Windrush is not Just a Scandal but a Sign of Wider Economic Failure

The treatment of the Windrush generation of migrant workers invited to come to Britain from the Caribbean is not just an appalling scandal of cruel bureaucratic indifference and political decision-making that is at best disinterested and, at worst, downright cynical discrimination.

It is also a manifestation of the results of adopting political positions that run contrary to economic logic as well as natural justice. People from the West Indies were invited to come to the UK in the 1940s and 1950s - and later from the Indian sub-continent -  because there was a crying need for people to staff Britain's factories, hospitals, and public transport after the devastation of the Second World War.

The subsequent decision to create a “hostile environment” - targeting migrants with inadequate documents to prove their right to stay and which caught the Windrush migrants - has been heavily, and rightly covered elsewhere.

But it has a significance that reaches far wider than the terrible personal stories of those affected. It is confirmation that the government is determined to prioritise pandering to the nationalistic and protectionist tendencies of the right wing of the Conservative Party and of UKIP at the expense of economic growth.

The fact that the Windrush generation were only “accidentally” caught up in the aggressive drive by the Home Office under the Immigration Act 2014 is a sign of how wide-ranging the attempt to crackdown on illegal immigrants was.

The danger of another bureaucratic shambles has to be high

What gets forgotten amid all the poisonous reporting by the right-wing press is that migrants, whether legal or illegal, are vital to the running of the country’s taxis, office cleaning services, food picking operations, and restaurants.

There are likely to be migrants from other Commonwealth countries that found themselves drawn into the web: Asian migrants from Uganda, and people from the Indian sub-continent come to mind.

But on top of this sits the three million EU citizens who live and work in Britain. The UK Government has agreed that people who, by 31 December 2020, have been continuously and lawfully living here for five years will be able to apply to stay indefinitely by getting “settled status”.

The danger of another bureaucratic shambles has to be high, while those who have arrived since 2015 will face continued uncertainty.

Britain will also have to craft a whole new immigration system and ensure that its over-stretched Home Office and Border Agency can devise, implement, and enforce it effectively and fairly. If the failure of the current system can be put down to one policy failure, it was the decision to focus on numbers - the appeasement of nationalists and Ukippers - rather than the skills base that the economy needed. The nadir was David Cameron’s 2010 commitment to cap the number of immigrants to “tens of thousands” more than the numbers departing to live abroad.

This means that officials were operating under a permanent mental bias to favour the answer “no” to new applicants and certainly to pay no account to issues about skills shortages, whether in hospitals, laboratories, universities, farm fields, or bars and cafes. The use of the net migration target - those coming in minus those leaving - made the final figure dependent on the changing fashion for Britons to stay in, or leave the UK - not something the government can or should have any control over.

In a final outbreak of insanity, the cap included counting foreign students,whose fees fund university research departments and who provide talent for firms and universities. It is not hard to see that talented students will in future look to other countries for their further education. Another victory for number-counting over tackling skills shortages.

Brexit has made it more legitimate to fear and crack down on those seen as “the other”

The Government must drop the net migration target, which is proving to be a blunderbuss weapon to hit its policy objective. Secondly, it must take students out of the target: sadly, it passed up the opportunity to do this in January when the senior Conservative MPs who chaired the key Treasury, Foreign Affairs, and Justice select committees urged Theresa May to change course.

Thirdly, it must ensure that any post-Brexit agreement with the EU to replace the freedom of movement includes a preferential system for EU citizens that does not simply copy the current non-EU system. Finally, it must reform that non-EU system that after it emerged that the UK had reached its cap on Tier 2 visas for non-EU migrants for a fourth consecutive month in March 2017.

The cap on skilled worker numbers operates on an annual quota of 20,700 with a fixed number of spaces available each month. Turning away skilled workers whether from Europe or from the rest of the world in order to win a numbers game is madness

At the end of that the day the debate over Brexit has made it more legitimate to fear and crack down on those seen as “the other”. As Britain stumbles on towards, and through Brexit, people will realise how much the economy depends on European migrants (and those from other countries). Whether it is food rotting in the field, car factories and others relocating to the continent, and short-staffed hospital wards, lecture rooms, restaurants and bars. If the appalling treatment of the Windrush generation leads to an outbreak of common sense in Whitehall, that will at least be one silver lining to an otherwise dreadful cloud.



More about the author

About the author

Phil has run Clarity Economics, a London-based consultancy, since 2007 and, before that, was Economics Correspondent at The Independent.

Phil won feature writer of the year Work Foundation Work World media awards in 2009, and was commended by the Royal Statistical Society in 2007.

He is the author of Brilliant Economics and The Great Economists.

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