Complaints of racism and discrimination within Home Office teams set up to address the Windrush scandal prompted the launch of an internal investigation and the resignation of a senior official, the Guardian has learned.
The most senior black Home Office employee in the team responsible for the Windrush compensation scheme resigned earlier this year, describing the scheme as systemically racist and unfit for purpose, it can be revealed.
The Guardian has also learned that a separate set of complaints about discrimination within a different Home Office team researching the causes of the Windrush scandal led to an earlier internal investigation.
About 20 members of staff working on the independent Windrush Lessons Learned review by Wendy Williams were interviewed by a civil service “equality, diversity and inclusion” officer after allegations of racially discriminatory treatment were made by minority ethnic staff members.
Alexandra Ankrah, a former barrister who worked as head of policy in the Windrush compensation scheme, said she resigned because she lost confidence in a programme that she alleged was “not supportive of people who have been victims” and which “doesn’t acknowledge their trauma”.
Several proposals she made to improve the scheme were rejected, she said. “The results speak for themselves: the sluggishness of getting money to people, the unwillingness to provide information and guidance that ordinary people can understand.”
She was troubled by the fact that several Home Office staff responsible for the compensation scheme had previously helped implement the hostile environment policies that had originally caused claimants so many problems.
By the end of October, the compensation scheme had been running for 18 months and only £1.6m had been paid out to 196 people. Officials had originally expected thousands to apply and estimated that the government might eventually have to pay out between £200m and £570m. At least nine people have died before receiving compensation they applied for.
Ankrah’s concerns were echoed by whistleblowers from the Lessons Learned review, who felt uneasy that entrenched Home Office styles of working made staff insensitive on the issue of race. “The irony was that the very review team that was investigating what the Home Office thinks is past injustice was doing it in a way that was upholding all the systemic racism that exists in the Home Office,” one team member who was interviewed as part of the internal investigation said.
Ankrah worked as a head of policy in the Windrush compensation scheme from its launch in March 2019 until April 2020, when she resigned and moved to another Home Office department. She left the Home Office entirely in August 2020 to take up a job in the NHS.
She said she raised concerns to her bosses on several occasions about what she felt was systemic racism within the scheme. “It’s not just racism. It is an unwillingness to look with any curiosity or genuine concern at the situation of victims, many of whom were elderly and unwell,” she said. As a result, a group of predominantly black and Asian people were being “re-traumatised” by the compensation scheme, she said.
She said a senior colleague criticised her for always seeing “things through the prism of race” and she was censured for “standing outside and throwing stones in”.
As the only black senior member of the team, she was “irritated” by these rebukes, asking: “[If] I was throwing stones from the outside – who put me on the outside?” She felt her role on the compensation team was marginalised and that her “experiences as a black person, as a professional, were diminished or devalued”.
“I am not a disgruntled employee; I am not bringing an employment tribunal claim – this was not about my job. It was about meeting this government’s promise to put right the harm that many people had suffered,” she said.
She described accepting the role because she wanted to help with the process of ensuring justice for the Windrush generation, but quickly becoming concerned about the team’s capacity to deliver it.
Ankrah proposed a simplified, plain-English version of the compensation application form, as well as greater understanding towards the families of those people who died before completing a claim. She also made suggestions about how to assist widows and children.
She said she wanted to help people to prove that their treatment had a detrimental impact on their lives but that her recommendations were ignored. “The scheme was intended to allow people to make their own applications, without the need for legal advice. But the guidance was poor; this meant it was not fit for purpose.”
Ankrah’s main concern was that many in the team working on compensation had immigration enforcement backgrounds, or were still working in that section of the Home Office. “These were the very same people who hadn’t questioned the Windrush situation in the first place,” she said. “It is unusual, is it not, to have the same bit of the organisation in charge of the complaints? You normally have some type of separation at least to show credibility.”
Ankrah was also troubled by numerous comments that she believed were revealing about attitudes of Home Office employees. She said staff were grudging about payments and told her: “People should be happy with whatever they get.” She added: “A Home Office lawyer was telling me: ‘If they die without a will then too bad, they should have made a will.’”
When she tried to help speed up payment for a terminally ill claimant, colleagues began “discussing whether he should be paid a trifling sum or a very trifling sum”. She felt some of the comments “betrayed a complete lack of humanity”.
Three separate teams were established to right the wrongs against the Windrush generation in 2018. Alongside the compensation scheme, the Windrush taskforce has been widely praise for swiftly giving documentation to about 13,000 people who had wrongly been designated as illegal immigrants.
Separately, BAME staff working on the Windrush Lessons Learned review – the third unit established in the wake of the scandal – said they were concerned they were not invited to key workshops and were given non-speaking roles at meetings, whistleblowers told the Guardian.
After staff members attempted to raise concerns internally, a complaint was made to the chair of the Home Office’s race board. As a result, a Home Office human resources team was instructed to do some work to ensure that the team was “leading the way in creating inclusive working environments”.
An internal investigation was also launched, and about 20 members of staff working on the review were interviewed at length in early 2019 by a civil servant with a responsibility for equality and diversity. The conclusions of the internal investigation were not shared with the team, though it is understood to have looked at the lack of inclusion.
The Wendy Williams Lessons Learned review into the causes of the Windrush scandal was published in March 2018 and is highly critical of the Home Office, although there was controversy about a decision not to describe the department as institutionally racist – a term reported to have been present in earlier drafts.
The final version does, however, condemn “institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race” within the Home Office, and includes four recommendations for how the department can improve its record on race, diversity and inclusion.
A Home Office spokesperson said the department would not comment on individual staffing matters, but added: “We take any allegations of racism very seriously and any accusation is thoroughly investigated by the department.
“We reject any suggestion that the Windrush compensation scheme is discriminatory or that it does not support victims. It was designed with victims’ interests at heart and to cover every conceivable circumstance in which a person may have found themselves. The scheme is more inclusive and open than any other compensation scheme in the UK.”