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Windrush progress report shows too many lessons aren’t being learned

Windrush progress report shows too many lessons aren’t being learned

How is the Home Office doing with implementing the lessons it is supposed to have learned from the Windrush scandal? In March 2020, the independent Wendy Williams review of the department called for root and branch reform; the Home Secretary said that she accepted all 30 recommendations in full. 18 months later, Ms Williams returned to check up on things and has now published a “progress update“. It, like the original report, is structured in five themes.

Theme 1: righting the wrongs and learning from the past

The original review called for a

programme of reconciliation events with members of the Windrush generation. These would enable people who have been affected to articulate the impact of the scandal on their lives, in the presence of trained facilitators and/or specialist services and senior Home Office staff and ministers so that they can listen and reflect on their stories.

No reconciliation events have taken place yet.

It is… disappointing that at the time of writing this report, almost two years after the [original review] was published, no formal reconciliation events have taken place (Recommendation 3).

Nor has there been proper training for staff on legislation and policy history, history of migration and avoiding duplication when obtaining information.

I was disappointed to find that the learning programme agreed in response to Recommendation 6 has yet to be finalised and rolled out. There is clear evidence of the department’s commitment to developing this training but, by December 2021, it was still at the pilot stage, in contrast to the [Comprehensive Improvement Plan]’s aim to have it in place for all staff by June 2021.

There is quite a lot of criticism of the Windrush Compensation Scheme, for example, on complexity and failure to communicate effectively with claimants.

… I met a number of dedicated members of staff. However, concerns about the quality of casework persist, as the results of my external call for evidence and the various external reviews of the scheme indicate. Although I examined a small sample of cases, the review showed that there remain inconsistencies in the way that claims are considered and progressed, which does not improve the experience of claimants. This, in turn, can affect the public’s perception of the scheme.

 Theme 2: a more compassionate approach

There’s still been no review of the whole hostile / compliant environment policy.

Given its central significance to the Windrush scandal and the workings of the department, the failure to complete the review of the compliant environment policy will fundamentally hamper the department’s efforts to learn lessons and move on constructively. The department should therefore be vigilant in completing these recommendations without further delay to ensure that its strong formative work is established across the whole organisation.

Junior, not senior, Home Office staff are leading change.

The results from my internal engagement with members of staff provided further insight. While many participants spoke with enthusiasm about local examples where individual teams had introduced initiatives aimed at improving their interaction with the public, the overall perception was that the momentum for adopting a more compassionate approach was being driven from the grassroots, rather than in a structured way across the department. This level of frontline ownership is impressive and encouraging. But, as I’ve noted elsewhere, the department needs to build on this enthusiasm by identifying and scaling up local good practice, as well as integrating it into existing training and development programmes, so that local contributions can be recognised, and the benefits can be experienced across the organisation.

Theme 3: robust and inclusive policy-making

One of the reasons for the lack of progress is that the department “continues to work at pace on highly contentious and politicised policies”, which absorbs a lot of time, energy and resources.

The department continues to work at pace on highly contentious and politicised policies, so it is the responsibility of senior leaders to work at a faster pace. They must also create a culture that provides officials with the time and the permission to develop and apply their knowledge, skills, systems and processes to the way policy is designed, implemented, monitored and improved.

The Home Office is talking the talk. Not so much with walking the walk.

Overall, the recommendations under this theme reflect a notable level of ambition by the department for policy making which would, if achieved, provide compelling evidence of both a cultural and professional shift in the organisation. However, there is limited evidence that the positive developments are being consistently translated into tangible effects across the department. The recommendations are all currently in their formative stages, with limited progress in many of the examples. In others, the plans and timescales for coordinating the policy-making framework are not yet clear. A few of the recommendations show little or no progress.

Training for senior officials on how to advise ministers on how to make “lawful and effective decisions” hasn’t yet happened, and there had been no engagement with ministers or political teams on this.

As of the end of February 2022, the programme had not yet gone live, so it is not possible to assess whether it might contribute to wider cultural and systemic change. But, without much more work, the learning content from the pilot may fail to address the issues set out in the [original review]…

It mentioned several barriers to providing candid advice that seem to require additional action, over and above the learning provision. But there was no evidence of any engagement with ministers and political teams to understand their own roles and responsibilities, expectations and approach…

Overall, this is extremely disappointing. Recommendation 24, alongside my other learning and development recommendations (Recommendations 6, 11, and 29), is fundamental to achieving the cultural shift the department needs, particularly as its mandatory nature makes it one of the few recommendations that should reach all members of the SCS. Therefore, this recommendation is not met.

Theme 4: openness to scrutiny

The Home Office has rejected the idea of a proper statutory Migrants’ Commissioner and proposes to downgrade it to “chair of an existing advisory group with an extended membership to cover a wider range of interested parties”. Ms Williams seems to be broadly OK with this.

If appointed in future, the Migrants’ Commissioner could still play an important role in helping the Home Office better appreciate the impact of policies on different migrant groups. It would be a powerful indicator of the department’s commitment to transparency, openness to scrutiny and to achieving the wider cultural and systemic changes that it accepts are necessary. I would urge the department to build on the work already done and implement this recommendation.

The Home Office has not really reviewed the powers of the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration: the department’s Comprehensive Improvement Plan “does not, in my view, adequately reflect Recommendation 10”. The proposals that the plan does contain might actually be a backward step:

I am concerned by the CIP’s suggestion that the measure of success of the inspector (rather than the department) would be the number of recommendations implemented and the timescale in which they complete their reports (page 42). While these factors may improve the efficiency of the ICIBI, this assertion fails to place responsibility for improvement where it should lie – namely on the inspected body itself, rather than the inspectorate. If adopted, the suggested measures could reduce the independence and scrutiny function of the ICIBI.

There are grand plans for an Independent Complaints Examiner and other changes to complaints mechanisms. But they haven’t been implemented yet.

I am informed that an Independent Complaints Examiner is expected to be appointed by spring 2022. In my view, notwithstanding the challenges presented by COVID-19 over the last two years, this could and should have been completed (in accordance with the public appointments) much sooner. I therefore conclude that Recommendation 20 is not met.

Revision of the risk management framework (“potential risks to the public, as well as reputational and delivery risks”) has been done, although it is too early to say whether it will really work.

Overall, I consider that the approach taken to Recommendation 23 shows examples of good practice for the department to follow, in terms of design and roll-out. Although the evidence suggests that the framework is not yet embedded, I have a greater degree of confidence that the department will take the necessary steps to do so, given the work it has done so far. To be fully effective, the system should also be more integrated into day-to day-activities and incorporate risks flagged during case reviews, appeals, judicial reviews and other decisions. If developed in this way, the department will have implemented both the letter and spirit of my recommendation. I therefore conclude that the recommendation is met.

Theme 5: a more inclusive workforce

The department is not doing terribly well on workforce diversity either: while it is meeting its “aspiration” for ethnic minority staff overall, “the number of black, Asian and minority ethnic staff represented at the SCS [Senior Civil Service] level has decreased since 2018”. It is doing better on gender and disability than on race at senior levels.

The lack of progress on improving the representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic staff at senior levels (in accordance with legislative provisions) remains a real concern. The general view is that neither the understanding of race across the department nor the prevailing culture has changed since my original report was published.

But there is a new Strategic Race Board which sounds like it is doing good work.

The Strategic Race Board represents a strong foundation on which the department can now build, but it has only been in place for a year. There are some positive examples where the board has already added value, including its input in developing the Race Action Plan. A next step would be systematising opportunities for the board to inform policy making and to help improve organisational practice. This would be supported by a delivery plan with specific milestones and measures for success. As one person I spoke to said, “the real challenge is the outcomes”.

Conclusion

In the conclusion, Ms Williams commends the Home Office for commissioning the review. She highlights there has been very good progress in some areas:

for example: in relation to the department’s outreach programme (Recommendation 4), aspects of the development and roll-out of training in relation to immigration history and the PSED (Recommendations 11 and 12), establishing the department’s mission, purpose and values and the wider transformation programme (Recommendations 14 and 15), and improving aspects of operational practice (Recommendation 17) and the department’s approach to risk management (Recommendations 22 and 23). There are now also structures in place which should provide appropriate levels of oversight of the department in the future, such as the Strategic Race Board (Recommendation 27).

But there are some serious stumbling blocks to real progress as well:

There are three areas that I regard as significant future risks:

  • the first is the lack of progress in appointing a Migrants’ Commissioner (Recommendation 9)
  • linked to the first, the second is the apparent lack of progress in the way the department engages with its public at all levels, and demonstrates the highest standards of service delivery (Recommendations 3, 4, 5 and 8)
  • the third is a lack of progress in implementing the department’s formal learning and development programme (Recommendations 6, 4 and 29)

She ends by suggesting the Home Office is at a tipping point.

In many respects, I believe the department is at a tipping point. It can maintain its momentum and drive the initiatives forward to achieve the systemic and cultural changes required in such a way that they become part of ‘what we do here’, or it can settle for a situation where it loses impetus, direction and focus, in which event it runs the risk that it may only be a matter of time before it faces another ‘difficult outcome’, with all that that entails.

Comment

The terrible policy-making we’re seeing around the Nationality and Borders Bill (it’s nasty, to be sure, but it won’t work on its own terms) suggests that the Home Office has not learned the lessons of Windrush.

Is this the fault of politicians, civil servants or both? Probably the latter. Priti Patel is ultimately accountable, but I doubt that civil servants properly advised her that none of the measures in the Borders Bill will actually reduce small boat crossings in the real world. The Home Office as an institution seems just as invested as the Home Secretary in the idea of punishing refugees in order to deter arrival. It has never worked (despite exhaustive testing by successive Home Secretaries).

What did “work” (at the cost of refugee lives) was the securitisation and externalisation of the border by David Blunkett around 2002, after which the numbers of refugees making clandestine journeys fell sharply. Membership of the European Union and its Dublin asylum system may also have had some effect, although that is questionable given the low numbers of removals. Both these policies required close co-operation with neighbours. Perhaps civil servants know this, although I have my doubts.

An optimistic view might be that lessons can be and are being learned on the treatment of resident migrants and minority ethnic British citizens. The evidence is weak and it is early days.

The treatment of newly arriving migrants is utterly appalling. Even though they will ultimately stay in the country, whether ministers, civil servants or the public like it or not. It is really hard to remove people against their will (just 203 failed asylum seekers in the year to September 2021) and even harder to force them to “self-deport”.

What we really need is a wholesale re-evaluation of immigration policy. But there is no sign of that happening at all.

Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.