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Marking the arrival of the Windrush generation while still abusing British nationality rights shows a dreadful refusal to learn lessons

On Friday, 7 July 2023, the Home Office Minister, Lord Murray of Blidworth is to move the following motion for debate in the House of Lords:

that this House takes note of the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the Windrush generation

It remains to be seen whether the debate is purely one of celebration and commemoration of the achievements, contributions and lives of the people who arrived to the UK on the HMT Empire Windrush in June 1948 and over the decades that followed.

What else might usefully be addressed in the debate

Given continued and widespread dissatisfaction at the Government’s response to the Windrush scandal – for which Ministers from the then Prime Minister down issued apologies in April 2018 and subsequently – it may be that the debate will also consider the lessons the Home Office had promised to learn and the official report on such lessons.

One urgent matter the debate could usefully address was touched upon on Monday, 3 July 2023 from the Conservative back benches in the House of Lords when considering the Government’s Illegal Migration Bill. In a short speech decrying the dreadful attitude taken in that bill to rights to British nationality, Lord Moylan said:

The conflation of registration and naturalisation, to which the Home Office adheres, is exactly the sort of sloppy thinking that underlay the Windrush scandal. There will potentially be scandals, even if individually rather than in great numbers as a result of this. I urge my noble friend [Lord Murray of Blidworth] to take this opportunity to think again and to remove registration from the deterrent elements of the Bill.

The failure or refusal of the Home Office to recognise and respect British people’s rights to be registered with British nationality – and to treat these constitutionally profound rights as somehow matters of minor importance or even as within its gift to confer or withhold – was at the heart of the Windrush scandal.

This is briefly explained in the remainder of this blog.

The Windrush generation and British nationality

HMT Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury on 22 June 1948. The British Nationality Act 1948 was passed on 30 July 1948. The profound connection between these two events has been emphasised over the decades that followed.

The ship brought British people to the UK. The Act confirmed the shared British nationality of both the people arriving and the people of the communities in the UK with whom they were to settle.

A new determination of British nationality

So, when in 1981, Parliament sought to make a new resolution of British nationality it was vitally important that this recognised the shared citizenship and belonging of all the people of the UK.

The British Nationality Act 1981 created British citizenship. This new citizenship was to be, and now is, the citizenship of the people connected to the UK.

The Act made many people citizens automatically – including at the date of its commencement and, into the future, at the date of their birth if, for example, born in the UK to a parent who was a British citizen or settled in the UK.

The Act also retained from its predecessor the process of registration of citizenship. This was and remains the means for people, whom Parliament has determined are British by their connection, are empowered to formally secure their citizenship if the legislation does not automatically deliver this.

Registration rights to British nationality

Registration was, vitally, the means by which the Windrush generation were intended to secure their British citizenship. Parliament – at the invitation of ministers, who said it would encourage people to act on their nationality rights – established a time period for the Windrush generation to exercise their rights of registration.

However, the Home Office, in contradiction to the purpose that ministers had stated, disseminated information advising people there were no need or advantage to their registering their citizenship rights.

So it was that thousands of British people came to lose their British nationality; and, over the following decades, became subject to immigration laws and policies from which they ought to have been exempt.

Among the critical Windrush lessons is, therefore, a need for understanding and respect – particularly though not only at the Home Office – for the rights of registration that Parliament has maintained as the means by which many British people are to be able to secure their full and equal membership of the UK’s citizenship.

Still abusing British nationality rights

As is well known, the impact of what was done to the Windrush generation was highly and disproportionately racialised.

Whether from a perspective of anti-racism, respect for British citizenship or some wider notion of social justice, it is simply intolerable that more than 5 years after the Home Office promised to learn lessons, it continues – including by its latest immigration bill – to flagrantly abuse the rights of British people to secure the citizenship that is theirs by right.