Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist
The injustice of the Windrush scandal will be terrifyingly familiar to anyone who has gone through the benefits system.
‘Politicians have proudly promoted the reformed welfare system as fairly reaching the ‘really disabled’.’
Disabled people protest against cuts in London.
Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
The unfolding Windrush immigration scandal has reached a height few political events do.Glance at even the Daily Mail seemingly defending immigrants and it’s clear the story has evoked something deeper than any pro-migrant discussion: a sense of betrayal of that so-called British value of fairness. After all, these are long-term UK residents who arrived as children here in the 1960s, being treated as near criminals because of an immigration policy dreamed up decades later. It’s as if the rules were changed midway through the game.
While Theresa May’s government may be positioning Windrush victims as having fallen foul of a terrible administrative error, the fact is that the British state actually treats immigrants generally with disdain, rather than giving them a fair hearing – and this is what enabled the Windrush scandal to happen.
Amber Rudd has now offered British citizenship to those affected, as if the government is generously giving them “greater rights” in a move of fair compensation, rather than delivering something the Windrush generation had a right to all along.
But this phantom of fairness goes beyond the Home Office to other government departments. In fact, it is rooted in multiple policies affecting hundreds of thousands of people across the country as we speak.
Take the social security system, itself defined by an increasingly “hostile environment”.
That May is said to have encouraged Britain to adopt a “deport first, appeal later” ethos for immigrants will sound terrifyingly familiar to anyone going through the benefits assessment system – a system marked by “remove people’s income first, appeal later”. (To date, two-thirds of appeals are won by claimants.)
In recent years, politicians have proudly promoted the reformed benefit system as fairly reaching the “really disabled”, all the while overseeing assessments that are so faulty people with Down’s syndrome are asked when they “caught it”.
Official figures this month showed that legal aid cuts mean disabled people appealing their benefit rejections are denied legal support in a staggering 99% of cases.
Look at the benefit sanction system.
This month MPs launched another inquiry into the policy of removing unemployed people’s benefits for supposed infractions – a policy that has been proved to cause destitution, and to be issued trivially for no real benefit. Meanwhile, the pot of money that jobcentre staff are meant to use to help jobseekers into work – say, bus fare to a training course or a suit for a job interview – has been cut by tens of millions of pounds since 2010.