The Home Office could face pressure to change some of its most contentious immigration policies after the UK’s equalities watchdog mounted an investigation into how far the department’s “hostile environment” policies breached its race equality obligations.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission announced on Friday that it was using its legal powers to assess whether the department had complied with its obligations under the Equality Act 2006 when it introduced the policies, intended to make life for undocumented migrants so hard that they would leave the UK.
Friday’s announcement comes after Priti Patel, home secretary, on Thursday hit back after a group of Labour MPs accused her of using her Indian heritage to “gaslight other minority communities”.
The hostile environment policy has been widely blamed for fuelling the Windrush scandal, under which Commonwealth immigrants who had the right to live in the UK were denied healthcare, put in immigration detention centres and even removed from the UK because they could not prove their status.
The term “hostile environment” was first used to describe immigration policies under the 1997-2010 Labour government but the policies became far tougher under the 2014 and 2016 immigration acts, which put pressure on landlords and employers to vet whether potential tenants or employees had the right to be in the UK.
Recent home secretaries have preferred to refer to a “compliant environment”, although the legislation involved remains in force.
David Isaac, chairman of the EHRC, said the Windrush scandal and hostile environment policies had “cast a shadow” across the UK and its values.
“We are working with the Home Office to determine what must change so that this shameful period of our history is not repeated,” Mr Isaac said.
Public bodies, including government departments, are obliged under the Equalities Act to consider how their policies affect people with a range of nine “protected characteristics”, including their age, race, religion, gender and sexuality. The review will examine how far the department considered the impact of the hostile environment on the Windrush generation when it introduced the policies.
An EHRC investigation can offer recommendations for a department on how to change its policies to fulfil its Equalities Act obligations better.
The Home Office said the home secretary was “determined” to do all she could to right the wrongs experienced by the Windrush generation — the pre-1973 immigrants who suffered as a result of the scandal. She also wanted to ensure the Home Office protected and listened to every part of the community it served, the department said.
The EHRC acted after a “lessons learned” review of the Windrush scandal, published in March, said “fundamental changes” were needed to avoid future such scandals and that race “clearly played a part” in what happened.
Ms Patel, whose Indian parents fled from Uganda in the 1960s, received a letter from 31 Labour MPs from black and minority ethnic backgrounds criticising her response to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
The home secretary has spoken out at the way a “mob” in Bristol tore down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston, causing “criminal damage in our streets”.
The letter from Labour MPs argued that being a person of colour did not automatically make Ms Patel “an authority on all forms of racism”.
The MPs called on Ms Patel to reflect on her words and consider the impact they had towards “black communities in the UK trying to highlight their voices against racism”.
The letter was sent by Naz Shah, shadow ministry for community cohesion, and was signed by other MPs including Diane Abbott, Valerie Vaz and Dawn Butler.
Ms Patel published the letter on Twitter and said she would not be “silenced” by those who disagreed. The Labour MPs had dismissed her contributions because she did not “conform to their view of how ethnic minorities should behave”, she said.
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