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Lord Kerslake: Windrush scandal must spark a more humane outlook

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It is funny how sometimes events come together around a common theme. For this month, the theme is most definitely immigration.

Firstly, the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech at the Midland Hotel in Birmingham. I was only 13 at the time but can still remember its extraordinary impact. A leading politician prophesying apocalyptic doom and giving voice to the people’s latent fears in the most graphic terms. The effect was explosive. That it didn’t become a reality is a testimony to powerful anti-racist movement that came in response to it.

One of the biggest fears at the time – and still today – is access to housing. This also came to the fore in April with the comments made by the new housing minister, Dominic Raab. In an interview with the Sunday Times on 8 April, he said “You’ve got to deal with demand as well as supply. You can’t have housing taken out of the debate around immigration. If we delivered on the government’s target of reducing immigration to the tens of thousands every year, that would have a material impact on the numbers of homes we need to build each year”.

He then went on to say that he had been told by civil servants that based on ONS data, immigration had put house prices up by something like 20% over the last 25 years. Having had a longstanding interest in the underlying drivers of housing supply, this statement greatly interested me. Like others, I was very keen to see the underpinning analysis. The answer when it came revealed a pretty crude calculation, showing that out of the 284% increase in average house prices over this period, immigration might have contributed 20% or less than a tenth. Even this assumed the demand impact on house prices from population growth through immigration was the same as that from population growth in the general population, something which other studies have challenged.

The third immigration issue this month has of course been Windrush, a story that has been going for some time but only came to a head with the Commonwealth leaders summit. I doubt if there is anyone who has read about the terrible experiences of the Windrush children and not felt some shame at how they were treated. The story touched me though in three particular ways. I am the child of an immigrant (Irish) as is my wife (Ukrainian). I have many good friends and colleagues who are the children of the Windrush generation and spoke to me of their reaction to it. And one of those reported in the Guardian as caught up in the policy was Hubert Howard, a well-regarded caretaker with Peabody, which I now chair. He came to the UK from Jamaica aged three years, has never lived anywhere else, but lacking the relevant papers was told that he was an illegal immigrant. Not only did he lose his job – the legislation made it illegal for Peabody to continue to employ him – but his mother died in Jamaica without him being able to visit her.

My comments on Newsnight were intended to challenge the suggestion that this appalling treatment could simply be put down to incompetence in the Home Office. It was in my view the almost inevitable consequence of the so called ‘hostile environment’ policy towards those who did not have an indefinite right to remain in the UK. This policy was hotly contested at the time and to my certain knowledge, some ministers did indeed feel so strongly as to believe that some of the proposals were almost reminiscent of those of Nazi Germany. To say this is not suggest that ministers were or are racist, but that tough rhetoric and aggressive policies unavoidably brought with them undesirable consequences.

There is a unifying message from each of these events. Great Britain has seen successive waves of immigration over the years. Each one has brought with it a strong reaction followed by integration and acceptance. There is no doubt a good and a bad side to the public’s response to change. Tolerance and fairness combine with fear and hostility. Politicians therefore have a choice. They can either ‘lead from the good’, promoting the benefits of an open and multi-racial society or ‘lead from the bad’, acquiescing or even exploiting people’s fears. In local government, I have seen many fantastic examples of the former across all the main political parties, not least in the powerful civic response to the Manchester Arena bombing. But the temptation to do the latter is always there.

If anything good comes out of the Windrush scandal, it will be that it prompts a move towards a more humane and ultimately more effective approach towards our immigration policy. A reinforcing of our true British values and identity rather than the loss of them that Enoch Powell foresaw.

Lord Kerslake (Crossbench), former head, the civil service

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