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Heart of the Windrush scandal

31 January, 2020 — By John Gulliver

Amelia Gentleman. Photo: @ameliagentleman/Twitter

IF ever journalism can take a bow it is the work of Amelia Gentleman who, almost single-handedly, exposed the scandal of government policy that effectively set out to hound out of Britain black subjects who had lived here for decades.

It was all part of a “hostile environment” generated by the Home Office under Theresa May – and Amelia Gentleman exposed it in article after article in the Guardian.

The scandal was because the government focused on British people, mainly from the Caribbean, who weren’t illegal – enforcing deportations through lost jobs, lost benefits, refusal to treat them in hospital.

Amelia, who lives in Mornington Crescent, heard stories about what was happening to elderly Britons – and eventually her campaign pulled the curtain aside on the Windrush scandal.

I followed up her story and came across the shocking treatment of a teaching assistant at Gospel Oak School who was suddenly called into the headteacher’s office and told that his papers weren’t in order – and that he had to be dismissed. Imagine, being told this after you have been helping disabled children for years, knowing each one, giving them the help so badly needed, and then – almost coldly – told: You are no longer required!

This happened to Michael Braithwaite, who lives in Kentish Town.

Though Michael is a well-anchored person, with a sense of self-worth, he felt miserably “abandoned” as he had never felt before. He had come to Britain as a child, lived here for decades, set up home here, became part of the community, and all this had been suddenly dismissed as of no consequence – he was simply an outsider, black and friendless.

Michael Braithwaite

But Michael, like so many of the other victims, fought back. He was given work by Camden Council helping disabled children in Somers Town while his union, Unison, took up his case.

Amelia’s exposure led to the resignation of Home Secretary Amber Rudd, and statements in the Commons – and promises by Mrs May of compensation.

Amelia has written a remarkable book on the scandal – The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment, Guardian Faber, £18.99 – and you’d think that we can now turn the page.

But can we? Extraordinarily enough, compensation has still not been paid to Michael and, presumably, some of the other victims. Negotiations rumble on slowly, tortuously, between his union representatives and stone-faced government officials.

Michael himself, clearly the sort of empathetic teacher we all admire, has in fact been given an additional disabled child to look after by the council. But still he waits. Waits for an expression of deep-felt apology by a heartless government department. His story has been made public – and he is in demand by university students who want him to talk to them about it.

When I rang him the other day he had just returned from a talk he gave at a university in the Midlands. His self-confidence has no doubt grown, the lessons he can teach are worth listening to.

But he still feels the pain he felt when the country he thought had welcomed him suddenly turned a cold face to him. How did he feel? “Abandoned,” he said.
Have you read Amelia’s book, I asked?

“Yes, I began it, and it is very, very good but I couldn’t go on with it – it made me feel so sad because it turned over all those painful moments,” he said. “It actually made me cry!”

• Amelia Gentleman joins social justice campaigner Patrick Vernon OBE to discuss the Windrush scandal at 7pm, February 3 at the Frontline Club, 13 Norfolk Place, Paddington, W2 1QJ, www.frontlineclub.com/club/events/
She also talks about the scandal on February 27, 6.30pm, at Birkbeck College, Building Centre, 26 Store Street, WC1E 7BT, www.bbk.ac.uk/events/remote_event_view?id=10158

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