It’s now six months since the Windrush debacle that ended Amber Rudd’s career – but does Theresa May recognise what went wrong? Andrew Marr sought to find out this morning, saying that a general apology was not enough: ‘There are apologies which say: “I’m sorry something bad happened”, and then there are apologies which say: “Do you know what? My policy – my policy – made these bad things happen, and my policy was wrong and I’m sorry for it.”’ So which was May’s? Here’s what she said:-
‘The point of the policy was to ensure that those people who were here in the United Kingdom illegally were identified, and that appropriate action was taken. What went wrong was that people from the Windrush generation, who were here legally, who had every right to be here, who had helped to build our great national institutions, found themselves unable to show that true documentation and got caught up in that.’
So she says the problem was that they didn’t have documentation. That’s incorrect. The problem was that they were asked for ridiculous amounts of documentation that they were never going to be able to provide. Documents that the government could have found for them, had it bothered, just by departments talking to one another. By asking people to demonstrate residential status for each and every year they’ve been in the country, the Home Office set a test that a great many ordinary British citizens simply could not pass: normal people tend not to keep such paperwork.
For those born abroad, this test – appallingly – led to them be categorised as illegal. So they were denied NHS care or even deported. It was an egregious example of system failure, of the Home Office bureaucratic mindset (which many link to Mrs May’s general modus operandi) going into hyperdrive, without a human touch, at any level, to recognise what was going wrong and stop it.
And yet there was not a hint of culpability from the Prime Minister, when she was asked – repeatedly – what went wrong. (The full transcript of the interview is here.) So how should she have answered the question? Here’s Sajid Javid, her Home Secretary:-
‘When that individual comes into contact with the system and says, “Okay, I need to get some documentation to prove my status”, the system puts the entire burden of proof on the individual… The system says, “You’ve got to prove that”. The Home Office is obviously a big part of the public sector and has easy access to DWP records, school records and, as you say, the Treasury and HMRC. It does not do that; it puts the entire burden on you.’
He’s quite right: that’s what went wrong. Not the people. The system. And, as Marr rightly put it, her system.
It was brutal stuff, but I think Marr was right to drill down and find out if she accepts that the system she presided over was at fault. Admitting mistakes does not come easily to her. As this morning’s interview demonstrated.