A Windrush pensioner who has lived in Britain for 52 years was landed with a bill of more than £33,000 from the government for past disability benefits and threatened with deportation.
Valerie Baker, 66, came to Britain from Jamaica as a four-year-old in 1955 on her aunt’s passport. Her mother and father had arrived a year earlier after taking up the invitation to help rebuild the country after the war.
She was educated in London, and worked all her life but was forced into early retirement in 2008 because of chronic back problems.
Last April, she received a letter from the Home Office, telling her she had “no lawful basis to remain in the UK and you should leave as soon as possible”. If she didn’t leave the country within seven days, she was told she could be deported at any time.
“I was just so numb. At first I thought it was an April Fool’s joke because the letter came on 1 April. It just came out of the blue, I really kept thinking it can’t be true,” she said.
She and her husband Tony, were so scared they left their home “in case they showed up with vans and took me away”. They began to worry that she would be put in a detention centre. Tony, 71, who suffers from high blood pressure, was desperately stressed about how his wife would fare on her own in a country she had never been back to.
As the reality of the threat sank in, Valerie Baker began to have suicidal thoughts. “I was thinking, ‘I’ve got no children, I’ve got no family in Jamaica. If I’m deported I’m going to be there all on my own’,” she said. “Being in a detention centre would be worse than prison. It does make you suicidal, you have no hope.”
“I am British. That’s all I can be. I don’t know anything else,” she said. “The only people I knew in Jamaica were an aunt and uncle, and they were dead.”
This was only a prelude for what was to come. On 6 June, she received a letter from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), saying her disability allowance was stopped.
On 28 June another letter landed, demanding she return “overpayments” of £33,590.20 in benefits. They also told her she had “misrepresented the fact that you were British when in fact you were subject to immigration control”.
Sitting in her modest Grimsby home, Valerie recalls: “I just went berserk. I got onto the DWP and they wouldn’t speak to me. When I gave them the reference number they told me it was an immigration case.
“I then got hold of someone in the Home Office and they wouldn’t do anything. They said it was out of their hands.”
On 6 August, she got another letter from the DWP telling her if she didn’t pay the £33,590.20 they would put a debt collection agency on to her.
“I was livid. I’ve worked all my life,” she said. “I am not a scrounger. It is not as if I haven’t paid into the national insurance system. The thing is, they are so arrogant they won’t even speak to you,” she said.
“I was very angry, I still am. I want a proper apology from Theresa May. I know she has apologised but that’s not good enough. I think we all need a personal apology.”
She believes it was a back operation six months before the deportation letter arrived that prompted the situation, because NHS managers can ask for proof of entitlement since the “hostile environment” legislation was introduced.
By pure chance, Valerie was able to hire a lawyer at Kingsley Napley, a leading City firm, because her sister had worked as a secretary there 10 years ago. “Others may not be so lucky,” she said. She fought her case and finally got her British citizenship through marriage to her husband, Tony, who is an English national. The DWP dropped its claim after her British citizenship was documented.
Obtaining citizenship this way was easier than trying to prove Valerie was entitled to a “right of abode” as a member of the Windrush generation arriving as a British subject, said Marcia Longdon, her lawyer.
“This woman is a model citizen. An educated, qualified accountant who is respected in her community and has contributed national insurance to the country for 40 years. This shows how little respect they have,” Longdon added.
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