Amber Rudd's 10 days of contrition for Windrush scandal - The Guardian

A four-apology bonanza seems to have staved off the home secretary’s personal crisis – for now

Amber Rudd in Downing Street

By the time she stood up on Thursday to make her fourth apology for the Windrush fiasco in the space of 10 days, Amber Rudd’s contrition over the victims of the scandal was becoming quite familiar.

The Windrush generation “are legally here”, she said (again). People “who contributed so much … should never have experienced what they have”.

But the intensity of her contrition has fluctuated markedly from day to day during this rapidly unfurling crisis. Her initial position of total indifference to the series of disturbing accounts published in the Guardian over the past six months morphed into a position of professional political regret. This came only after anger exploded when Downing Street rebuffed Caribbean leaders’ request for a meeting with the prime minister to discuss the scandal.

During her first appearance in the Commons last Monday, Rudd was calm and professional. At this point, she was merely “recognising the concerns” of “some” people in the Windrush generation and her apology was more grudging than heartfelt. “I am very sorry for any confusion or anxiety felt,” was as far as she would go – although it was already known that at least one person’s death had been attributed to the stress of trying to secure documents. Dozens more had their lives ruined by problems connected with their paperless state – denied cancer treatment, sacked, made homeless, prevented from travelling to see dying parents in the Caribbean.

Despite her cautious remorse, she did in passing describe her department’s treatment of the Windrush group of long-term, Caribbean-born British residents as “appalling”, admitting that their testimonies had been “terrible to hear”.

She made an extraordinarily important admission in that first appearance, saying she was “concerned that the Home Office has become too concerned with policy and strategy and sometimes loses sight of the individual”. This comment was not linked directly to the Windrush fiasco – she seemed to be making a point about the behaviour of the department in general, recognising that problems were widespread. It is a statement that she should be held to over the next few months.

The following week, unexpectedly, she turned up her emotional volume to maximum so that real anguish could be heard in her voice as she acknowledged that all MPs must have been reading the “recent heartbreaking” stories of individuals who have been in the country for decades “struggling to navigate an immigration system in a way that they should never, ever have had to”. Rudd herself had apparently not been reading accounts of these cases until a week earlier, but they were certainly on her agenda now.

“These people worked here for decades. In many cases, they helped to establish the National Health Service. They paid their taxes and enriched our culture. They are British in all but legal status and this should never have been allowed to happen. Both the prime minister and I have apologised to those affected and I am personally committed to resolving this situation with urgency and purpose.”

That was on Monday; by Wednesday, called to answer questions at the home affairs select committee, she was forced to account for her puzzlingly slow decision to pay attention to these cases. “I deeply regret that I did not see it as more than individual cases that had gone wrong and that needed addressing. I did not see it as a systemic issue until very recently,” she said. “I look back with hindsight and I am surprised I did not see the shape of it sooner. Unfortunately I did not.”

It’s puzzling that she didn’t; she paid tribute to the work of the Guardian in exposing this – which suggests that she read some of the articles, which quoted Caribbean diplomats speculating that thousands could have been affected and also revealed that the Migration Observatory at Oxford University estimated that around 50... currently in the UK, who arrived before 1971, may not yet have regularised their residency status. Many left the Caribbean when their islands were still British colonies and considered themselves to be British. If she really read the articles, the possible scale was clearly set out.

She blamed herself and her department for their slow response, she said. She had asked for “some advice” before the scandal exploded on Monday 16 April, with a letter signed by 140 crossbench MPs and diplomatic anger over the snub to the Caribbean leaders. “I believe the Home Office was beginning to move into action, but too slowly and too late,” she said.

In her latest appearance in the Commons, summoned to an urgent question on Home Office deportationsby the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, she was more brusque, keen to get through the by now pro forma apology and focus on the issue that Theresa May believes plays best with Conservative voters – illegal immigration. A well-choreographed sequence of Tory MPs lined up to move the focus away from the scandal of Windrush.

But the tough language was tempered with another very significant announcement: her desire to introduce a “compassionate, clear and informed approach to immigration” and to put in a more “personal system” for applicants.

If a newly compassionate immigration system is the outcome of the Windrush fiasco, then that will be a remarkably positive thing.

Rudd’s announcement was overshadowed by ongoing calls for her resignationfrom the Labour frontbench and by her stark failure to either know or want to reveal the government’s position on immigration deportation targets. But it is a significant one, and even as an aspiration which is ultimately unlikely to materialise, a compassionate, more personalised system is still a good thing to be aiming for.

Immigration experts were muted in their excitement about the announcement, pointing out that without repealing all the various strands of hostile environment legislation, it will be hard to introduce much compassion into a system that is designed primarily to reduce net migration.

Where does the crisis go from here? There are too many angry Windrush victims and too many huge unanswered questions for the Home Office’s difficulties to be over. There is unease about the telephone helpline and there is uncertainty about how officials are going to meet their commitment to resolving all cases within two weeks of evidence being lodged. The two-week target has echoes of the three-week promise to rehouse Grenfell victims; some are still in hotels and temporary accommodation almost a year later.

Everyone affected is wondering how compensation will be calculated. One woman said she would need to be repaid for three years’ lost earnings in a middle management job – a total of well over £60,000.. “I had three new job offers in that time and I wasn’t able to take any of them up. I am still paying back thousands in rent arrears because of that. How do you calculate compensation for the hours I sat waiting to talk to someone in the Home Office? I couldn’t visit my mother when she was dying in Barbados. How do you calculate that in money? I don’t even know where my mum is buried,” she said.

With her four-apology bonanza, Rudd seems to have staved off her personal career crisis for the moment, but there is little doubt in the mind of anyone who has looked at the roots of the Windrush scandal about who was really responsible.

Conservative ministers keep embarking on the undignified buck-passing routine, as they attempt to shift the blame to Labour, but the roots of all the “heartbreaking” Windrush stories lie clearly with the introduction by May of her flagship hostile immigration environment.

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