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Home Office broke equalities law with hostile environment measures

Amelia Gentleman
·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Home Office/PA</span>
Photograph: Home Office/PA

The Home Office broke equalities law when it introduced its hostile environment immigration measures, a critical report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has concluded.

The department now has a legal duty to review these policies to ensure they are not racially discriminatory, and that they comply with equalities legislation, the rights body announced.

Related: Hostile environment: anatomy of a policy disaster

In the latest damning report on the Home Office’s record in relation to its hostile environment policies and the Windrush scandal, the EHRC study detected “a lack of commitment” within the Home Office to the importance of equality.

Negative consequences of the hostile environment were “repeatedly ignored, dismissed, or their severity disregarded”, the report found. “This happened particularly when they were seen as a barrier to implementing hostile environment policies in a highly politicised environment.”

The department’s approach to its legal duty to ensure that its policies complied with equality legalisation was “perfunctory”, the study concluded.

The Home Office will need to launch a review of its hostile environment measures (now known as compliant environment policies) to ensure they comply with equality legislation, particularly with regard to race.

Caroline Waters, interim chair of the EHRC, said the policies would look “very different” once this review had been completed. “We would expect them to be different, because we found that equality was generally dismissed or overlooked,” she said.

In its report the EHRC assessed how and whether the Home Office complied with the public sector equality duty (PSED) – a legal requirement since 2010 – when developing, implementing and monitoring the hostile environment policy agenda, particularly in considering its impact on black members of the Windrush generation.

It found that officials failed to appreciate the severity of the negative impacts of its policy on this group of people. Even when the damaging consequences of the hostile environment policies began to emerge, the department failed to engage with representatives of the Windrush generation.

Related: 'They erased a bit of my life': Windrush generation on Home Office treatment

The report found “there was a narrow focus on delivering the political commitment of reducing immigration, and a culture where equality was not seen as important. Identifying risks to equality was therefore not encouraged.”

The EHRC detected an organisation-wide “lack of commitment, including by senior leadership, to the importance of equality and the Home Office’s obligations under the public sector equality duty. There was a misconception by some officials that immigration was exempt from all equalities legislation.”

A series of hostile environment policies were introduced by Theresa May from 2012 during a drive to bring down net migration; the measures made it harder for people without documentation proving their right to be in the UK to get jobs, rent properties, access healthcare and open bank accounts. Large numbers of people who had the right to live in the UK, but no documentation, were adversely affected by the policies.

Waters said if the Home Office had complied with its duties to consider the impact of its policies on race equality the Windrush scandal could have been avoided. “This is a very hard-hitting report. It was very politically charged environment; there was a very clear direction to reduce immigration.

“The Home Office did not comply with its obligations under the public sector equality policy and that failing has absolutely contributed to the serious injustices that were experienced by the Windrush generation.”

Related: Windrush: two years on, victims describe long waits and 'abysmal' payouts

Satbir Singh, the chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said campaigners had repeatedly warned the Home Office that hostile environment policies would lead to serious discrimination. He called on the government to repeal the hostile environment legislation. “Successive home secretaries ignored these warnings. Today’s landmark EHRC report confirms that this was not only dangerous, it was unlawful. The Home Office has for too long cared more about its reputation and its political objectives than the real-life consequences of its decisions on individuals.”

Halima Begum, director of the Runnymede Trust, said: “This latest report is yet more evidence of the discriminatory nature of the government’s hostile environment. The report’s findings are nothing short of a national scandal.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “This report highlights important areas for improvement by the Home Office, building on the work we are already doing in response to the Windrush Lessons Learned Review to apply a more rigorous approach to policymaking, increase openness to scrutiny, and create a more inclusive workforce – including by launching comprehensive training for everyone working in the Home Office to ensure they understand and appreciate the history of migration and race in this country. We are working closely with the EHRC on an action plan designed to ensure that we never make similar mistakes in the future.”

Critical Windrush and Hostile Environment reports

November 2020, EHRC report: Public Sector Equality Duty assessment of hostile environment policies.

The Home Office broke equalities law when it introduced its hostile environment immigration measures

September 2020, IPPR research paper: Access denied: The human impact of the hostile environment.

The “hostile environment” policy has fostered racism, pushed people into destitution and wrongly targeted people who are living in the UK legally. The measures also failed to achieve their key objective of increasing the numbers of people choosing voluntarily to leave the UK,

March 2020, Independent review into the causes of the Windrush scandal: Wendy Williams Lessons Learned Review.

The Home Office demonstrated an “ignorance and thoughtlessness” towards the issue of race and the history of the Windrush generation consistent with elements of the institutional racism. Warnings were repeatedly ignored. The scandal was “foreseeable and avoidable”, and came about in part because of “officials’ poor understanding of Britain’s colonial history”.

March 2019, public accounts committee report.

The Home Office made life-changing decisions based on incorrect data and, despite the Windrush scandal, remains complacent about its systemic and cultural problems. The Home Office displayed a lack of concern for the impacts of its immigration policies on people without documents,

December 2018 National Audit Office: “Handling of the Windrush situation”

Criticised officials for poor-quality data that wrongly classified people as illegal immigrants, the risky use of deportation targets, poor value for money offered by hostile environment policies, failure to respond to numerous warnings that the policies would hurt people living in the UK legally.

July 2018, home affairs committee: The Windrush Generation

Members of the “Windrush generation” have been treated as if they were in the country illegally despite being lawfully resident for many decades. People have lost their homes and their jobs and been refused healthcare, pensions and access to social security.

June 2018, Joint Committee on Human Rights: Windrush Generation Detention

We take the view that there was in all likelihood a systemic failure.