The most controversial British scandals of the 21st century

From Windrush to Oxfam, the past 23 years has seen a series of controversies

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The News of the World was brought down by hacking expose
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Prince William has paid tribute to the Windrush generation on the 75th anniversary of their arrival in Britain – and five years after their treatment by the Home Office was the subject of a scandal whose repercussions are still being felt.

In a video to mark the 75th anniversary of the first crossing from the Carribean, he said those voyagers had helped to rebuild the country and shape its culture after the Second World War.

“Their contributions to Britain cannot be overstated,” he said. “We are a better people today because the children and the grandchildren of those who came in 1948 have stayed and become part of who we are in 2023. And for that we are forever grateful.”

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In 2018, an investigation by The Guardian found that changes in government policy had resulted in some of those early arrivals, who had an automatic right to British citizenship, had been wrongfully expelled from the country because they had never been given proof of their right to remain.

It became one of the British scandals of the past 23 years:

Dr David Kelly and the Hutton Inquiry

On 17 July 2003, Dr David Kelly, a civil servant from the Ministry of Defence, apparently committed suicide after being misquoted by BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan as saying that Tony Blair’s Labour government had knowingly “sexed up” a report into Iraq and weapons of mass destruction.

Critics of Blair and his advisor Alastair Campbell argued that the government’s spinning machine had put Kelly under such pressure that he had killed himself. But in the subsequent Hutton Inquiry, the government was cleared of wrongdoing, while the BBC was strongly criticised, leading to the resignations of Gilligan and both the broadcaster’s chair and director-general.

Phone hacking

In 2005, the News of the World published a story about Prince William’s treatment for a knee injury, based on information that could only have come from hacking into the Prince’s voicemails.

The ensuing police investigation uncovered a series of other victims including murdered teenager Milly Dowling, whose voicemail was hacked after she was reported missing. The scandal led to the closure of the 168-year-old tabloid, in 2011, and “went to the heart of Downing Street”, says the BBC. The ensuing outcry resulted “in the conviction of David Cameron’s official spokesman Andy Coulson” and in “moves to change the way newspapers are regulated”, adds the broadcaster.

Payment Protection Insurance (PPI)

PPI policies had been sold alongside mortgages, loans and credit cards since the 1990s. The financial product was meant to repay people’s borrowings if their income fell in the event that they became ill or lost their jobs.

But a chorus of complaints began when the banking industry “began aggressively selling PPI to customers after realising that the policies were highly profitable”, says The Guardian. The product was dubbed a “protection racket” by Citizens Advice in 2005.

In 2011, several high-profile companies were fined by the Financial Conduct Authority and ordered to repay the costs of the product, and consumers are still reclaiming missold PPI today.

MPs’ expenses

Politicians faced outrage in 2009 when The Daily Telegraph revealed widespread misuse of the allowances and expenses permitted to ministers.

MPs “made claims for duck houses, massage chairs and moat-cleaning; they’ve been had for claiming interest payments on mortgages they’ve already paid off; and they’ve enjoyed tax advice at the taxpayer’s expense”, said The Spectator at the time. Among the many eye-catching disclosures were expenses claims by then home secretary Jacqui Smith for porn films bought by her husband, along with home fittings down to an 88p bath plug.

The scandal saw Michael Martin become the first Commons speaker to be forced from office for more than 300 years.

Sex abuse scandals

In late 2012, almost a year after his death, reports surfaced indicating that Jimmy Savile had committed sexual abuse throughout his 50-year career in the entertainment industry.

A police investigation, Operation Yewtree, was set up by the Metropolitan Police to look into historic allegations of child sexual abuse by the late TV presenter and other high-profile individuals. A total of 589 alleged victims came forward, of whom 450 claimed to have been abused by Savile.

The case proved to be just one of a number of sexual abuse scandals in the worlds of entertainment, religion, politics and charity organisations.

The #MeToo movement - sparked by claims against US film producer Harvey Weinstein, who has consistently denied “any non-consensual sex” - spread to the UK, giving a voice to victims alleging abuse.

Even the nation’s beloved game has been sullied. In 2016, The Guardian ran a series of interviews with former footballers, revealing the extent of abuse by former football coaches and scouts in the UK during the latter half of the 20th century. So far 13 people have been charged.

The Windrush scandal

In 2018, an investigation by The Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman found that the UK government’s “hostile environment” police on immigration had resulted in members of the Windrush generation being wrongly detained, deported, or threatened with deportation.

What “seemed like a politically savvy policy of creating ‘very hostile environments’ for illegal immigrants now looks like a tin-eared, uncaring threat to people with every right to be here”, said The Times’ Matt Chorley.

The scandal eventually brought down home secretary Amber Rudd and prompted difficult questions for Theresa May, who was prime minister at the time. As home secretary, May had introduced the “hostile environment” policy.

Five years later, said CNN, “of an estimated 15,000 victims believed to be eligible for compensation, some 90% have yet to receive any payout”.

The British Post Office scandal

In 2019 a landmark court case brought to light the wrongful persecution of hundreds of British postmasters and postmistresses. According to the BBC, the scandal “has been described as the most widespread miscarriage of justice in UK history”.

The issue emerged following the introduction of a new computer system called Horizon in 1999, which was designed to manage accounts and transactions at Post Office branches across the country.

Numerous postmasters soon began reporting discrepancies and financial shortfalls that they believed were the result of glitches or errors within the Horizon system. However, instead of investigating these claims, the Post Office aggressively pursued legal action against the accused postmasters, accusing them of theft, fraud, and false accounting.

Many postmasters’ lives were upended, with some losing their jobs, homes, and reputations, while others suffered immense personal and financial hardships. Even today, “horrific detail piles on horrific detail as the inquiry rumbles on, barely noticed by those for whom this injustice is seemingly not sexy enough”, said The Guardian’s Marina Hyde.

Partygate

In late 2021, reports and leaked documents began to emerge that numerous parties and social gatherings had taken place at Downing Street and other government buildings during periods in which strict Covid-19 lockdown measures were in place across the UK.

The revelations caused broad public outrage as they unveiled a stark contrast between the actions of government officials and the strict rules imposed on the general public. Photos and testimonies gradually trickled out, indicating that large gatherings were held without masks or social distancing, in clear violation of the government’s own guidelines.

Much of the anger at Johnson’s breaking of his government’s own lockdown rules was “deeply personal” said Pippa Catterall, a professor of history and policy at the University of Westminster.

“Many people who lost loved ones and were unable to attend funerals and publicly grieve, or who missed other key family events,” she wrote in a blog post for LSE last year. “No wonder Partygate matters to them”.

The scandal led to widespread criticism of former prime minister Boris Johnson and his government’s handling of the pandemic, and has since triggered investigations, inquiries, and a broader debate about the culture of impunity within the political elite and the need for transparency and integrity in governance.

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