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10 February 2020

Have ministers forgotten just what the problem with Windrush was?

The failure of immigration minister Kevin Foster to learn from past errors risks an even more politically damaging row over settled status for EU citizens. 

By Stephen Bush

One of the major reasons why the Home Office has ended so many political careers is that successive ministers and secretaries of state have found that the politician in Whitehall pulls levers: only for nothing to happen at the operational end.

That was one of the causes of the Windrush scandal and it ought to be the thing keeping Home Office ministers awake at night as EU citizens living in the United Kingdom apply for settled status: a status which, on paper, will provide EU citizens with a strong set of rights and protections. What happens if, when the aspiration of government policy means the reality of Home Office implementation, thousands of EU citizens find that they are being turned down for settled status when they really ought to have it?

While the Windrush scandal eventually caused political grief for the government and ended the Home Office tenure of Amber Rudd, if the implementation of settled status is botched, it has the potential to be far more damaging far more quickly. People at the sharp end of the Windrush scandal tended to be people nearing the end of their lives, with low levels of disposable income and few connections to the mainstream press. It took investigative journalism from the minority press and the Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman to bring the story to national prominence.

If settled status isn’t delivered effectively, then the victims will be people of working age, many of them well-connected across the political spectrum: the stakes of getting it wrong are a lot higher for the government. Part of getting it right is having ministers in place who understand what went wrong.

On today’s evidence, one minister who very much does not understand what went wrong is Kevin Foster, the relatively newly-installed minister for immigration. Opposition MPs are deeply concerned about the planned deportation of 50 people back to Jamaica under the 2007 UK Borders Act. They aren’t, for the most part, opposed to the deportation of foreign nationals born overseas or to deportations in general: the root of their concern is that at the heart of the Windrush scandal was the inability of the Home Office to distinguish between people with a long-standing right to be in the UK and those without. They fear that, as the independent report into the Windrush scandal has yet to be completed and published, there is no guarantee that the Home Office can say for certain that the people they are deporting are not British citizens.

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While junior ministers defending the government’s line don’t, in almost all cases, set the policy they are defending, how they go about defending it in the Commons is a pretty good guide to whether or not they have fully grasped their policy brief. Foster appeared to be completely unable to grasp the central issue – which is why, if I were a government working out how to put my best foot forward if there are any teething troubles with settled status, I’d be on the hunt for a different immigration minister next week.