by RITA CHADHA
Last week’s Runnymede APPG meeting on Race and Community was without doubt one of the best Parliamentary meetings in recent memory. It brought together Windrush-generation veterans, ‘told you so’ activists, lawyers, and angry and bewildered parliamentarians.
David Lammy MP opened with an impassioned address, with all the fire and zeal of a man committed to change. He spared no time in introducing the heroine of the hour Amelia Gentleman. At times bashful and almost tearful, Gentleman embodied grace and a consistent, compassionate consideration for the individuals and lives that she explored. She recounted how, starting with her first interview with Pauline Wilson, she met individuals and families torn apart by suffocating Home Office bureaucracy. She remarked on her own disbelief at the pure injustices she saw. By the end of Gentleman’s account, Committee Room 10 was standing room only. To our right, in walked Caroline Nokes MP, who in the media fever of celebrity politics had been overlooked for bigger scalps such as Rudd and Javid. In a splendid white jacket, either reminiscent of a colonial ancestry or very telling of a woman looking to portray her innocence, she said ‘I am sorry’.
Some of the audience provided muted applause. She went onto acknowledge how the Home Office had to ‘build trust’. She said that she would stay for as long as she could, but it was notable that when the division lobby bell rang she left and, unlike other MPs, did not return, presumably called away on some urgent parliamentary business, or (one fears) by another scandal at the Home Office.
The meeting went on to hear from Guy Hewett, the first London-born High Commission for Barbados. He remarked at length on the colonial binds between the Caribbean and the UK, and continued with simmering anger to demand justice. He pleaded with the audience to use the anniversary of the Empire Windrush landing next month to bring healing to a country that he described as torn apart by racism and xenophobia.
The meeting then heard from Sylvester Marshall (previously known as Albert Thompson) about his experience of being labelled ‘illegal’ by the Home Office for 7 years – until, within days of his plight being exposed, the same Home Office took two hours to confirm he was British.
Next up was Sally Daghlin from Praxis, who described her organisation’s work in supporting Sylvester, as well as their work with St Mungos assisting homeless migrants sleeping rough. Her comments raise an interesting question: How many of the Windrush generation that were left homeless by Home Office aggression were signalled to street outreach services, and how many were then passed on to immigration enforcement teams? Daghlin pleaded for the parliamentarians to lobby against the hostile environment and its ever increasing tentacles in every reach of public and private life.
It was now time for the ever eloquent Omar Khan of Runnymede Trust to draw the parallels between yesterday’s and today’s immigration woes, and connect these immigration matters to the rest of the civic life in the UK. He ran through a chronology of inequality that provided a clear segway to open the discussion to the public.
Quite rightly, comments were made about the need for legal aid in all immigration cases, people asked for clarity about what compensation would cover (would it for example cover future expenses, caused for example by a loss of pension contributions), and would the government issue new guidance to employers, landlords, banks and the NHS ,to make sure Windrush-generation residents are not locked out of public services?
Then suddenly, from the corner of the room, emerged Diane Abbott MP, who described her own personal history and the loyalty of the Caribbean community to the Queen. She remarked on her childhood, when every household had a portrait of the Queen as pride of place. In such discussions there is an ever present danger that we break into the ‘deserving and undeserving’ migrant discussion. ‘We are here because you were there’, and ‘highly skilled migrants’ all speak a language that seeks to divide, rather than unite.
Quick to spot this trap, Jeremy Corbyn MP entered the debate to remark on the need to make sure all migrant, regardless of circumstances or geographical origin, were treated fairly. In almost telepathic synergy, the last word of the event went to Pauline Wilson: when asked by Lammy to speak, she said ‘thank you for being human and not racist.’