On 23rd April, I spoke in response to the Home Secretary’s statement on Windrush in the House of Commons, emphasising the status of the Windrush generation as British citizens. I also raised the issues facing other Commonwealth citizens, who have temporary or indefinite leave to remain. You can watch my speech here. I said:
The Home Secretary will appreciate that everybody in the Caribbean is there because Britain and other European countries brought them from Africa to the Caribbean. That is the whole point of the Caribbean region. I and others are in this country because our parents were born under the British empire. When she says that people can apply for citizenship if they want it, does she understand that that citizenship was theirs all along? We, as West Indian and Caribbean, have given so much, over so many hundreds of years.
I welcome, of course, what the Home Secretary has said today, but I remind her that many others were also born under the empire. They are from countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Nigeria, Ghana and Uganda. Many of these people have temporary leave to remain or indefinite leave to remain. It is unfair; they were born under empire; many have been here for generations. So in her review and in looking closely at policy, will she look particularly at all those Commonwealth people? If the Commonwealth is to mean anything, it is to mean common wealth.
On 26th April, I spoke at the Urgent Question tabled by the Shadow Home Secretary regarding the use of removal targets in the Home Office. You can watch my speech here. I said:
I asked the Home Secretary at the last urgent question how many people had been deported. She said she did not know. I asked her how many people had been imprisoned in their own country. She said she did not know. There are impact statements that have been ignored. There are letters from MPs, and she said she was not aware of a pattern. We now understand that people have been removed because of targets, and she said she did not know. I say with all conscience: is she really the right person to lead this office of state?
On 30th April I spoke in the Westminster Hall debate on the Windrush petition, drawing the link between the history of the British empire, colonialism and slavery and the situation facing Windrush citizens in Britain today and the hostile environment. You can watch my speech here.
Here is what I said:
It is a dark episode in our nation’s history that this petition was even required. It is a dark day indeed that we are here in Parliament having to stand up for the rights of people who have always given so much to this country and expected so little in return. We need to remember our history at this moment. In Britain, when we talk about slavery we tend to talk about its abolition, and in particular William Wilberforce.
The Windrush story does not begin in 1948; the Windrush story begins in the 17th century, when British slave traders stole 12 million Africans from their homes, took them to the Caribbean and sold them into slavery to work on plantations. The wealth of this country was built on the backs of the ancestors of the Windrush generation. We are here today because you were there.
My ancestors were British subjects, but they were not British subjects because they came to Britain. They were British subjects because Britain came to them, took them across the Atlantic, colonised them, sold them into slavery, profited from their labour and made them British subjects. That is why I am here, and it is why the Windrush generation are here.
There is no British history without the history of the empire. As the late, great Stuart Hall put it: “I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea.”
The Windrush children are imprisoned in this country—as we have seen of those who have been detained—centuries after their ancestors were shackled and taken across the ocean in slave ships. They are pensioners imprisoned in their own country. That is a disgrace, and it happened here because of a refusal to remember our history.
Last week, at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister said that “we…owe it to them and to the British people”.The former Home Secretary said that the Windrush generation should be considered British and should be able to get their British citizenship if they so choose. This is the point the Government simply do not understand: the Windrush generation are the British people. They are British citizens. They came here as citizens. That is the precise reason why this is such an injustice. Their British citizenship is, and has always been, theirs by right. It is not something that the Government can now choose to grant them.
I remind the Government of chapter 56 of the British Nationality Act 1948, which says:“Every person who under this Act is a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies…shall by virtue of that citizenship have the status of a British subject.”
I read that Bill again last week when looking over the case notes of my constituents caught up in the Windrush crisis. Patrick Henry is a British citizen who arrived in Britain in 1959. He is a teaching assistant. He told me, “I feel like a prisoner who has committed no crime,” because he is being denied citizenship. Clive Smith, a British citizen who arrived here in 1964, showed the Home Office his school reports and was still threatened with deportation.
Rosario Wilson is a British citizen with no right to be here because Saint Lucia became independent in 1979. Wilberforce Sullivan is a British citizen who paid taxes for 40 years. He was told in 2011 that he was no longer able to work. Dennis Laidley is a British citizen with tax records going back to the 1960s. He was denied a passport and was unable to visit his sick mother. Jeffrey Greaves, a British citizen who arrived here in 1964, was threatened with deportation by the Home Office. Cecile Laurencin, a British citizen with 44 years of national insurance contribution to this country, payslips and bank account details, had her application for naturalisation rejected. Huthley Sealey, a British citizen, is unable to claim benefits or access healthcare in this country. Mark Balfourth, a British citizen who arrived here in 1962 aged 7, was refused access to benefits.
The Windrush generation have waited for too long for rights that are theirs. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over. There comes a time when the burden of living like a criminal in one’s own country becomes too heavy to bear any longer. That is why in the last few weeks we have seen an outpouring of pain and grief that had built up over many years. Yet Ministers have tried to conflate the issue with illegal immigration. On Thursday, the former Home Secretary said she was personally committed to tackling illegal migration, to making it difficult for illegal migrants to live here and to removing people who are here illegally.
During her statement last Thursday, the former Home Secretary said “illegal” 23 times but did not even once say “citizen”. This is not about illegal immigration. This is about British citizens, and frankly it is deeply offensive to conflate the Windrush generation with illegal immigrants to try to distract from the Windrush crisis. This is about a hostile environment policy that blurs the line between illegal immigrants and people who are here legally, and are even British citizens. This is about a hostile environment not just for illegal immigrants but for anybody who looks like they could be an immigrant. This is about a hostile environment that has turned employers, doctors, landlords and social workers into border guards.
The hostile environment is not about illegal immigration. Increasing leave to remain fees by 238% in four years is not about illegal immigration. The Home Office making profits of 800% on standard applications is not about illegal immigration. The Home Office sending back documents unrecorded by second-class post, so that passports, birth certificates and education certificates get lost, is not about illegal immigration. Charging teenagers £2,033 every 30 months for limited leave to remain is not about illegal immigration.
Banning refugees and asylum seekers from working and preventing them from accessing public funds is not about illegal immigration. Sending nine immigration enforcement staff to arrest my constituent because the Home Office lost his documents is not about illegal immigration. Locking my constituent up in Yarl’s Wood, meaning she missed her midwifery exams, is not about illegal immigration. Denying legal aid to migrants who are here legally is not about illegal immigration. Changing the terms of young asylum seekers’ immigration bail so that they cannot study is not about illegal immigration. Sending immigration enforcement staff to a church in my constituency that was serving soup to refugees is not about illegal immigration.
I quote Martin Luther King, who himself quoted St Augustine, when he said that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
I say to the Minister, warm words mean nothing. Guarantee these rights and enshrine them in law as soon as possible, and review the hostile environment that turns everybody in this country who is different into someone who is potentially illegal. Some 230 years after those in the abolitionist movement wore their medallions around their necks, I stand here as a Caribbean, black, British citizen and I ask the Minister, on behalf of those Windrush citizens, am I not a man and a brother?
On 2nd May, I spoke in the Windrush Generation Debate in Parliament, regarding the devastating effects of the Government’s Hostile Environment policy and its effects on people throughout Britain. I explained that it is a stain on our democracy, and a symptom of the Government’s deference to far-right sentiment. You can watch my speech here. I said:
At its heart this motion is about the hostile environment, and that is why so many of us are here this afternoon. The Home Secretary has committed himself to a “fair and humane” immigration policy. In my view, it is not possible to have a fair and humane immigration policy alongside the hostile environment. That is a paradox and a total contradiction in terms. He has said that he wants to move from a hostile environment to a compliant environment. Let us think about what compliant means.
Compliant means to obey rules to an excessive degree. Compliant means the action or fact of complying with a command. I say to the new Home Secretary: has he forgotten our history? I remind the House that I am here because you were there. I say “you” metaphorically. The Windrush generation are here because of slavery. The Windrush story is the story of British empire. And the Windrush community and its ancestors know what hostile and compliance mean. We know what compliance means. It is written deep into our souls and passed down from our ancestors. Slaves having to nod and smile when they were being whipped in a cotton field or a sugar cane field were compliant. Watching your partner being tied to a tree, beaten or raped on a plantation is compliance. Twelve million people being transported as slaves from Africa to the colonies is a compliant environment.
Windrush citizens being abused, spat on and assaulted in the street but never once fighting back was a compliant environment. Black Britons being racially abused at work but never speaking up because they need to put food on the table know all about a compliant environment. Turning the other cheek when the National Front were marching through our streets was a compliant environment. Young black men being stopped and searched by the police, despite committing no crime and living in fear of the police, know what it is like to be in a compliant environment. And thank God that Doreen Lawrence defied that compliant environment.
I want to make it absolutely clear that it is my view that this belief about a compliant environment goes all the way back to the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. This Parliament provided compensation, worth £17 billion today and paid for by the British taxpayer, to the 46,000 British slave owners for the loss of their property. The slaves got nothing. And now their descendants are being shackled and chained, dragged on to deportation flights and sent back across the same ocean that Britain took their ancestors from in slave ships centuries ago.
I stood in this place five years ago and warned about the impact of the hostile environment. I told the then Home Secretary that her Bill was a stain on our democracy. In recent weeks, we have seen how the Windrush scandal has become a stain on our democracy and on our national conscience. I warned about the impact of a policy that would take us back to the days of “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs.” I stood in this place five years ago and read from Magna Carta, the foundation of our democracy, which says:
“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled…nor will we proceed with force against him…except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.”
We [have] heard testimony from British citizens who have been seized and imprisoned, who have been stripped of their rights, who have been outlawed or exiled, and who have been treated like criminals in their own country. So I ask the Minister: how many more Windrush scandals do we need before this hostile environment, or indeed compliant environment, is scrapped? How many more injustices? How many more lives ruined? Because I will be back here in five years’ time if we continue down this road to great injustices in our own country.
In recent weeks, we have seen so many Government Ministers and Members of the House talk about the issue of illegal immigration, conflating illegal immigration and the Windrush crisis. This is symptomatic of the hostile environment and its corrosive impact. What we have seen in this House, with Members standing up to talk about illegal immigration, is a perfect metaphor for the hostile environment and how it works: a blurring of the lines between people who are here legally and illegal immigrants, scapegoating innocent people, and blaming immigrants for the failures of successive Governments. Toxic anti-immigrant rhetoric created the demand for the hostile environment. Then we got a divisive policy handed down by our current Prime Minister, pandering to prejudice and aided and abetted by a hateful dog whistle emanating from our tabloid press. This was all reinforced by politicians too craven to speak the truth about immigration and too cowardly to stand up for the rights of minorities. Conservative Members want to lecture us about illegal immigration. The hostile environment is not about illegal immigration. The hostile environment is about raising questions about the status of anybody who looks like they could be an immigrant. It is about treating anybody who looks like they could be an immigrant as if they are a criminal.
Where does the hostile environment get us to? Let me tell you. It leads to cases in my own constituency of people being dragged out of their homes, going to Yarl’s Wood, and not able to do midwifery exams. It leads to people losing their jobs and their livelihoods. So I say to Conservative Members and Members across this House, on behalf of the Windrush generation: keep in mind that spiritual and let freedom reign. It will only reign when this country turns back from the path it is on, ends the compliant environment in which I know my place, and starts along a humane path that has at its heart human rights.