The U.K. is attempting something the U.S. has been talking about for decades: compensating parts of its Black population for discrimination.
Britain is in the middle of a program to make amends for thousands of people being systematically shut out of just about every part of national life, from employment to healthcare, because of a series of bureaucratic mistakes by the government.
Trying to right the wrongs of the past in this way isn’t something many countries have done, and it hasn’t been a smooth process. But it is worth looking at as the U.S. debates if and how it’s possible to close its racial wealth gap through reparations.
On this week’s episode of The Pay Check, we examine the Windrush Compensation Scheme — and how the U.K. got into the mess in the first place.
Here are five numbers that help tell that story.
That’s how many passengers were registered onboard a ship that sailed from British colonies in the Caribbean to the Tilbury Docks in the east of England in 1948, in what is widely regarded as a watershed in Britain’s relationship with multiculturalism.
The ship was called the HMT Empire Windrush and its passengers would work in professions ranging from nursing to transportation to help rebuild the nation after the devastation of World World II.
In the decades that followed, many more would travel from these islands to the U.K. They’d come to be known as the Windrush Generation. Although their salaries were higher than back home and they had the same rights as people born in Britain, life wasn’t easy.
The arrivals faced discrimination in where they could live, what jobs they could have and outright violence based on the color of their skin. The same summer the Windrush docked in England, around two thousand people attacked a hostel where Black sailors were staying — police then arrested the sailors.
As the majority of British colonies became independent in the 1960s, a growing sense within the government and across the country that too many people were coming to live in Britain led to new legislation which aimed to make settling in the country more difficult.
One law decided that everyone who arrived from the former Empire before 1973 had a legal right to permanent residency, but authorities kept no records of everyone they gave that permission to, in what has since been called “a profound institutional failure” by an independent review.
To make matters worse, the Home Office, the ministry in charge of domestic affairs, later destroyed the arrivals’ landing cards. It says the decision was taken for data protection reasons, and the information on the cards had limited value.
All this helped set the stage for “the Windrush scandal.”
This was the year that Theresa May, who at the time was home secretary and leading the government’s new immigration strategy, brought in what would become know as the “hostile environment” policy.
She introduced a series of measures, such as requiring landlords, the National Health Service, charities and other organizations to carry out identity checks. The government also started a communication drive, dispatching vans to drive around London bearing billboards that read ‘GO HOME OR FACE ARREST.’ The aim was to discourage people coming to Britain illegally.
But across the country, people who’d lived in the U.K. for all or most of their lives were told that there was a problem with their immigration status and that they no longer had access to basic rights they’d always taken for granted. The vast majority of those people were Black.
It’s not known exactly how many members of the Windrush Generation got caught up in this policy, but it’s safe to say thousands, including people who had served as soldiers in the British army. Some were detained, others deported.
By 2018, criticism of their treatment was gaining momentum in national newspapers, and May, who had become prime minister, apologized to everyone affected, as well as to the leaders of Caribbean countries. Then, the government set aside millions of pounds to compensate people for what they’ve been through, breaking down the different ways someone could have suffered, from losing their job to the general impact on their life.
The compensation program has been plagued with difficulties since it was set up in 2019.
Payments were delayed, and compensation for losing employment was capped at a year when some people had been out of work for half a decade. The Home Office’s own figures from 0ctober 2020 show that 226 individuals had been paid a total of around 2.19 million pounds, or an average of less than 10,000 pounds per person ($14,00), according to Ravi Nayer, a top City of London lawyer.
Some people wondered why the Home Office was even in charge of compensation when the whole mess was its fault in the first place. And then, to cap it all off, the program’s only senior Black policy maker, Alexandra Ankrah, became so disillusioned that she quit.
A debate emerged about the nature of the entire scandal, and why it happened: Had the Windrush generation been mistreated because they were Black, or was it really a mistake?
In December 2020, the Home Office announced it was overhauling the payments, which included raising the maximum amount anyone could receive for the impact on their life. Even so, the problems haven’t gone away. Many people are fighting the amounts they were initially offered, while others haven’t received anything at all — and there are still people waiting for their documents to be sorted out.
While the story of Windrush might sound like an immigration story, it’s also about Black economic inequality in the U.K.
Around 14% of the British population is non-white, and in London, 40% of residents are ethnic minorities; and much like in the U.S., some of the historic discrimination can be seen in a vast racial wealth gap today.
The latest figures show double the proportion of Black families are on a persistently low income compared to White families. A White British household in the U.K. holds nine times the wealth of family where the head is from a Black African background.
The Windrush compensation scheme doesn’t get into any of that, though. It isn’t about the government trying to address these wider issues, but making amends for the errors that led to this specific crisis. When it comes to the scandal and the efforts to compensate its men and women, the U.K. is far from holding the answers of how to repay a community for what it has suffered.