The Home Office destroyed thousands of landing card slips recording Windrush immigrants’ arrival dates in the UK, despite staff warnings that the move would make it harder to check the records of older Caribbean-born residents experiencing residency difficulties.
A former Home Office employee said the records, stored in the basement of a government tower block, were a vital resource for case workers when they were asked to find information about someone’s arrival date in the UK from the West Indies – usually when the individual was struggling to resolve immigration status problems.
Although the home secretary, Amber Rudd, has promised to make it easier for Windrush-generation residents to regularise their status, the destruction of the database is likely to make the process harder, even with the support of the new taskforce announced this week.
The former employee (who has asked for his name not to be printed) said it was decided in 2010 to destroy the disembarkation cards, which dated back to the 1950s and 60s, when the Home Office’s Whitgift Centre in Croydon was closed and the staff were moved to another site. Employees in his department told their managers it was a bad idea, because these papers were often the last remaining record of a person’s arrival date, in the event of uncertainty or lost documents. The files were destroyed in October that year, when Theresa May was home secretary.
A person’s arrival date is crucial to a citizenship application, because the 1971 Immigration Act gave people who had already moved to Britain indefinite leave to remain.
When staff were asked to find evidence of an arrival from the Caribbean or other former colonies and had difficulty tracing any other records, senior officers would request the key to the basement of the neighbouring building and consult the landing cards. They recorded the names, dates of arrival and in some cases the name of the ship.
“Sometimes the Passport Office would call up, and people would say: ‘I’ll look in the basement,’” the ex-employee said.
After the destruction of the archive, when an individual requested confirmation of an arrival date, staff had to reply stating there was no record of it.
From around 2013 onwards, he said, the number of requests from people from the Caribbean began to increase.
“Every week or two, someone would say: ‘I’ve got another one here,’” he said. “People were writing to say: ‘I’ve been here 45 years, I’ve never had a passport, I’ve never needed a passport. Now I’m being told I’m not British, because there is no record of me’.
“Because it was no longer possible to search in the archive of landing cards, people would be sent a standard letter that would state: ‘We have searched our records, we can find no trace of you in our files.’”
Immigration lawyers have repeatedly criticised the Home Office’s insistence that it is up to individuals to provide copious evidence proving their right to be in the UK. If UK officials had kept a record of everyone granted indefinite leave to remain, they say, the problem would never have arisen.
Less than a month ago, responding to concern over NHS refusal to grant cancer treatment to Albert Thompson, the prime minister said he “needed to evidence his settled status”.