After living and working in the UK for more than 50 years, Mohammed Ali Hirsy was dismissed as a Housing Management Officer in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets in 2007 because he could not prove that he had the right to work in the country.
Stripped of the means to pay the £60,000 outstanding on his mortgage and fearing that immigration officers in his neighbourhood might send him to Kenya, where he was born, Mr Hirsy became a recluse. He is one of thousands of victims of the Windrush scandal — the systematic failure to recognise the right of many longstanding Commonwealth residents to live, work, rent property and use health services in the UK.
Yet, more than two years after Cabinet ministers apologised unreservedly for the mistreatment of the Windrush “generation”, 78-year-old Mr Hirsy and hundreds, or even thousands of other victims, have yet to receive compensation for the financial and other harm they suffered. According to the Home Office’s most recent figures, by the end of March this year, the scheme had paid out only £360,000.
Delays to Windrush compensation claims were highlighted by demonstrators in this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests against racism and police brutality. Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary, last month described progress as “just too slow”.
Critics say the slow progress reflects official indifference to the plight of the victims. Chai Patel, legal director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said the scheme, administered by the Home Office, lacked independence. He was particularly concerned that case workers had been told to demand some claimants made their case “beyond reasonable doubt” — a high standard that many will struggle to meet.
“The compensation scheme . . . has clearly failed and I think the government is to blame for that failure,” Mr Patel said.
But others say the delays are due to the painstaking process of resolving claims involving decades of evidence. Martin Forde, the barrister who designed the scheme for the Home Office, insisted that no programme handling such a complex range of claims could have processed large numbers in the short period since it opened in April last year.
“I don’t think the scheme is complicated from the users’ perspective,” Mr Forde said. “But it’s certainly complicated from the claim assessors’ perspective.”
But Mr Hirsy, who now has a UK passport, said the process had left him feeling “still in a limbo”. “It’s nine months since my application was lodged and I’ve rung them [the Home Office] in the last two months . . . about four, five times,” he said.
The Windrush scandal stems from the failure to document properly the automatic right of Commonwealth citizens who arrived before January 1, 1973 to stay indefinitely in the UK. The lack of documentation became progressively more pressing as successive governments imposed rules demanding that those renting property, applying for jobs or using the NHS to prove their immigration status.
A review published in March by Wendy Williams, a solicitor working for HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary, said it was still unclear how many people had been forcibly removed from the UK or had lost their jobs or access to healthcare because of the issue. The Home Office said it has so far issued identity documents to 12,000 people.
Anthony Bryan, who arrived in the UK from Jamaica aged eight in 1965, was twice taken into immigration detention in 2016 after applying for a UK passport. While he assumed his first detention was a mistake, only a last-minute legal appeal prevented him being forcibly removed to Jamaica after he was taken into custody a second time.
“What was frightening was that the last detention centre was at the airport, so I could see the planes leaving and taking off,” said Mr Bryan, sitting in his back garden in Edmonton, north London.
The subject of Sitting in Limbo, a BBC drama by his brother, Mr Bryan has so far received £20,000 in interim compensation. But it has mostly gone on legal bills and repaying money borrowed during three years when he was prevented from working.
He complained that Home Office officials continuously called him, rather than his lawyer, to question small items of paperwork. “I say: why do you phone me with stupidness like that?” he said.
Some victims have yet to secure even basic documentation. Kingsley Irons, a 75-year-old who recalls coming to the UK from Jamaica around 1950, was referred to Crisis, the homelessness charity in early 2018, because he was sleeping on the streets of Harrow, in north-west London. Lacking any identity documents and unable to prove his right to use public services, he had been sleeping rough for around 20 years.
Mr Irons is still waiting to receive his documents but it was clear on a visit to the supported accommodation that Crisis helped him to find in Edgware, north London, that his experience had left him very confused. “I had it rough, so rough,” he said.
Although Mr Forde praised the Home Office’s specialist vulnerable persons’ unit that handled Mr Irons’ case, Idris Ahmed, a Crisis case worker, said the government had removed far too few of the “barriers and difficulties” that made it difficult to resolve such people’s problems.
The Home Office, which is being investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission over whether it breached human rights legislation in the Windrush scandal, said it was processing claims “as quickly as possible”.
But it added: “Cases deserve to be processed individually, with the care and sensitivity they deserve, so that the maximum payment can be made to every single person.”
Meanwhile, Mr Hirsy, who was initially told — wrongly — by the Home Office’s Windrush helpline that the compensation was only for people from the Caribbean, is still waiting for a decision on the claim for £375,000 that his solicitors, Leigh Day, calculated the loss of his job had cost him.
“I think that if I do get any compensation, it will be paltry,” Mr Hirsy said.
But he hoped it would be enough to allow him to finally succeed in paying off his mortgage. “I would like to retire,” he said. “I’m hopefully trying to sell the house . . . and then move back to Kenya, go back and die there.”
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