suffered by the Windrush descendants. Today, they serve as a timely reminder that government driven messages have a differential “impact on communities” (Williams’ Review 2020, p. 68). Above all, they remind us of how quickly the rallying cry of “stand up, step forward, save lives” can turn into the shrill and ugly “stand up, step forward, go home”.

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