Overton Blog

Windrush 75th Anniversary: what are the policies behind the scandal?

The 22nd of June 2023 marks the 75th anniversary of the Windrush passengers arriving in the UK. In this blog we’ll take a look at the policy relating to the Windrush generation; specifically publications related to the scandal in which the government dispossessed and disenfranchised these British citizens.


Who are the Windrush Generation?

Following the end of World War II, the UK faced a significant labour shortage in key sectors like healthcare and transportation. The government responded by passing the British Nationality Act 1948, which gave automatic citizenship to people from Commonwealth countries in an attempt to encourage citizens to emigrate to Britain to fill the labour gaps. The ‘Windrush Generation’, named after the ship that brought the first group of Caribbean immigrants, arrived in the UK between 1948 and 1971, with the understanding that they were British subjects with the legal right to settle.


What was the Windrush scandal?

In late 2017 the Guardian broke a story about a British woman who was detained and being threatened with deportation as an ‘illegal immigrant’. She arrived in the UK from Jamaica as part of the Windrush generation as a child, and had not returned to her country of birth in the subsequent fifty years.

In the following months more stories emerged about the hundreds of Commonwealth citizens who were being wrongly deported or disenfranchised, as part of the government’s ‘hostile environment’ immigration policy. 

The hostile environment’ policies were a set of measures first introduced in 2012, which were meant to make life as difficult as possible for any undocumented migrants with the aim of discouraging illegal immigration. In order to prove legal status, migrants were required to produce extensive documentation – the Home Office demanded at least one official document for every year a person had lived in the UK.

These policies were particularly detrimental to the Windrush generation, many of whom had arrived as children and not kept their original paperwork, or had arrived on their parents’ passports. To make matters worse, it emerged that in 2010 the Home Office had destroyed thousands of Windrush passengers’ landing card slips. This meant that there was no record of their arrival date in the UK, and so they couldn’t prove their right to remain. The burden of paperwork proved impossible for many, particularly for those who had been in the UK for decades. Hundreds of British citizens were wrongly deemed illegal immigrants and faced job losses, denial of healthcare, eviction from their homes, and deportation.


Decades of problematic policy

Though the hostile environment policies of the 2010s directly led to the scandal, a suppressed government report concluded that decades of “racist immigration policy” had created a context in which non-white immigrants were less welcome in the UK. The Home Office had commissioned an independent historian to write the report in order to educate civil servants about the causes of the Windrush scandal. Despite the author’s best efforts, the “The Historical Roots of the Windrush Scandal” report has never been officially released. However, the Guardian was able to obtain a leaked version, and identified some of the most damaging policies that the report determined culminated in the disenfranchisement of the Windrush generation.

  • The 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act curtailed free movement within the British empire and restricted the open-door policy among Commonwealth countries that was established after WWII.
  • The 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act changed the rules on who could apply for employment vouchers, prioritising people who had a prior familial connection to the UK which in practice privileged people of white heritage.
  • The 1971 Immigration Act ended large-scale immigration from the Commonwealth, by introducing new restrictions. These restrictions would not apply to individuals with a grandparent born in the UK ,again privileging white citizens of former “settler colonies” (who were more likely to have British born ancestors) over people from countries such as Jamaica.

Political repercussions and government response

As the scandal developed, public outrage grew and pressure mounted on the government to respond.

The government quickly issued the Windrush Scheme and Information which allowed Commonwealth citizens who came to the UK before 1973 or were children when they arrived to apply for British citizenship, for free,  in an attempt to fix the problem.

They also commissioned a Lessons Learned review into the scandal, to try and establish what events led to such a failure of policy. This was shortly followed by the Windrush Lessons Learned Review response: comprehensive improvement plan, which was ostensibly designed to outline changes to help those affected and prevent such a situation from happening again.

Shortly after this, the government established the Windrush Compensation Scheme, in an attempt to offset the hardships and losses suffered by those affected by the hostile immigration policies. However, the scheme has been widely criticised as being slow, overly complicated and bureaucratic, with the final compensation offers deemed too low. In 2021, only 5% of victims had received a payout. In April 2023, the NGO Human Rights Watch said that the scheme was “failing and violating the rights of many to an effective remedy of human rights abuses suffered.”

All of these documents are highly cited in other policy, in particular the Lessons Learned review which appears in 52 other documents. These are primarily in UK sources, though the review is also referenced in a UN report on the elimination of racial discrimination and a report from Australian think tank Institute for Public Policy Research.

There are 616 documents related to the ‘Windrush scandal’ in the Overton database, from 7 countries and 78 sources. The majority were published in 2020, which is when the improvement plan was released –we can speculate that this increase in publications is related to a scrutinising of these plans, and the actions the government was proposing to tackle the wrongdoings. Unsurprisingly most of these relate to the Sustainable Development Goal of ‘Reducing Inequalities’, given the clear racial component to these unfair immigration policies.

The longstanding impact of the Windrush scandal is evidenced by the continued citing of this policy in documents from the UK government, particularly those related to race issues and immigration. It makes clear that the problems caused by these policies are still very much unresolved.

Despite this seeming introspection and desire to learn lessons, the policies that led to this scandal are still in place. The ‘hostile environment’ remains. On top of this, current Home Secretary Suella Braverman also refused to implement several of the recommended reforms that the government had previously agreed to implement.

It’s clear that the long-term effects of this scandal are still to be unearthed. In fact, researchers from UCL are currently exploring the mental health consequences on Caribbean and Black African families in the UK. It’s likely that the issue will continue to influence the research/policy landscape around race and immigration for years to come. Moreover, there is a pressing need for a wider public dialogue on immigration, race, and identity to challenge the underlying prejudices and misconceptions that perpetuate such injustices.


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To access all of the documents and article referenced in this blog, visit our Zotero library.

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