Eight months ago, the events that shattered the life of Richard Amoah, a 58-year-old upholsterer from south London, were condensed into a series of succinct, emotionless paragraphs, typed into boxes on an 18-page form, scanned and emailed to a government office in Sheffield. Everyone knows you can’t put a price on happiness, but it is now the Home Office’s job to assess the cost of Amoah’s unhappiness, after a series of disastrous government mistakes left him destitute on the streets of Ghana’s capital, Accra, for two and a half years.
As they process Amoah’s claim for compensation, staff in Vulcan House, the Home Office’s riverside headquarters in Sheffield, will need to address a number of difficult questions. How should the government compensate someone for carelessly wrecking their life? What is the correct payment for rupturing family bonds? Can the loss of a stable, happy existence be remedied with a methodically quantified pay out?
Amoah is one of at least 13,000 victims of the Windrush scandal, in which retirement-age UK residents who had been born in the Commonwealth and travelled, legally, to Britain as small children, were misclassified as immigration offenders. Hundreds of victims of the scandal were wrongly deported or held in detention centres, and thousands more lost homes, were sacked from their jobs or were denied benefits, pensions and NHS treatment because of the error. As it became clear how much damage had been caused to this cohort, a major compensation scheme was promised. The scheme, which was launched in March 2019, was meant to offer swift payments to anyone affected. Initial estimates by civil servants suggested that anywhere between £200m and £570m would be paid out.
But in the nearly three years since it launched, the compensation programme has been ridden with controversy and delays. Many claimants object to the fact that the programme is run by the same department that caused their problems in the first place. The Home Office has, effectively, been allowed to mark its own homework. Claimants have expressed dismay at meagre compensation offers, which they feel do not reflect the harm they suffered. At least 23 people have died waiting for a decision. Last year, the most senior black employee in the Home Office’s Windrush team resigned, telling the Guardian that the scheme was “racist and unfit for purpose”.
Three separate inquiries have investigated what is going wrong with the scheme. How the compensation team responds to Amoah’s claim, and to the more than 3,000 other applicants, should be seen as evidence of how committed the Home Office really is to its mantra that it wants to right the wrongs done to the Windrush generation.
“It’s been a car crash,” said Anthony Browne, a lawyer, who as co-founder of Windrush Defenders has advised dozens of people trying to make claims. For the past year he has been on a committee appointed by Priti Patel, advising the Home Office on what has been going wrong, but he has now stopped attending. “I’ve become disenchanted with the Home Office. They listen but they don’t hear; they don’t seem to want to do the right thing. It’s really critical now that the whole ethos changes.”
In late September 2020, when the Windrush compensation scheme was developing into a scandal in its own right, I met Amoah in an otherwise deserted pub in south London, to hear about his attempts to claim compensation.
Like most people affected, Amoah arrived in the UK, entirely legally, as a child. His parents met in the early 1960s, when his Ghanaian father was studying architecture in London and his Irish mother was working as a seamstress. They married and settled in Ghana, where Amoah was born, but in 1964, after the marriage collapsed, his mother returned to London with Amoah, who was still a baby. He travelled to Britain on his mother’s passport. (At the time she returned to Britain, Amoah’s mother was pregnant with her second child, who was born in the UK a few months later.)
Amoah grew up in Britain and never saw his father again. But in April 2016, when his brother told him of their father’s death, Amoah felt moved to attend the funeral in Ghana and finally meet his family there. “I wanted to have a look around and see where I came from,” he said. He had not travelled abroad since arriving in the UK 52 years earlier, and he had no passport. He flew using temporary Ghanaian travel documents because they were simpler to get than an emergency British passport.
From the airport in Accra, Amoah got on a coach, arriving at his father’s town just as the funeral was beginning. His father had been an MP for Ghana’s New Patriotic party, and the funeral was huge. Relatives Amoah had never met made him change out of his black suit into a black-and-red cloth robe and sandals. “I’d never worn clothes like that before,” he recalled. “Absolutely everything was strange. I didn’t speak the language, nothing was familiar to my life – the heat, the mosquitoes, the food.”
Before he left London, Amoah had thought he might spend time getting to know his Ghanaian family, but in the days after the funeral he struggled to connect. He found being in rural Ghana – surrounded by siblings he had only just met, most of them speaking a language he didn’t understand – an unhappy, unsettling experience. After two weeks, he was more than ready to return home to London.
He travelled to the British high commission in Accra to get the documents that would allow him to fly back. During his rushed travel preparations, he had been assured by an official that this would be a simple matter. “My thinking at the time was that I’d get a Ghanaian document to go there, and an English one to go back home,” Amoah told me. “I’d never travelled before. I was a bit naive about the whole situation.”
At the high commission, Amoah took a ticket from a machine on the wall, and waited more than an hour for his number to come up. Eventually he was called to a desk, but the conversation was brief. He was told that unless he could prove to staff that he was a British citizen, he had no right to board a plane to the UK. Amoah had attended primary and secondary school in Battersea, south London. He had worked and paid taxes in the UK throughout his adult life. He had helped bring up his five children and grandchildren in the same part of the city where he had grown up. When he tried to explain all this, the official behind the counter cut him off. “There’s nothing we can do for you,” he was told.
Amoah demanded to see someone more senior. Eventually the vice-consul was brought out. “She told me these decisions came from Home Office rules in the UK,” he said. “She was upset talking to me, but she said the rules had been changed in the 1980s. She told me: ‘You’ve overstayed in Britain for 50 years.’ I tried to explain: everything I have ever done in life, I did it in England. I learned to walk here, I learned to talk here. In Accra, I was like an alien, just landed on Earth. She was very sympathetic, but pfft … that was about it.”
Amoah’s younger brother, Christopher, who had travelled alongside him to the funeral, returned home to London without him. “We were trying to sort it out until the day of the flight,” Christopher told me. “I had to get on the flight. I thought he would be able to sort it out, but he couldn’t. It was a nightmare.” Because Christopher had been born in the UK, he had never had problems with his documentation. He’d made a number of previous trips to Ghana, and never encountered any difficulties.
At first, Amoah was merely frustrated by what he assumed was just a stupid bureaucratic hiccup. But after a few days, it became increasingly clear that officials at the British high commission would not budge. Within a few weeks his money had run out and he found himself homeless for the first time in his life, sleeping rough in slums on the outskirts of an unfamiliar city. His siblings in Ghana helped for a bit, but they had their own lives, and Amoah felt they were suspicious of this unknown person who had turned up at their father’s funeral.
“Everything was upside down,” said Amoah. It was hard to get people to understand the problems he was having with British officials when he was struggling to understand them himself. He felt embarrassed having to ask his siblings for help, and there were some difficult misunderstandings. “I was offending people left, right and centre, and getting offended left, right and centre. I grew up in south London; I have a south London attitude, I’m a bit loose with my tongue and language. They had a real problem with that. I was totally marooned,” he told me. “I was in a country I didn’t know, among people that didn’t like me, in a culture I didn’t understand, with no sense of being able to return back home on the horizon.”
In south London, Amoah had lived a comfortable, secure life, usually facing nothing more taxing than heavy traffic during his commute to work at an upholsterers in Battersea. The fifth-floor flat he shared with his frail mother, who he cared for, overlooked a park where he enjoyed watching swans on the lake. He had a girlfriend who he saw every day. He had a good relationship with his children, who were aged between seven and 25 when went to Ghana.
In Accra, Amoah was quickly reduced to scavenging and begging. He was violently attacked on several occasions, and often afraid for his life. After two months, he returned in desperation to the high commission, hoping they might relent. He spoke to a senior diplomat, who was a distant friend of one of Amoah’s Ghanaian sisters. (I asked to speak to this diplomat but was refused.) She was aware of the unfairness of the situation, but felt unable to assist. He remembers she told him: “There’s no chance that you’re going to be allowed back into the UK.”
By the time I met Amoah, I had interviewed more than 50 people affected by the Windrush scandal. People had lost their jobs, their homes, their pensions and access to NHS care. But there was something particularly disturbing about Amoah’s conversations with a British diplomat who seemed to recognise that he was British, and that he was in an appalling situation through no fault of his own, yet did not feel inclined to help.
In Ghana, Amoah’s life unravelled. Rather than getting accustomed to the horror, he found himself less and less able to cope. Sometimes, a friend or relative would let him stay for a night or two, but then he would have to move on. “It’s hard to stay longer if you have nothing to contribute,” Amoah told me. Often he would sit in all-night bars, waiting for morning; sometimes he would huddle by a street fire in between corrugated-iron shanty houses, horrified by the open sewers running through the dirt streets. Sometimes, he slept wrapped in a cloth on the beach.
A year passed, and then a second. He became seriously ill with malaria, but had no money for medicine. He thought he might die. He picked up odd jobs here and there; a friend in England sent some money; a church offered moral support. But after a while, he lost all hope of returning home and decided to kill himself. He walked out in front of a truck on a fast highway. The truck driver swerved to avoid him and drove into a ditch. He was so furious at the damage to his truck that he attacked Amoah, beating him.
“I felt like a prisoner, being held against my will away from my family,” Amoah told me, still incredulous at the treatment so carelessly meted out to him by British bureaucrats. “It was like being incarcerated for two and a half years.” After about an hour of talking, Amoah began to cry quietly.
Amoah was particularly distressed by the damage done to his relationship with his children, who thought he had deserted them. (“They didn’t understand,” Christopher later told me. “He just disappeared from their lives. They started to resent him.”) He had no money to call them and could only occasionally afford to visit an internet cafe to try to make contact by email. “Richard is a caring, sensitive man, devoted to his children. He was his mother’s carer. It would have troubled him greatly to be stuck there away from them all,” Donovan Barnett, an old friend, told me later. “He must have been so tormented by the thought that he might never get back here.”
Christopher tried to help from London, but was overwhelmed by the bureaucracy. “I was going round in circles, calling the embassy, trying to get information,” he told me. “I was very worried. He got ill and I couldn’t get hold of him. I was thinking I would have to go to bloody bury him.”
In April 2018, while Amoah was still stuck in Accra, the Windrush scandal became major news in the UK – leading to the resignation of the home secretary, and an official apology from the prime minister. The following month, Martin Forde, a QC who specialises in medical negligence, was appointed by prime minister Theresa May to devise a compensation scheme for victims of the scandal. Forde’s own parents had come to the UK from Barbados and St Lucia as part of the Windrush generation, and he was eager to help deliver justice.
To the layperson, trying to put a monetary value on human suffering seems an impossible exercise. But compensation lawyers have a methodical approach, breaking down loss and distress into component parts that can be totted up into a neat sum.
Forde based his scheme on the tariffs set out in Judicial College Guidelines for the Assessment of General Damages in Personal Injury Cases, the bible for all compensation lawyers, now in its 15th edition. The guidelines make the process seem simple, assigning a value to every conceivable unhappy scenario. Lost a middle finger? You’re eligible for £12,460. Received a scar to the face? Take £6,240.
Particularly useful to Forde was the chapter on psychiatric and psychological damage, which breaks down levels of suffering, taking into consideration factors such as “the injured person’s ability to cope with life, education, and work” and “the effect on the injured person’s relationships with family [and] friends”. The guidelines advise that claims should be classified as moderate, moderately severe or severe, with payouts ranging between £5,000 and £108,620.
Forde drew up a booklet for Home Office staff, showing how to assess claimants’ overall experiences according to their level of distress – rising from “inconvenience, annoyance, frustration and worry” (which would bring a payout of £250) to “profound impacts on a claimant’s life which are likely to be irreversible”, which would deliver a minimum £10,000 payment. There were also separate claimable categories for different problems: homelessness (payable at £250 a month), or detention (about £100 a day, depending on the length of wrongful imprisonment). The maximum payment for someone who was wrongly deported was set at £10,000.
Applications began to be accepted in 2019. But campaigners who had seen up close the life-altering consequences of the Windrush scandal worried that these sums were rather low. David Lammy raised concerns in parliament, warning: “Victims have correctly described these payments as peanuts and insultingly low.”
In July 2018, more than 800 days after he had first landed in Ghana, Amoah’s situation was suddenly resolved. An email arrived from the same high commission official who, two years earlier, had expressed mild regret that she could not help. She had seen news reports about the Windrush scandal and realised Amoah was one of thousands of undocumented people whose Britishness had been contested. She arranged for him to have a call with the newly created Windrush taskforce to sort out documentation so he could return home.
Amoah went to an internet cafe to call the UK to explain to British officials what had happened. “They said: ‘This is a totally horrendous situation; let’s get you back here as quickly as possible.’ I could hear they were shocked, which was strange to me, because how could they be shocked when they’d been refusing me the right to come back? I was just totally bewildered.”
The official arranged the visa, and Amoah borrowed money from a relative for a plane ticket. He was amazed at the speed with which everything was resolved. “They had me out there for two and a half years for something they could have resolved in a matter of minutes,” he said.
It was cold and wet when Amoah finally landed back in Britain in December 2018, after a total of 975 days away, but he didn’t mind. “I’d been missing the cold,” he said. “I could finally exhale and inhale. I felt like I was being put back together again.” He hadn’t told his relatives he was coming back, so he took a train and then a bus from the airport, using the last bit of money he had been lent. (“I’d forgotten they didn’t take cash on buses. The driver let me on for free.”)
Quickly he realised that this wouldn’t be the return he had hoped for. During his time abroad, his mother had developed Alzheimer’s. She barely recognised him. “I’d only been able to speak to her once or twice when I was away. She was confused,” he said.
His long absence had damaged his relationship with his children. “I had become quite alienated from my family. The consensus was that I chose to stay out there. I told them I’d been stopped from coming back into the country, but I didn’t go into much detail. I wouldn’t want to upset them. They haven’t had much to do with me since I came back.”
Amoah struggled to return to normal life. He had lost his job and was unable to find new work, and he had been profoundly altered by his experience. “He was skinny, like a bag of bones,” Christopher said. “He used to be very bubbly and outgoing. Now he is the total opposite, more like a recluse.”
In the summer of 2020, a year and a half after his return, Amoah saw a TV news report about the compensation scheme and decided to apply. He searched online for a lawyer, who sent him the 18-page form, then he set about trying to shoehorn his experiences into the white spaces allocated, under headings that included:
“When did you first have difficulties proving your lawful status in the UK?”
“Include the dates you were homeless and where you stayed when you were homeless.”
“Impact on life: provide details of the non-financial impact you experienced on your daily life for which you are claiming.”
There is no space on the form for people who got stranded abroad and denied the right to return home, so he scattered his description of what had happened across other boxes.
The compensation scheme was designed to be so simple that there would be no need for lawyers, but Amoah said he didn’t feel confident enough to do this alone. He instructed Malcolm Johnson of Lime Solicitors on a no-win, no-fee basis. In November, I joined a Zoom meeting between Amoah and Johnson as they made final tweaks to his application.
“Is it about putting a value on what I lost or what I went through?” Amoah asked, pacing about his flat. “I wouldn’t say that compensation is my major object.”
Johnson, who specialises in compensation claims, explained later that he frequently encounters this peculiar British queasiness about financial compensation. Claimants are anxious not to appear money-grubbing, but lawyers have a single-minded focus on trying to achieve the maximum payout for their client. “For us, it’s all about the money,” he said.
The scheme, Johnson told me, was a “ghastly, snarled-up bureaucratic mess” – much worse than his experience with other government compensation schemes, such as those set up to compensate people who were abused in children’s homes, which allocated funding for lawyers, and often for medical reports setting out the victims’ mental trauma.
Amoah’s agreement with Johnson’s legal firm was that he would pay them 30% of whatever compensation he is awarded. In return they would help Amoah with the application and gather evidence to satisfy assessors that he was telling the truth. The priority was tracking down old payslips and tax records to prove loss of earnings, and establishing medical proof that the experience had an impact.
Both have been hard to do. Amoah’s own records were thrown away by relatives during his absence, and former employers have not been helpful. As for proving “impact”, Amoah, like many Windrush victims, was raised to be stoical, and he is disinclined to offload his feelings on to a GP, which makes it hard to prove how badly he has been affected. (“I don’t want to because I don’t want anyone thinking that I am mad,” Amoah told his lawyer.)
Johnson had spent a lot of time trying to get Amoah to articulate his pain. He told me: “At each point we ask: were you distressed? How distressed? How debilitating was it?” But Amoah’s application was largely written in short, factual sentences. “I could barely afford to eat when I was there as I was not working and had no income,” he wrote in the “Impact on life” section. “My adult children took the view that I had abandoned them and that I had decided to stay in Ghana of my own free will. My partner left me when I told her I was stuck in Ghana.” On the page, his anguish had largely been bleached out.
The compensation scheme was troubled from the start. For the first 18 months, the sums offered to successful applicants tended to be low, and many found the process itself frustrating. In some cases, requests for supporting documents seemed absurdly demanding. One person was asked to find a post office receipt for £19.60 that had been paid years earlier.
In November 2020, Alexandra Ankrah, the head of policy for the Windrush compensation team who had resigned from her post earlier that year, told the Guardian that her colleagues had “showed an unwillingness to look with any genuine concern at the situation of victims, many of whom were elderly and unwell”. She described one meeting at which officials argued over whether a terminally ill claimant should be paid “a trifling sum or a very trifling sum”.
Towards the end of 2020, even Forde, who had designed the scheme, was becoming frustrated by the slow progress and unreasonable Home Office demands for documentary proof, which echoed the original scandal. “They come at this with a high index of suspicion. I understand it’s taxpayers’ money, but I’ve told them I don’t think you get many dishonest people in that cohort,” Forde told me. “The civil servants are doing a difficult job well, but the institution is tainted.”
In December 2020, two weeks after Ankrah’s criticism of the scheme was published on the Guardian front page, home secretary Priti Patel announced a set of radical improvements. Any claimants who could show that they had been affected by the scandal would receive a swift interim payment of £10,000. The standard of proof was reduced from “beyond reasonable doubt” to “on the balance of probabilities”. The payouts for the “impact on life” categories were increased tenfold, so that someone whose life was affected in “profound” and “irreversible” ways might now in theory receive more than £100,000. “While nothing can undo the suffering they endured I hope that the additional money and support now available will go some way to rebuild trust,” said Patel.
But, almost a year later, that trust has not been rebuilt. When the scheme was initially devised, civil servants estimated that the government could pay up to £570m to 15,000 people, but those figures have been revised downwards. The latest available figures, from October 2021, show that after two and a half years, only £32.9m had been paid out to just 885 people, and they now think they are only likely to receive around 3,000 applicants.
Last month, I visited the Home Office’s headquarters in Sheffield, where civil servants conduct the initial assessments for Windrush compensation claims. On the walls, staff had pinned up thank you messages from people who have received payments, along with small, homemade cut-out figures – presumably meant to represent satisfied claimants – with words like “integrity”, “grateful”, and “phenomenal” written across them in felt tip. “Staff are happy to receive the thank yous, because there has been a lot of bad press,” the acting head of the scheme told me.
The staff I spoke to felt proud of the work they were doing, and were very defensive about the criticism they were receiving over the slow progress of payouts. By the time of my visit, the home affairs select committee, then the National Audit Office, then the Public Accounts Committee, and finally a human rights and legal organisation, Justice, had all launched investigations into what was taking so long.
The various reports have highlighted numerous problems with the scheme. They note that staffing levels have been consistently lower than planned. The Home Office initially stated it needed 200 caseworkers, but the scheme was launched with just six who were working full-time. Later, the proposed headcount was reduced to 125 full-time employees, but by October 2021, only about 80 of these positions had been filled. When I put this to the Home Office, I was told that they were aiming to recruit another 34 over the next three months. It is now advertising for “compassionate and eager individuals”.
Another stumbling block has been the failure to allocate money for claimants to get legal advice when filling in the forms. In the crucial “impact on life” section, claimants often downplay just how badly they have suffered. “They are very embarrassed about the condition that they find themselves in now,” Jacqueline Mackenzie, a partner at the law firm Leigh Day, who has provided pro bono help to more than 100 applicants. “They need to be helped to explain how that has affected them,” she said, echoing what Amoah’s lawyer told me. What puzzles Mackenzie is why the Home Office has failed to recognise this persistent problem. “You would have thought that Windrush is the one group that they would want to get to things right for, but they seem to be failing abysmally,” she said.
The Home Office is also regarded with understandable suspicion by many of those eligible for compensation. Some continue to believe, erroneously, that the scheme is a way to round up illegal immigrants; a Home Office survey revealed that 12% of respondents believed that the scheme was set up to send people who are in the UK illegally back to their country of origin.
The team in currently charge of the scheme acknowledge these criticisms, and say that changes have been made. About 200 outreach events have been organised, trying to persuade people to apply. “I’m not going to be daft enough to say that it’s all great, when it isn’t. But we are making progress,” another senior manager said. Staff point out that the cases they’re dealing with are inherently complicated. “It would be easier if everyone applied with a neat pile of documents, but very few people keep records and most people have had a disrupted life because of what they’ve experienced. They may have been homeless, they don’t always have many documents. It does take some time to build up that picture.” Originally the Home Office estimated that it would take staff on average 30 hours to process a case; now they say it take more than five times that. “We can’t pretend that it is fast or simple, but we’re not dragging our feet because we can’t be bothered,” the senior manager said.
When I asked about Amoah’s claim, staff could say nothing except that in cases of people being wrongly exiled, it would be up to the applicant to demonstrate how deeply their life was affected. To qualify for an impact on life payment at level 1 (£10,000), Amoah would need to show family events had been missed. To qualify for level 2 (£20,000) he would need to prove “some family separation”. For level 3 (£40,000), Amoah would have to demonstrate that his ability to live a relatively normal life was “substantially affected”, or for level 4 (£70,000) “seriously compromised”. For level 5, the maximum (£100,000), he would need to prove major physical or mental health impacts, from which a return to a relatively normal life is likely to take several years. The sticking point may be the question of proof. Without a psychiatric report or notes from a doctor that provide enough detail of his suffering, Amoah’s claim may be found to lack sufficient evidence, and result in a low payout.
While staff wish more people were aware of the cases in which large payouts have been awarded, they recognise that publicising these cases is extremely difficult. “It’s never an outcome that you can be pleased about. We can’t say this is a good result, because then we would have to say, we did this terrible thing to someone, but look, now it has worked out well! It’s just not a good news story,” said a senior Home Office civil servant, helping supervise the scheme operation from London. Every day, they are reminded of the ways in which their department has devastated people’s lives, which can be particularly confronting for people who have spent their whole career with the Home Office. “What I do now is the polar opposite of what I used to do,” said one caseworker, who transferred over from an immigration enforcement role. “We’re recognising how much damage we have done,” another caseworker said. “It’s hard, the realisation that the organisation we work for did something so bad to them and we can’t take that back.” Taking helpline calls can be distressing. “Sometimes people will be really aggressive, telling us how they’ve suffered, then the next person on the phone will be crying, absolutely in bits,” the senior manager said.
The staff who I spoke to seemed genuinely committed to their work, and hopeful that, in the end, people will receive fair payments. “The home secretary and the department remain steadfast in our commitment to ensure that members of the Windrush generation receive every penny of compensation that they are entitled to,” said the Home Office in a statement. One case worker told me: “It’s drummed into us that it is our job to try to get them as high an award as possible.”
They are aware of their department’s poor reputation, but they argue that transferring responsibility for the scheme away from the Home Office – as the home affairs select committee report recommended last week – would simply cause further delays. “It’s not a popularity contest. People don’t have to like us. I don’t even mind if they don’t trust us, as long as they apply,” the senior civil servant said.
In the summer, Amoah received a £10,000 interim payment – an acknowledgment that staff accept he has a valid claim. Most of the money went towards paying off debts, and on organising a funeral for his mother, who died in August. Eight months after applying, Amoah has begun checking his email daily, waiting for news of a payment that could allow him to start rebuilding his life. He hasn’t been able to get his old job back, but he would like to start his own upholstery firm, and perhaps give something to his children.
Periodically, he calls the Windrush helpline to see if the full amount might be paid soon; they tell him that the claim is being processed. “They say they have a limited amount of staff dealing with a heavy workload. They’re very polite, but the wheels of bureaucracy seem to turn very slowly,” he said.
Amoah isn’t sure if a financial settlement could restore his life to anything like how it was before, but he hopes his application conveyed to Home Office staff what it was like to feel trapped abroad with no way of returning home. “I want them to try to understand what they did to me. It was pretty extreme,” he said. “I only went out there for a couple of weeks.”