'Tag all the foreigners' - possible ID card sales pitch emerges

Why settle for oppressed illegal workers when you can have oppressed legal ones instead?

Comment The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) suggestion that the UK's illegal immigrant population should be offered amnesty (full report here) does not on the surface look entirely helpful to the Government. Could it be that one of the top Blairite think tanks has joined those sinking their fangs into Mr Tony? Perhaps - but The Register's department of strange coincidences sees a strong possibility that this is a lifeboat whose time is coming.

The Identity Cards Act finally (but one still hopes, temporarily) made it onto the statute book yesterday, and the Passport Service and all of its ultra vires identity-related activities will magically transform itself into the Identity and Passport Service tomorrow. We still don't accept that this is entirely legal, but phase one of the Government's incredible, improbable and unworkable joined-up border-watch, security and immigration policing system has now been given the Parliamentary green light, and immigration is one of the areas where it should bite first.

So consider how it's supposed to work vis a vis immigration, and while doing so suspend disbelief, because as we will shortly explain it isn't really necessary for it to work to any significant extent for the IPPR's shock suggestions to acquire a certain attractiveness and utility. All that is needed is for the Government to claim that it's working; and claiming things are working when they are patently not is something of a special skill of this regime.

The theory behind the system runs approximately as follows. Overseas visa applicants have their biometrics read as part of the application and can therefore be positively identified on entry to the country. Because their biometrics are on record, the chances of intercepting and deporting overstayers increases, at least in theory. Biometrics are also taken from new asylum applicants, so again they're on record and can theoretically be nicked and returned. Non-UK EU citizens will in the future have to have an ID card if they're resident in the UK for longer than three months; this one won't be in place for a while yet as compulsion can only be applied to them when it is also applied to UK citizens (EU law talking here), but it's an important aspect of the 'ring of steel' in that it provides a means of differentiation between say, Underpaid Polish cockle-picking EU citizens (good) and underpaid Ukrainian cockle-picking non-EU citizens (bad).

Yes, we all know that the system will never work to specification and that a future New labour Government (should there ever be one) will find itself in search of a face-saving escape route. But in the interim there will be a period where the biometric border and immigration policy will be claimed to be working, and where the Government can claim that thanks to its tough measures and foresight it is now really, really difficult for illegal immigrants to get into the country without being caught. So what about the anomalies, the difficult cases, the ones we can probably blame the Tories for?

After several years of teeth-pulling the Government finally confessed last year that it was possible after all to estimate how many illegal immigrants were at large in the UK and that the number was, um, maybe as high as 570,000. It could be lower (but probably isn't), it could be higher, but we'll be nice and for the sake of argument call it 500,000 people that it's going to be exceedingly difficult to do anything about under either the current or the planned immigration regime. Rounding them all up and deporting them would take forever, cost a fortune and alienate large sections of the population, but amnestying them (as Spain did recently) would send the popular press ballistic, not least because (as Immigration Ministers have frequently said) illegal immigrants would be more likely to come to the UK if they felt they'd eventually be allowed to stay.

The arguments in the US concerning the Mexican border and illegal immigration cover similar territory, as do arguments raging right across the developed world (there's a moral here, but we'll skip it for today). The typical outcome is that the Government talks tough on immigration measures and tries to shut off the routes that continually top up the numbers of in-country illegals, but tiptoes away from confronting the question of what you do about all of the ones who've got here already.

But one day they're going to have to. IPPR director Nick Pearce points out that "It is inconceivable that these people will all be deported, even in the wildest fantasies of the anti-immigration right. The Immigration Service has more than enough on its hands policing our borders and removing newly arrived failed asylum-seekers. To go round the country finding, detaining and then deporting up to half a million people who don't have regular status simply will not happen." Which is sensible enough, and it's worth noting that he's not arguing the point from any kind of bleeding heart liberal perspective - he's saying we can't afford it and it wouldn't work.

The IPPR stresses that no single policy will prevent all forms of what it calls "irregular migration", and most of the policy options it lists, including tightening border controls, toughening employment legislation and encouraging voluntary returns, are already being tried to some extent by the UK Government. But only one option, regularisation or amnesty, stands any chance of significantly reducing the size of the illegal/irregular population. A regularisation process, the IPPR argues, would raise £1 billion for the Treasury through tax revenues, and "could be combined with the issuing of ID cards to foreign nationals in 2008."

Which is the punchline. As it tiptoes away from the problem the Government is aware, has always been aware, that some day a Government is going to have to let these people stay. It has been politically impossible for Governments which have made tough immigration policy a key election plank to be seen to "reward" illegal immigrants, so historically the policies implemented have been heavy on symbolism, light on effect. But, if a Government can claim that its e-Borders and biometric ID measures are shutting off the entry points, that there are clear economic benefits to bringing illegal workers into the tax system, and that this is a one time, 'give yourself up or you're out' offer, maybe it can sell it.

The IPPR's suggested policy option covering ID cards, incidentally, is that "Internal controls (e.g. ID cards)" will make it easier for police to "identify irregular migrants" and provide "disincentives to enter a country as it is more difficult to live and work there." Figure out for yourself where on the road to pass laws these "internal controls" will take us. But you could see how a truly cynical and despicable Home Secretary could play this. The IPPR's suggestion that regularisation "could" be combined with ID cards is a little silly, because given that we've got an ID card scheme rolling and given that migrants of all kinds are going to get ID cards, quite clearly regularised illegal immigrants will get ID cards. Could has nothing to do with it.

But if we accept that regularisation has an inevitability to it, then the aforementioned cynical and despicable Home Secretary needs to judge the optimum moment when it will be most politically acceptable. Such a moment approaches around 2008, when ID cards will exist but will not have sufficient penetration among the UK citizen population to have become really annoying, and when tag all the foreigners and make 'em pay their fair share of taxes could provide justification (albeit temporary) for ID cards. Play your cards right, you evil, evil man, and you might even get the tabloid editors to sell it for you.*

And, you'll note, there is no need for the ID card scheme to be finished or to work for this route to be feasible. Au contaire, it simply has to be presented as being on the point of working (cf practically any Government system where the published stats look awful, but Ministers cite more recent, not yet published stats that 'show' how much better things are getting). And if in a few more years time the jig's going to be up, it's actually extremely important to get the move through before it's patently obvious to everybody that the system's a wreck.

The IPPR doesn't quite put it like that. It makes a reasonable statement of the current situation, and presents a plausible economic case for taking the regularisation route. It does however presuppose that the various Government immigration control policy routes will actually work (But it would do, wouldn't it? As a Blairite think tank it helped think quite a lot of them up). Taking into account the ineffectiveness of much of immigration policy so far and Government's grisly track record on IT projects, you may well take The Register's view that it all definitely won't work. But what happens if/when it doesn't?

More of the same. Think of historical immigration policy as largely consisting of symbolism, barely implemented in the real world and largely unworkable if anybody every seriously tried to implement it. A future unworkable immigration policy could just as easily proceed on the basis of symbolism with nobody admitting that it doesn't work (say it doesn't exist and somewhere, an Immigration Minister dies) and Governments announcing new tough measures and systems that will make it better Real Soon Now. People outside of the developed world will continue to come here for as long as the crappiest, most desperate and dangerous job available here is still more attractive than what's on offer at home. British business will still need people in low-paid, crappy and desperate jobs, but will obviously prefer having legal people in these jobs (same wages) than illegal ones. But it will continue to be shocked and appalled whenever it learns of the employment practices of some of its contractors ('We're shocked, shocked... We've begun a thoroughgoing review of all of our suppliers').** You weren't looking for anything like a happy ending, were you? ®

* Front-loading foreigners in the initial rollout could however have unfortunate side effects. An unexpectedly geeky thread at Blairwatch runs some numbers for the scheme's early years and concludes that it's on auto-wreck. Even without adding in 500,000 people you hadn't previously been expecting.

** A major series of reports last year by The Guardian's Felicity Lawrence covered this territory in great detail. Articles can be found here, here and here, but we can't help noticing it's a lot easier to navigate the world's most Internet-aware newspaper from the TGWU link page, here.

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