“I don’t want to be here anymore,” says Leeford Hammond, a Jamaican national who has lived in Britain for 50 years. “They’ve apologised, they’ve said they made a mistake. Why are they taking so long? We’ve suffered enough already but we’re still suffering.”
Leeford, 65, submitted his Windrush compensation application to the Home Office a year and a half ago. He is claiming damages for the fact that he was blocked from coming back home to the UK from a holiday in 2017 because officials claimed he wasn’t a British resident. He was stranded in Jamaica, unable to return to his job and family, for more than half a year while he tried to appeal the refusal.
“There was a time when I thought I wouldn’t be able to come back to the UK to see my mother and siblings and children,” the financial consultant turned businessman remembers. “I couldn’t manage my business, I fell into rent arrears, my health deteriorated. Everything escalated and got really bad because of that blunder.
“Three years on, I’m still waiting to be compensated. It’s putting everything on hold for me. They were quick to get us out, so why can’t they be quick with the compensation?”
Leeford is one of hundreds of people who are still waiting for a decision on their claims under the Windrush compensation scheme. Government figures published on Thursday show 196 out of 1,587 applicants have so far received payment — 12 per cent — while just £1.6m out of the £200m promised to victims has been paid out 18 months after the scheme began.
The scheme was set up to remedy the hardship suffered by those caught up in the Windrush scandal, which saw people living in the UK wrongly detained or denied legal rights such as work or healthcare because they could not provide documentation of their immigration status. Many had arrived legally in the UK from elsewhere in the Commonwealth before 1973, but did not go on to get official documentation.
Campaigners said the figures were “shameful” and that the programme needed to be redesigned from the ground up, and contrasted the lack of support with the speed at which the government was able to pay people during the coronavirus pandemic.
Earlier this month, Wendy Williams, who was commissioned by the government to carry to the Windrush Lessons Learned review, said she was “surprised” that the number of people to had so far been granted compensation was so low and that she struggled to see how the department could justify this.
Mohamed Ali Hirsy, a 77-year-old east London resident who has lived in the UK since 1965, has spent much of the past 15 years of his life afraid that he would be arrested by immigration enforcement — despite doing nothing wrong — after he lost his job because he was unable to prove his status.
“They terminated my employment. Then I started to see the buses they hired saying ‘Go Home’ on them,” he says. “I became a recluse. I thought there’s no way the British government would deport a pensioner. But deep down, I was very worried.”
The Kenyan national had been working as a housing officer for Tower Hamlets Council for 26 years when “it all went wrong”. The local authority decided to outsource the work to a housing association, and while he was transferred to work for them, the company asked him for proof of his immigration status, which he realised he couldn’t provide.
(Mohamed Ali Hirsy)
“They gave me some time to go sort it out with the Home Office, but after a few months I still wasn’t getting anywhere,” Mohamed, who lives alone, explains. “They started giving me disciplinaries. I was getting depressed. It felt terrible for me.”
Since then, Mohamed has had to survive on £400 a month from his pension and has been unable to travel back to Kenya to see family, as well as living in fear of the immigration authorities.
When the Windrush scandal broke in April 2018, he phoned the helpline and was quickly recognised as a victim of the scandal and, after showing them evidence of his continuous employment, he was granted a biometrics card and then a British passport.
However, more than a year after submitting his compensation claim, Mohamed is still waiting. He is at threat of being taken court over an outstanding mortgage on his home, and keeps telling the lawyers he is waiting on Windrush compensation — but he worries this excuse is wearing thin.
“I didn’t expect it to take this long. My life is in limbo. I’m getting calls from lawyers saying they want to repossess my property and I can’t do anything because I don’t have the money. I feel let down. I’m locked in the house. I live such a lonely, lonely life,” he says.
“When I see Priti Patel in parliament, she uses all the right words, saying that she’s determined to do the right thing. But at the end of the day, people are still waiting, people are dying. I don’t believe what she’s saying anymore. I’ve lost confidence in the government.”
Campaigners say the compensation scheme is too complicated and puts too much burden of proof on victims, with reams of documentary evidence required to make a claim. The system is considered so complicated that charities have had to fund-raise to set up a pro-bono legal advice service to help people apply.
"It should be straightforward in paying people: as you know we've had Covid-19 and as a country we've paid out billions in furloughing people, supporting business, giving grants to schools, giving grants to charities and so on," said Patrick Vernon, a long-time campaigner on the issue who has previously given evidence to Parliament.
"We can give out billions in six months but yet we can only give out £1.3m to the Windrush compensation scheme in 18 months — what's more complex? Dealing with Covid-19 or dealing with people who were wrongly treated by the Home Office?"
Holly Lynch, Labour's shadow immigration minister, said it was “shameful” that so few people have been able to access compensation, adding: "It’s the very least they deserve after being treated so appallingly. These delays show yet again a lack of compassion and competence from the Tories.”
Jacqueline Mckenzie, a solicitor assisting a number of Windrush clients with their claims, said: “The sums offered can in no way seriously compensate for the trauma and losses she suffered. Just last Saturday I encountered someone who had been refused GP registration, a driving licence and lost a job, who'd been offered £1000. How is this possible?
“Most of the people affected by the Windrush scandal are vulnerable and should be treated with better regard than I can see is happening at the moment."
Thomas Tobierrre, 66, moved to Essex from St Lucia with his aunt and uncle at the age of seven. He became an engineer aged 15 and worked in the sector until his company moved to the north of England in 2017 and he got made redundant. It was when he started looking for another job that the problems began.
“I registered with a job agency and when a place became available they contacted me sand said can you turn up on Monday morning with your documents, including your right to work. I said my right to work? I’ve been working for 50 years. Where do I get that?” says Thomas.
“They said sorry we can’t take you in this batch because unless you bring that with you, you can’t start the job.”
The father-of-four contacted the national archives to ask for a copy of his landing documents from the 1950s, but was told they couldn’t find any evidence of him arriving. He tried his aunt’s maiden name, but again there was no record.
Thomas was unable to take the job and began trying to gather evidence of the decades he’d spent in Britain. He had to travel to the Home Office and the Jamaican embassy a number of times, each journey costing him nearly £40. Unable to work, he had to start dipping into his pension pot and take out a credit card limit. To make matters worse, his wife was then diagnosed with bowel cancer.
In April 2018, Thomas heard about the Windrush Taskforce and informed them of his situation. He was given a biometric work permit, and found a job within two weeks, but the months without income continued to take its toll, and he struggling to pay back his debts while also taking his wife to hospital for routine appointments.
Last December, the Home Office offered him £3,000 in compensation. “When I saw the amount I couldn’t believe it. I thought they’d made a mistake. I deal with numbers in my job. I looked and thought, do they mean £30,000? I started counting the zeros. I was thinking, what are you doing?”
He requested a review and earlier this year the amount was increased to £13,000, but Thomas still feels it isn’t enough.
“I feel very let down, after all the promises to put the rights wrong in April 2018. I’m only asking for the money that I’ve lost. If someone takes what you’ve got and offers half of it back, that isn’t fair. I went to school in 1961 and I’ve worked here all my life — all that for nothing,” he says.
“It’s making me relive what I went through. The impact it’s had on all of my family, my sick wife. There is not one single day that I don’t think about the Windrush compensation scheme.”
The Home Office has been approached for comment.