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Watchdog warns Home Office must use ‘neutral language’ after outrage over ‘activist lawyers’ tweet

The Independent logo The Independent 15/10/2020 May Bulman
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A Home Office watchdog has said the department must use “neutral language” after its repeated use of the term “activist lawyer” prompted outrage.

Wendy Williams, who carried out the Windrush Lessons Learned Review, and is a senior officer at the government’s inspectorate of constabulary, told MPs it was “absolutely essential” that the department used the “right language” when talking about migration.

She was speaking in relation to a video posted on the Home Office’s official Twitter page last month in which it referred to immigration lawyers providing legal advice to migrants as “activist lawyers” trying to “delay and disrupt returns”.

The video faced criticism from legal professionals, who warned that the phrase “undermined the rule of law”.

Within hours of the tweet being posted, Matthew Rycroft, permanent secretary at the Home Office, admitted that this language “should not have been used” on an official government channel, and would “not be used” again on any Home Office channels. The video was subsequently deleted.

Office watchdog warns department must use 'neutral language' after outrage over activist lawyers tweet
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During an evidence session with the Home Affairs Select Committee on Wednesday, Ms Williams, who published her review into the Windrush scandal in March, was asked by chair of the committee Yvette Cooper whether she thought Mr Rycroft was right to apologise for the tweet.

She responded that, while she couldn’t comment on the specific comment, it was “absolutely essential” that, when talking about migration, the Home Office used “neutral” language, “given the highly contentious areas of public policy with which [the department] deals”.

It comes after it emerged that a man entered the office of an immigration law firm brandishing a knife, days after Priti Patel , the home secretary, had complained about “activist lawyers” who were working to delay the removal of failed asylum seekers.

During the evidence session, Ms Williams also said she was “surprised” that the number of people to have so far been granted Windrush compensation was so low.

The latest official figures show that as of September 2020, 168 out of 1,272 claimants had received payments since the scheme opened in April 2019 – two of which were awarded posthumously.

“[The compensations scheme] is an opportunity for the Home Office to demonstrate it’s taking things seriously. If only 168 people have been recompensed, I struggle to see how the department can justify that,” Ms Williams added.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are determined to right the wrongs of the Windrush generation, and launched the Windrush compensation scheme to ensure that people get the compensation they deserve. 

"The scheme has now paid out or offered more than £2.5m, and more offers are being made every single week. While we aim to process claims as quickly as possible, it is important we get this right, and that each case is processed individually with the care and sensitivity they deserve. 

"This will mean that the maximum payment can be made to every single person. As Wendy Williams said today, the compensation scheme is one of the indicators that the Home Office has recognised the wrongs that have been done and is working hard to recompense people who have suffered as a result.”

Read more

Top civil servant says Home Office wrong to use term ‘activist lawyer’

Home Office condemned for describing solicitors as ‘activist lawyers’

Nine in 10 Windrush applicants still waiting for compensation payouts

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