The Home Office destroyed thousands of landing card slips recording Windrush immigrants’ arrival dates in the UK, despite staff warnings that the move would make it harder to check the records of older Caribbean-born residents experiencing residency difficulties.
A former Home Office employee said the records, stored in the basement of a government tower block, were a vital resource for case workers when they were asked to find information about someone’s arrival date in the UK from the West Indies – usually when the individual was struggling to resolve immigration status problems.
Although the home secretary, Amber Rudd, has promised to make it easier for Windrush-generation residents to regularise their status, the destruction of the database is likely to make the process harder, even with the support of the new taskforce announced this week.
What is the Windrush deportation crisis?
Who are the Windrush generation?
They are people who arrived in the UK after the second world war from Caribbean countries at the invitation of the British government. The first group arrived on the ship MV Empire Windrush in June 1948.
What is happening to them?
An estimated 50,000 people face the risk of deportation if they never formalised their residency status and do not have the required documentation to prove it.
Why is this happening now?
It stems from a policy, set out by Theresa May when she was home secretary, to make the UK ‘a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants’. It requires employers, NHS staff, private landlords and other bodies to demand evidence of people’s citizenship or immigration status.
Why do they not have the correct paperwork and status?
Some children, often travelling on their parents’ passports, were never formally naturalised and many moved to the UK before the countries in which they were born became independent, so they assumed they were British. In some cases, they did not apply for passports. The Home Office did not keep a record of people entering the country and granted leave to remain, which was conferred on anyone living continuously in the country since before 1 January 1973.
What is the government doing to resolve the problem?
On Monday, the home secretary Amber Rudd announced the creation of a new Home Office team dedicated to ensuring that Commonwealth-born long-term UK residents would no longer find themselves classified as being in the UK illegally.
The former employee (who has asked for his name not to be printed) said it was decided in 2010 to destroy the disembarkation cards, which dated back to the 1950s and 60s, when the Home Office’s Whitgift Centre in Croydon was closed and the staff were moved to another site. Employees in his department told their managers it was a bad idea, because these papers were often the last remaining record of a person’s arrival date, in the event of uncertainty or lost documents. The files were destroyed in October that year, when Theresa May was home secretary.
A person’s arrival date is crucial to a citizenship application, because the 1971 Immigration Act gave people who had already moved to Britain indefinite leave to remain.
When staff were asked to find evidence of an arrival from the Caribbean or other former colonies and had difficulty tracing any other records, senior officers would request the key to the basement of the neighbouring building and consult the landing cards. They recorded the names, dates of arrival and in some cases the name of the ship.
“Sometimes the Passport Office would call up, and people would say: ‘I’ll look in the basement,’” the ex-employee said.
After the destruction of the archive, when an individual requested confirmation of an arrival date, staff had to reply stating there was no record of it.
From around 2013 onwards, he said, the number of requests from people from the Caribbean began to increase.
“Every week or two, someone would say: ‘I’ve got another one here,’” he said. “People were writing to say: ‘I’ve been here 45 years, I’ve never had a passport, I’ve never needed a passport. Now I’m being told I’m not British, because there is no record of me’.
“Because it was no longer possible to search in the archive of landing cards, people would be sent a standard letter that would state: ‘We have searched our records, we can find no trace of you in our files.’”
Immigration lawyers have repeatedly criticised the Home Office’s insistence that it is up to individuals to provide copious evidence proving their right to be in the UK. If UK officials had kept a record of everyone granted indefinite leave to remain, they say, the problem would never have arisen.
Less than a month ago, responding to concern over NHS refusal to grant cancer treatment to Albert Thompson, the prime minister said he “needed to evidence his settled status”.
The Labour MP David Lammy said: “This revelation from a whistleblower reveals that the problems being faced by the Windrush generation are not down to one-off bureaucratic errors but as a direct result of systemic incompetence, callousness and cruelty within our immigration system.
“It is an absolute disgrace that the Home Office has destroyed these documents and then forced Windrush-generation migrants to try and prove their status, threatening them with deportation and stripping them of their rights.
“This was no accident and the orders to destroys records must have come from somebody at the top of the department. It is time for the home secretary to do the honourable thing, take responsibility for this fiasco and resign.”
‘National day of shame’: David Lammy criticises treatment of Windrush generation – video
The Home Office acknowledged that the UK Border Agency decided in 2010 to “securely dispose of some documents known as registration slips. These slips provided details of an individual’s date of entry but did not provide any reliable evidence relating to ongoing residence in the UK or their immigration status.”
Officials said in a statement that the decision was taken on data protection grounds, “to ensure that personal data … should not be kept for longer than necessary. Keeping these records would have represented a potential breach of these principles”.
The Home Office added that in deciding immigration cases, it considers alternative documents, such as tax records and utility bills, as evidence of ongoing residency. “The disposal of registration slips would therefore have no bearing on immigration cases whereby Commonwealth citizens are proving residency in the UK.”
However, the former employee said he believed the decision was not taken on data protection grounds but because there was not enough room for them to be accommodated in the new building.
Home Office staff members have been reluctant to consider alternative records, such as National Insurance contributions, unless they are presented within a dossier of papers proving residency every year for decades. People who have been classified as being in the UK illegally are often unable to put together the evidence, and cannot afford legal assistance.
Many Windrush-generation individuals who have had difficulties providing evidence of their status have told the Guardian how they were repeatedly told their names were “not in the system”.
Judy Griffith, 63, who flew to the UK from Barbados in 1963, aged nine, and who was unable to return home to visit her sick mother in 2016 because of her disputed immigration status, was told by officials that they could find no record of her. “They keep saying that I am not on their system – but of course I can’t be on their system because when I came here in 1963 there were no computers,” she said. As a result, she was unable to see her mother before she died and could not attend the funeral.
The former Home Office employee, who worked in a team of around 50 in the data protection unit, said staff had wanted to offer the landing card files to public archives, but were told there was no interest.
He said he asked managers at the time what would happen in the case of a dispute. He said he was told the majority of people on the landing cards were in their 70s and 80s and most of their cases would have been resolved, and the office did “not have the resources to keep them”.
“I suggested digitising but was told there were no resources,” he said. He remembered protesting: “Even if half the people are dead, they are historical records.” His manager responded that the cards were “redundant”.
He said he noticed a change in approach to these cases after the announcement of the “hostile environment” policy by May, then home secretary. In 2009 and 2010, managers gave case workers and members of his team time to look into cases. “Generally speaking, most Home Office staff want to try to do the right thing and be fair, within the rules,” he said.
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But from 2013 onwards, he said, staff were “given no leeway to make a judgment call”. The changed atmosphere combined with staff cuts made it a more unpleasant place to work and many experienced staff took redundancy, he said. The people who remained were told: “These are the rules, stick to them.”
He decided to leave at around this time. “I am so angry that people are being treated in a way which is just abhorrent.”