Interview: Windrush lawyer Jacqueline McKenzie

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Amelia Gentleman (The Guardian) interviews Windrush lawyer Jacqueline McKenzie, who says “The Home Office is treating people with contempt.” According to Gentleman, the lawyer representing 200 victims of the Windrush scandal says systemic racism is at the root of the problem.

For the past three months, Jacqueline McKenzie says her front room has been covered with Windrush compensation files. Since lockdown, she has stopped going to the offices of the law firm she co-founded in 2010 and has been working from home. But her study is too small to accommodate the huge amount of paperwork that goes with the 200 separate claims she is filing on behalf of people affected by the Home Office citizenship scandal, during which thousands of people were wrongly classified as illegal immigrants because they could not prove they were British citizens.

“I think they are treating people with contempt,” she says. She is frustrated at the slow progress towards paying compensation to people who lost their jobs or their homes, were denied healthcare or the right to travel, or who were, in extreme cases, detained and deported. Part of the problem, she says, lies with the structure of the scheme, which requires claimants to gather large amounts of documentary proof of the losses they have incurred as a result of being miscategorised as unlawful residents (a problem that often arose because those affected were unable to gather the large amounts of documentary proof required to show that they had been living legally in the UK since the 1960s).

She is also uneasy at the prolonged periods people have to wait between submitting a claim and getting a response. The Home Office’s latest figures state just 60 people have received a total of £360,000 worth of compensation – from a pot that was initially expected to pay out between £200m and £570m. “The terrible thing is the fact that they’re just sitting on these claims, not processing them fast enough, and then treating people to such grillings. They said that they weren’t going to do that.”

McKenzie hopes potential claimants will not be discouraged by the delays and difficulties. She wants to help people complete their claims but she finds it hard to suppress her dismay at what she sees as the continuing mistreatment of a group already very badly served by British government.

In the past two years, McKenzie has become one of the most high-profile, vocal campaigners on behalf of Windrush victims. She was aware of the looming Windrush scandal long before it got its name, and her frustration over the continued delays to justice is fuelled by a memory of the years she spent trying and failing to get officials to pay attention.

Partly educated in Grenada and with family in the Caribbean, the 57-year-old lawyer built her legal practice on immigration and citizenship cases. For years before the scandal broke in 2018, she had been helping lots of Caribbean-born clients with citizenship claims and was dismayed that they were having to pay fees of more than £1,000 to regularise their status, when they had arrived in the UK legally as children. She realised that the documentation difficulties were causing life-shattering problems in early 2018, when a client she was assisting died as he tried to resolve his citizenship issues, a death she believed may have been connected to the stress he was under as he tried to persuade authorities that he was not an illegal immigrant.

Does she think the government has learned the lessons of Windrush? McKenzie says she has no doubt that the Windrush scandal is the product of systemic racism within the Home Office, driven by the desire of successive governments to be seen to be controlling immigration. “I think the politicians believe that the majority of people in Britain are racist and don’t want migrants here, and so they all play to the gallery. That’s why protecting the rights of migrants isn’t ever an important enough issue, because everybody wants to be seen to be tough on immigration.”

Today, a cross-government working group has been launched to tackle the challenges faced by the Windrush generation. “We really do not need any further reviews to address inequality,” says McKenzie. “The real issue is finding solutions that will eradicate the factors which cause inequalities, the key one being racism, and implementing quite focused and far-reaching plans of action. Today’s announcement is only welcome if the team has power to effect real change and has real expertise.”

She is faintly optimistic that things may change as a result of the renewed discussion of the debt owed to immigrants as a result of Covid-19, (“people have suddenly realised again that if we pull these people out the NHS will collapse,” she says), and also with the pressures of the Black Lives Matter movement. McKenzie started her career as a race equality officer in Hackney council in 1987, before getting a law degree at night school, so she has had a long time to reflect on these questions. “The two things are intertwined – the racism and the treatment of migrants.” If the Windrush generation had been “another group of people, a different race, they would probably have been treated better”.

Many of those hoping for compensation find the forms complicated – despite the best efforts of Martin Forde, the barrister who devised the scheme, and who hoped it would be simple enough for claimants to process without the involvement of lawyers. But that has not proved to be the case.

About half McKenzie’s time is spent on Windrush-related work, most of which is done pro bono. It is not sustainable long-term from a business perspective, but she is driven by anger at how much still has to be done to untangle the problems of those trapped by hostile environment measures, which are designed to make life hard for anyone without documentation.

She is also worried that there is a group of people affected by the Windrush scandal who are still reluctant to come forward to regularise their status, because of their deep-rooted fear of the Home Office. Census research suggests there are at least 20,000 people who migrated from Commonwealth countries before immigration laws changed in 1973, who remain undocumented, and only 12,000 have come forward since the government set up the Windrush taskforce to sort out their papers. [. . .]

[Photo above by Martin Godwin/The Guardian.]

For full article, read more at https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/jun/22/windrush-lawyer-jacqueline-mckenzie-the-home-office-is-treating-people-with-contempt

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