A Windrush man who was told the UK government had no record of him despite having spent nearly a decade serving in the British army says he is struggling to obtain compensation two years on.
Paul Nichols, 75, was denied a student loan at the end of 2017 because his details were not on record – which he said left him feeling “betrayed” after having been drafted into the armed forces from Barbados when he was 19 and lived in Britain ever since.
Despite going through this, the Caribbean national says he has not yet applied for reparations under the Windrush compensation scheme due to difficulties accessing proper legal support to do so.
Mr Nichols is one of many Windrush victims who, nearly two years after the scandal emerged, are struggling to get their lives back together due to a reported lack of state-funded support to help them claim compensation or apply for hardship funds.
In some cases this is leading to people submitting very poor quality claims that may be rejected even though they are eligible, while in others it is causing people not to apply at all because the process is simply too complex to do without legal support, according to campaigners.
The compensation scheme was announced in April and could pay out between £200m and £570m to Commonwealth nationals who had been in Britain for decades but had been refused their basic rights in the country. The Home Office has not released figures about how many people have applied.
Since April 2019, Citizens Advice branches across the country have been providing a service funded by the Home Office to help those who are applying to the compensation scheme to fill in forms and provide support over the phone and in person, but lawyers said this was “far from” the help that was required.
Mr Nichols said that although he knew he was eligible, the advice available for applying to the scheme was inadequate. He said he had already been offered poor legal advice by an independent lawyer, and that when he called Citizens Advice he experienced an “absolute nightmare” trying to get through to the right person on the phone.
“I’ve spoken to various people and they give me advice and what not, but a lot of the advice given could be a lot better. There could be better communication. It is so complicated, especially for a lot of people who aren’t able to understand the jargon,” he said.
“I wasted time and money on a particular legal adviser who was not forthcoming. Now I am hoping to get help from my MP. But it should be more open and flexible. The government owes a debt… they need to keep up their end of the bargain.”
Remembering how he felt when told he wasn’t eligible for a student loan due to his immigration status, he said: “It was unbelievable. It’s not just being refused because you haven’t got the papers, it’s being told you do not exist. I put my life on the line for Great Britain. To be dealt with in that dismissive manner after that is very traumatic.”
Immigration lawyer Jacqueline McKenzie, who has helped many to apply for Windrush compensation on a pro-bono basis, said: “There’s no money for it to be done properly. You’ve got all these little groups that have sprung up, offering legal advice from people without expertise. We’re talking about peanuts – very small sums of money that would make a difference.”
She claimed the shortage of funding for the Windrush community when compared to the government money that has gone into helping people apply for the EU settlement scheme – which includes £50m on an app and £9m for charities helping vulnerable people apply – amounted to racism.
“I don’t want to be divisive between communities because it’s dreadful what’s happening to many EU nationals, but their cases in the main are quite straightforward. I do settled status cases and they take me half an hour. With the Windrush cases I’m seeing people five, six times just to get a witness statement to understand the impact on their life and the trauma,” she said.
“Why are they treating these communities so differently? There can only be one explanation for that, and I’m afraid I do think it’s racism.”
Jamie Beagent, a human rights lawyer at Leigh Day who is assisting around 30 Windrush victims with their compensation applications on a pro-bono basis, said the Home Office was “misconceived” in its argument that people would be able to present their cases sufficiently enough to be fairly compensated without legal advice.
He said he and his team were spending long periods of time on each case due to their complexity, and having to spend large fees on obtaining medical records, Home Office records and other documents to provide as evidence.
“In terms of preparing a legal case to support complex historical claims of loss, it really is too much for most people to present a strong enough case to have that fairly assessed and be compensated,” he said.
“If there was payment we could help more people, but we can’t commit more time unremunerated. Certainly, the cases that we’re conducting, it’s taking qualified solicitors a significant amount of time to help clients’ individual cases and claims.”
Mr Beagent said the lack of legal support was causing some people who are eligible for compensation not to apply because the process is “mind-boggling” to them, and warned there would be miscarriages of justice because people won’t be able to present their cases in a manner that satisfies the Home Office.
“Based on anecdotally people not applying when they’re entitled to, it would suggest people are suffering from the financial consequences of what’s gone on, without having a prospect of recompense.”
Martin Forde QC, who devised the Windrush compensation scheme, said the main issue was not the lack of support but a lack of publicity about the service offered by Citizens Advice and a wider distrust in the Home Office among those affected.
He said however that he would be in support of the Home Office offering funding to community groups in whom claimants may have greater trust, adding: “The scheme must be accessible and financial assistance forthcoming from the Home Office who would no doubt require proper audit and governance as this is taxpayers’ money.
“Such has been the support throughout the country for the Windrush victims and such has been the feeling of national shame I do not believe taxpayers would be anything other than supportive of funding support for those making claims.”
A Home Office spokesperson said the department was “currently looking at what more we can do on providing support for claimants”.
They added: “We are righting the wrongs experienced by the Windrush generation. That is why we established the Windrush compensation scheme, which has been carefully designed with independent oversight so that it is as easy to use as possible.
“The scheme aims to provide a decision to applicants as soon as possible but it is right that we take the time to ensure these are dealt with properly. There is independent advice and assistance available to anyone who would like support to complete their claim."