The Home Office unit responsible for reforming the department after the Windrush crisis has been quietly disbanded, after the UK home secretary, Suella Braverman, let it be known that she believes it is time to “move on”, the Guardian has learned.
Staff working in the transformation directorate, the unit handling changes meant to prevent a repeat of the scandal, were told in an online meeting that it would be closing at the end of this month.
Civil servants in two London-based teams within the directorate, working on the Home Office’s post-Windrush cleanup exercise have been told their work would be terminated on 1 July, sources said.
Employees in a third team were told their work would no longer be led from the department’s London headquarters, and have been offered the chance to work with a Sheffield-based unit.
Some Home Office staff have expressed concern that their work is being wound up before the promised commitments to reform the department have been completed.
In the five years since the government first apologised for misclassifying thousands of Commonwealth-born people living legally in the UK as illegal immigrants, successive home secretaries have promised to oversee “comprehensive reform” of Home Office to ensure a similar scandal could never be repeated.
Over the past six months, Braverman has been forced to acknowledge that she had dropped key commitments, which would have increased independent scrutiny of immigration policies. But the decision to disband the transformation directorate marks a more decisive move away from the post-Windrush reform agenda.
Three teams within the directorate were working on post-Windrush issues – one on ethics, another on training and monitoring the progress on reform commitments, and a third on engagement with those affected by the scandal. Staff in the first two have been told their work is over; those in the engagement team have been told they can apply to merge with the Sheffield-based compensation team.
Work to compensate those affected by the Windrush issues remains unaffected and continues. The cross-government working group on Windrush, which was set up to monitor progress on the reform agenda, has also been told it will disband after a final meeting this summer.
Analysis published in February of progress towards meeting 30 agreed post-Windrush reform promises showed just eight had been met, 13 had been partially met and nine had not been met or dropped.
Work was ongoing on assessing the effectiveness of “hostile environment” legislation (which requires immigration checks before people can access work, benefits and services). A commitment to identify victims proactively, particularly non-Caribbean people, was not complete. Among other things, a promise to improve the UK visa and immigration customer service was also not deemed to have been completed; work on ensuring civil servants highlighted to ministers how vulnerable people may be affected by new policies was also not finished.
Some staff who were in the call expressed concern about the possible reputational damage to the Home Office of winding down this work.
“They asked what advice had been given to ministers, and to stakeholders, and how it left our commitments to implementing the Windrush recommendations,” a source said, adding that the staff had not received a clear response. “The staff in those teams feel that the commitment is being watered down. People who work in the Windrush engagement team are unhappy about this.”
The timing of the decision has also caused dismay among staff. This Thursday marks the 75th anniversary of the arrival of Empire Windrush in Britain and Buckingham Palace and Downing Street are preparing to host events. In the wake of the scandal, the government agreed to mark Windrush Day on 22 June as an annual celebration of the contribution of that generation of immigrants to the UK.
Those affected by the scandal come from a much wider cohort of people than the descendants of those who arrived on the ship; people who arrived as children in the UK in the 1950s and 60s from India, Pakistan, the former UK colonies in Africa and elsewhere were affected. However, the scandal has been particularly associated with people who came from the Caribbean in the decades after the arrival of Empire Windrush in 1948.
The transformation directorate, which is staffed by 20 to 30 people, was expanded a few years ago to make sure the recommendations made by Wendy Williams, the independent investigator who assessed the causes of the scandal, were embedded into Home Office culture.
The department source said: “There’s a lot still to do to make sure we from what happened with Windrush particularly in the light of some of the illegal migration bill proposals. I’m worried that it signals of rolling back from the commitments that we publicly made about not repeating those mistakes. If there’s no team responsible for monitoring progress then the work won’t happen.”
A Home Office spokesperson said the department would not comment on leaks, but added: “There have been and will continue to be team changes as the Windrush response is delivered. The government is honouring its Windrush commitments and providing support to those affected every day. Over £72m compensation has been paid or offered already and the scheme will stay open as long as needed.”