The Home Office is “gagging” victims of the Windrush scandal in return for fast-track compensation, sparking accusations that Sajid Javid has broken a promise to MPs.
A non-disclosure agreement (NDA) has been imposed on at least one person who suffered harm and at least one more has been approached, The Independent has been told.
The move comes despite the home secretary telling MPs, three weeks ago: “No one will be asked to sign any kind of non-disclosure agreement or anything like that.”
The gagging – a tactic normally used by celebrities, to hide embarrassments – was condemned as “totally unacceptable” by David Lammy, a Labour MP and Windrush campaigner, who called on Mr Javid to explain why he had apparently gone back on his word.
And Yvette Cooper, the head of the Commons home affairs committee, said she was “extremely concerned”, adding: “Using NDAs to hide things that have gone wrong cannot be justified.”
The Law Society, meanwhile, warned that anyone who tried to reach an agreement with the Home Office without independent legal advice “could be denied justice”.
The controversy has blown up after Mr Javid was criticised for slamming the brakes on an official scheme to compensate members of the Windrush generation – and for planning to cap their payments.
No decision on how it will work will be taken until the end of the year, despite warnings that people have been left destitute after losing their jobs, their benefits or even their homes, or being wrongly detained.
They were trapped by Theresa May’s “hostile environment” crackdown, unable to provide the correct documents to employers, landlords and the NHS acting as “de facto border guards”.
But Mr Javid has now revealed the Home Office is prepared to pay out immediate compensation if threatened with “possible legal action” and if it accepts it is culpable.
However, these offers are “sometimes accompanied by confidentiality clauses, depending on individual circumstances”, said a letter sent to the home affairs committee.
“Where we consider that the department has erred, we will seek to reduce any further distress for the claimant by making an offer of compensation, rather than continue through a lengthy legal challenge,” Mr Javid wrote.
“I can confirm that Windrush generation cases are sometimes addressed through this route.”
The Home Office refused to say how many Windrush victims had been asked to sign gagging orders, but did confirm that one individual had done so and there had been “contact sought” with a second person.
Mr Lammy told The Independent: “It is totally unacceptable to gag vulnerable citizens in this way. Windrush victims have the right to fair compensation at the same time as the right to speak out.
“Forcing victims to sign non-disclosure agreements contradicts Sajid Javid’s statement and is an appallingly cynical way to handle the crisis.”
The MP said he appeared to have “gone back on his promise”, adding: “The home secretary, who promised to ‘do right’ by the Windrush generation, has a lot of explaining to do.”
Ms Cooper said: “The home secretary has assured us that the Home Office will be transparent over Windrush – but using NDAs to hide things that have gone wrong cannot be justified. We will continue to pursue this.”
And Christina Blacklaws, the Law Society president, said: “We see no reason why this process should not be handled transparently.
“Anyone affected by the Windrush crisis should get independent legal advice so they know their rights and understand clearly what they need to do to claim compensation if they have suffered as a result of home office errors.”
Mr Javid was quizzed on the use of NDAs in the Commons on 16 July, when he told MPs: “Let me be very clear that we are in the process of designing a compensation scheme.
“Its design is going to be overseen independently by Martin Forde QC, and there will be no question with respect to the compensation scheme – no one will be asked to sign any kind of non-disclosure agreement or anything like that.”
Asked why, in that case, gagging orders were being pursued, the home office suggested Mr Javid had been referring only to the approach to be taken through the official compensation scheme.
But it refused to say how many NDAs had already been secured, or were being pursued, ahead of updating the committee later in the year.
The Home Office also failed to answer a parliamentary question on the use of gagging orders before MPs left Westminster for the summer break, despite having almost one month to do so.
Asked if Mr Javid had misled MPs, a spokesman said only: “The home secretary and the immigration minister have said that they want to give the Home Office a more human face and it is a priority to right the wrongs that have occurred.
“We have a dedicated and hardworking team of caseworkers who are committed to providing a high level of service with often complex cases.”
It is four months since the Windrush scandal engulfed Ms May, forcing her to apologise for the harsh impact of the hostile environment policies she introduced as home secretary.
The affair claimed the scalp of Amber Rudd, bringing Mr Javid to the Home Office promising a “fairer, more compassionate immigration system”.
There have been about 8,000 referrals to the Windrush taskforce, right to residency papers have been issued to more than 2,000 people and about 150 staff are investigating the cases of people wrongly detained and deported.
First published in The Independent, 05 August 2018. Available here