Windrush Generation (linked to policy motion for Conference)

Windrush; not just institutional racism, shocking callousness too.

Up to 1834 if you were poor and alone, and long-term sick, disabled, orphaned, or too elderly for heavy work, you were likely to be sent by the government to a workhouse.

We might look back on this time and wonder how utterly brutal our government institutions were. We live in a modern democracy now, and government departments would not be allowed to act in a knowingly callous way.

Or would they? Think again.

Think for example about Hubert Howard who arrived in the UK from Jamaica, in the 1960s aged three, legally. Who after thirteen years of trying, was denied a British passport, and was not allowed to visit his ailing mother overseas. Who as a result lost his job and the possibility of any benefits. The Home Office was the only institution that could show from their records that he was in the UK legally but denied him a passport.

Think about Pauline Wilson, 61 and in the UK since she was eleven years old, having arrived legally, with her parents. The Home Office demanded she proves she was in the UK legally. Pauline didn’t have a passport. She lost her job and became homeless. At 61. None of the MPs who she made food for in the House of Commons, had any idea of the agony she suffered for years under threat of deportation.

There are other, harrowing stories of citizens denied re-entry to the UK after a visit abroad. There are stories of people from the Windrush generation denied cancer treatment. Windrush generation people have been fired from the NHS, schools and other public services, after being asked to prove nationality.


There are two factors which came together in the secretive corridors of the Home Office.

One is the ‘farming out’ of immigration policy, especially to public service organisations. Suddenly they are required to check the status of employees, on a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ basis. Therefore, if there is no evidence that people are in the UK illegally, that is not enough. The burden of proof is passed to the public to justify ourselves to the state, Soviet-style. Millions don’t have citizenship evidence for no fault of their own.

The other factor is staff and departmental targets and bonuses for deportation. If you work in the Home Office and you can buy a new car with your year-end bonus, it will affect your behaviour.

But there is a problem; it takes good organisation, excellent record-keeping and stable management to find immigrants who are in the UK both unlawfully, and undesirable.

However, we all know the Home Office is ‘not fit for purpose’. Finding unlawful and undesirable immigrants, usually under the radar, takes too much effort.

So to get the bonus, the Windrush generation are good targets. Since they don’t know they are illegal, they are out in the open. A considerable proportion of work in the public sector, which makes them even easier targets for a ‘farmed out’ immigration policy and a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approach.

What about that modern democracy free of callous government?

Pauline Pearce and Roderick Lynch have put forward a motion to Autumn Conference, highlighting these very issues. If accepted, please show your support by coming to the debate.

* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance. He is a member of the Lib Dem Federal International Relations Committee and an Executive member of Liberal International (British Group).

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This entry was posted in News and Op-eds.


  • My GCE history said The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 made the Workhouse system more intent, a Liberalising measure that went wrong.

  • “Up to 1834………you were likely to be sent to the workhouse.”

    Sorry,Paul, in fact the opposite was the case. The 1834 Act meant you were more likely to be sent to the workhouse. The Act was passed by the Grey Whig government – ancestors of the Liberal Party – who were greatly influenced by Benthamite utilitarian philosophy – itself an ancestor of the so called classical liberalism favoured by the Orange Book tendency of more recent days.

  • Paul Reynolds 30th May '18 - 1:23pm

    Yes thank you David for the additional historical information about the 1834 Act, which, despite the parliamentary intentions stated at the time, did not put a stop to people being committed to workhouses, so you are indeed correct.

  • paul holmes 30th May '18 - 1:37pm

    David is right. Up to 1834 ‘welfare’ was based on the Elizabethan Poor Law which generally became known as the ‘Speenhamland sytem’. This system of ‘out relief’ estimated the claimants needs largely in terms of a loaf of bread a day and provided variously the bread or the money to pay for it while they lived ‘at home’. Entitlement was based on assessment by the Parish and, especially when ‘need’ increased at times of economic stress, on assessments of whether the supplicant could establish a link to the Parish such as having been born there.

    The Utilitarian Liberals introduced the Poor Law Reform Act of 1834 in order to cut the rapidly growing costs of the old system and to introduce the harsh Workhouse Test in order to weed out the ‘undeserving poor’ who were supposedly exploiting an over generous system. Supplicants would now be put in the Workhouse, male and female wings, families divided and all inmates subject to harsh work conditions and this would drive the undeserving poor out to work instead. The Workhouse survived until the 1930’s and many of their large custom built Victorian buildings eventually became hospital buildings after the Workhouses were closed.My mother as an OAP in the 1980’s/1990’s always used to say that she never wanted to go to the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield because it was based around the old Workhouse which her working class family so feared when she was a child in the 1920’s/30’s.

    As a History undergraduate circa 1976 I was shocked, when researching a paper on the subject, to read of the harsh mechanistic approach of the Utilitarian Liberals. The increase in ‘welfare costs’ was according to them entirely due to the feckless poor and nothing to do with the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of the period. I was equally shocked in the early 1980’s to witness the Conservatives repeating precisely the same arguments. As if the growth of unemployment from 1 Million in 1979 (Labour isn’t working!) to 3 Million in 1983 was all to do with the feckless poor and nothing to do Government policies and/or economic circumstances. So I joined the SDP and spent the rest of my adult life campaigning for our Party.

  • Paul Reynolds 30th May '18 - 2:05pm

    Thank you David and Paul. Indeed, despite the intentiions expressed at the time, the 1834 Act did not stop the poor being committed to workhouses. It was a long struggle to rid the country of these practices by the state.

  • Andy Hinton 30th May '18 - 5:36pm


    I’m sure it says something about the party that the comments on this article have focussed exclusively on the historical accuracy of a throwaway line about 19th Century Liberal history, rather than the current hideousness of the Home Office. I can’t quite put my finger on what, though…

  • @ Andy Hinton……. Yeeesh …. And it might say something about you that you chose to focus on this aspect Mr. Hinton.

    I’m not sure whether you did it because you found the link between 19th century utilitarianism and orange book austerity economics uncomfortable….. But, whatever, there is certainly a link between the post imperial insensitivity of the Home Office towards the Windrush generation and the cruel slave trade of the 19th century which provided “compensation” fortunes to such as the Gladstone family.

    I for one would make the study of history compulsory for any budding politicians if we are to avoid anythinh similar to the Blair debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • Paul Reynolds 30th May '18 - 9:01pm

    I might say that above debate has a certain momentum …

  • David, I would not consider myself an orange booker at all, quite the opposite. And I quite agree that the nastiness of the Home Office now and the brutality of the slave trade then are linked, but none of the discussion of workhouses above was particulaly about that, so I’m not sure what your point is?

    Anyway, I hope to see Pauline and Roderick’s motion brought to conference, particularly if it helps push the party away from trying to adjudicate on who the “deserving” and “undeserving” migrants are, as the current Immigration Policy Working Group’s consultation questions suggested they were keen to do.

  • @Andy Hinton. ‘Yeesh’ surely it is a good rule to follow that if you want to start an article or speech with an eye catching historical illustration then you get that historical illustration right? Otherwise subsequent comment will distract from the point you were trying to make.

    The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act did not seek to reduce the number of people entering the Workhouse. It deliberately created the national network of Workhouses and made receipt of Poor Relief dependent upon entering the Workhouse thus massively increasing the numbers residing in these new institutions. The deliberately harsh conditions were not an ‘accidental’ byproduct of Government actions, as arguably the Windrush debacle has been. They were the deliberate intention of one of the dark sides of a particular aspect of Liberal ideological thinking.

  • This is a worthy motion that ought to be debated at conference. Given the amount of lives that have been wrecked, some liberal compassion and understanding will be welcomed into an, otherwise, illiberal situation created by the Home Office. Well done on considering putting in a motion.

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