The home secretary has pledged that the Windrush generation will be granted British citizenship, as the government attempted to draw a line under the scandal.
Amber Rudd told the Commons that citizenship would be granted to anyone from the group of Caribbean immigrants who wanted it and applicants would qualify for compensation for their often “heartbreaking” treatment. The Home Office would waive fees, she said, and there would be no requirement for applicants to take a knowledge test on language and life in the UK.
Rudd’s announcement follows a series of Guardian reports on the iniquitous treatment of the Windrush generation, that prompted public outrage and questions in parliament.
The government has struggled to contain mounting pressure on both Rudd and Theresa May over the impact of its “hostile environment” policy on immigration. The prime minister, who was the architect of the strategy while running the Home Office, and Rudd have both apologised for the distress caused to Caribbean migrants and their families who settled in the UK between 1948 and 1971.
Some have been threatened with deportation, lost their jobs or been denied medical treatment after changes to immigration rules in 2014.
Rudd said she was “personally committed” to resolving the situation with “energy and purpose” and an apology was just the “first step”. She added: “They are British in all but legal status and this should never have been allowed to happen.”
She acknowledged that some of the steps taken to tackle illegal immigration had an “unintended and sometimes devastating” impact on Commonwealth migrants who were in the UK legally but struggled to find the documentation needed to prove their status.
“This is a failure by successive governments to ensure these individuals have the documentation they need and this is why we must urgently put it right,” she said.
“I want to enable the Windrush generation to acquire the status they deserve: British citizenship, quickly, at low cost and with proactive assistance through the process.”
She said immigration caseworkers, who had been accused of being too rigid, would now take “a much more personal” approach to making decisions. A new customer support centre would be available for people trying to navigate the immigration system.
She said a compensation scheme announced by the prime minister last week would be run independently.
Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, said the debacle should never have happened. “Many people think the events around the Windrush generation are one of the biggest scandals in the administration of home affairs in a very long time,” she said. “The home secretary said the situation should never have been allowed to happen. She was the home secretary. She should never have allowed them to happen.
“This was a generation with unparalleled commitment to this country, unparalleled pride in being British, unparalleled commitment to hard work and contributing to society. And it is shameful that this government has treated this generation in this way.”
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said the measures were “a welcome first step toward righting the historic wrongs done to the Windrush generation”.
But its chief executive, Satbir Singh, said: “By placing yet another sticking plaster over its failures, the government has said and done nothing to indicate that it is taking the root causes of this crisis seriously. We need to see root-and-branch reform of the Home Office if we are to avoid another Windrush, and 65% of the public support our call for an independent inquiry into the Home Office and the hostile environment.”