This year our country celebrates two 70th anniversaries – the creation of the NHS and the arrival of SS Windrush at Tilbury Port. The two are intertwined and inseparable, with so many of the Windrush generation helping to build the health service that we all rely on.
I am proud that Unison backed the Windrush campaign when many, including the Prime Minister, seemed unaware of the lives blighted and families placed under intolerable pressure.
The Windrush generation served us all and made our country a better place. Many of them were members of Unison – working for the benefit of all of us in our town halls, schools, hospitals and countless other public services.
Yet that same generation now face cruel and inhumane treatment at the hands of the government, including in many cases – denial of access to the NHS and other public services they and their families helped to build.
The disgust so many of us felt hearing about the Albert Thompson case – the denial of life-saving treatment to someone who has lived here for 44 years – has only increased as further sickening examples come to light. Deportation and the threat of deportation loom large for too many people who have done nothing but build their lives here. Tens of thousands of Windrush children have been affected and subjected to perverse tests (including being asked for four pieces of documentation for every year of residency) that few of us could ever hope to pass.
As a result, honest, decent citizens are being driven to despair by a Kafkaesque immigration system that demands impossible evidence from those who rightly consider themselves to be British citizens.
It’s inconceivable that people who have lived, worked and contributed to society for decades should be threatened with deportation, when their children and grandchildren were all born here. Or people denied access to healthcare like Albert Thompson. As Nye Bevan said “no society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means”.
That’s why I recently wrote to Home Secretary Amber Rudd demanding that Albert Thompson receives the immediate treatment he needs and deserves, an end to the threat of deportations, respect for those who have given decades to our communities and confirmation of the legal status of the Windrush generation once and for all.
It is shameful that the government has allowed this to happen – that through legislation of its design, so many could face the crippling fear of deportation, or the unthinkable reality of being ripped from their homes, cast back to a country they left decades ago. This injustice is contrary to the country we should aspire to be.
Yet we should also be crystal clear at whose door the blame should lie. Theresa May – as Home Secretary – introduced the principle of “hostile environment”, meaning that immigration checks became a barrier to hospitals, housing and work for the Windrush generation. Worse still, it damages public services to be asked to act this way, simply in order to implement unfair rules.
That Theresa May and her successor Amber Rudd seem to have been genuinely unaware of this most grievous injustice again shows the callous disregard and ignorance which have become the hallmarks of this government.
It’s time the legal status of the Windrush generation was confirmed once and for all – but the stain their treatment leaves on the already ugly record of this government will take a very long time to fade.
Dave Prentis is the UNISON general secretary