Immigration minister Liam Byrne has taken the wraps off the long-predicted (in these parts, at least) plan to hit immigrants in the first wave of ID cards, and to force employers to police the system. David Blunkett first trailed this scheme in November 2004, while an IPPR report last year recommended hitting immigrants with ID cards by 2008.
Notice the organisation Blunkett was speaking to? There's a coincidence. Liam "Charlie" Byrne (the Home Office's very own round-headed kid), trailing the proposed Borders Bill on Radio 4's Today programme, essentially followed the script of Blunkett's 2004 IPPR speech. There have for some years now been legal provisions for heavy penalties for companies hiring illegal immigrants, and it is the employer's responsibility to ensure that employees have the right to work in the UK. These provisions have however been virtually unenforceable, because of the number of different documents which can be used to 'prove' right to work, and the relative ease with which these can be forged. Byrne this morning told us that there were currently over 60 documents which could be used, and that biometric ID cards for immigrants would provide employers with "a fail-safe, easy method to check whether someone is here legally."
Blunkett said in 2004: "The verification process under ID cards would remove [the multiplicity of documents] excuse completely and people would know who was entitled to be here and open to pay taxes and NI." In the Home Office, the ministers move at far greater velocity than the plans.
Byrne said that the new measures would tackle the cause of illegal immigration, which in his world turns out not to be the relative poverty that induces people to come to the UK, but 'illegal working'. In any event it seems clear that the Home Office views employment as the current front line in its battle to slay the many-headed hydra that is the 'immigration problem'. Compulsory ID cards for all non-EU nationals will mean that by definition all of these who want a job will be in a position to prove their right to work, 'absolutely', and although it's unlikely that they'll be compelled to carry a card at all times, this will probably turn out to be a de facto requirement (in some areas of the country non-EU nationals already feel this is necessary because of frequent Immigration & Nationality Directorate and police stop and search operations).
Because an ID card becomes the 'gold standard', 'absolute' proof of right to work and residence, the government will be able to throw the book at employers who flout the system, and employers who don't ask potential employees for an ID card will have, as Blunkett put it, no excuse. And, as the Home Office will now pitch it to employers, won't it be so much simpler to have to check just one totally reliable piece of ID, rather than wondering whether or not dozens of documents are forged, genuine or have any meaning at all?
Employers with a memory will know this process well. In the name of fighting crime, illegal immigration, fraud, terrorism or perversion the government demands rigorous and costly checks on penalty of heavy sanctions, then the government smiles sweetly and tells them how much time and money they'll save because of the introduction of ID cards. Unsurprisingly, it often turns out businesses would prefer to spend less time and money on all of this government-required crap, resulting in consultations, surveys and focus groups which indicate that 'business favours ID cards.' It'll be along in a minute, you watch out.
What, though, of the biometrics and the 'count them in and out' border controls that Byrne is still pushing? The Home Office could conceivably force large quantities of ID cards onto immigrants in a very short period, but the infrastructure, connectivity and databases needed in order to police the borders and to allow employers to run biometric checks can't be rolled out so speedily (if at all). It is however perfectly possible that in the early period at least all that will be required of employers is to make a visual check of the card. Data from employers could be cross-referenced with Department of Work & Pensions and IND records (Could this be done anyway, without ID cards? Indeedy...), and in theory you'd have a potentially reliable system. So long as cards couldn't easily be forged, so long as the authorities actually did something with the employee data (ahem...), and so long as employers entirely ignoring the system were speedily detected and prosecuted (ahem, ahem...) you might have the beginning of a workable system there.
This would however mean that the primary mechanism of immigration control would not be at the border, but "in-country", as Liberty's Shami Chakrabarti put it this morning. Checks would take place at employers and on the street, of people who are immigrants, people who look like they might be, and ultimately of people in general, by employers and police keen to avoid accusations of discrimination. As part of this process the government will release into the wild millions of ID documents of doubtful security, along with that most compelling of incentives to forgery, the massive illegal immigration crack-down. If these things make it out of the door in volume before the fat lady calls time at the ballot box, the crash will be very messy indeed. ®