PMQs review: Theresa May’s attack on Labour over the Windrush generation doesn’t stand up

Immigrant landing cards only became essential because of the “hostile environment” introduced by May as home secretary. 

NS

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Theresa May began today’s Prime Minister’s Questions in contrite fashion. “I want to apologise,” May said of the government’s careless treatment of the Windrush generation, adding that she was “sorry” to anyone who had faced “confusion or anxiety”.

But it was not long before the Prime Minister went on the offensive. When Jeremy Corbyn asked whether it was May, as home secretary, who ordered the destruction of the migrants’ landing cards, she acidly replied: “No, the decision to destroy the landing cards was taken in 2009 under a Labour government.”

Tory MPs roared with delight and demanded that Corbyn apologise (though he, of course, was never in government). The Labour leader, it became clear, had not had not prepared for this scenario. Corbyn persisted, demanding “absolute clarity” on the destruction of the landing cards and warning May not to “blame officials”. But the Prime Minister merely repeated that they were destroyed under Labour (No 10, however, later clarified that it was an “operational decision” taken by the UK Border Force, not by a Laboour home secretary. Worse for May, the specific decision was taken in October 2010, when she was in office, not 2009).

There is, in fact, a strong riposte to May but Corbyn was not quick enough to deliver it. The landing cards only became essential documents for immigrants because of the “hostile environment” that May imposed. Under this policy, migrants who wish to take up work, rent property, receive healthcare or claim social security are required to produce voluminous evidence that they are legal residents. They are, in effect, deemed guilty until proven innocent. The overriding aim is to force migrants to leave as they prove either unwilling or unable to contend with this bureaucratic ordeal.

But in the House of Commons, this point was lost. To the surprise of many, May ended the session in a stronger position than she started it. But the story has further to run. The Prime Minister also claimed that Albert Thompson, the migrant whose case Corbyn raised last month, had been granted urgent cancer treatment by the NHS (having previously been ordered to pay £54,000). But, via the Guardian, Thompson swiftly responded that he had received no such assurance.

May and Corbyn’s exchanges ended with the Prime Minister declaring: “I will not take an accusation of callousness from a man who allows anti-Semitism to run rife in his party.” As she spoke, Dawn Butler, the shadow women’s and equalities minister, cried: “What about the N-word from your MP?” (May restored the whip to Anne Marie Morris despite her reference to the “nigger in the woodpile”).

Neither party emerged well from these exchanges. But the sight of Tory MPs barracking Corbyn over anti-Semitism with partisan glee was one reminder of why Westminster is held in such low repute.

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.