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Immigration, police share data in trawl of 'crime hot-spots'

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As the UK Home Office has stressed on numerous occasions, police will not be given powers to demand ID papers from you as and when a national identity card is introduced. The Home Office has not however shouted quite so loudly about the fact that the Immigration and Nationalities Directorate (IND) has these powers already, and has been busily using them since at least May 2003.

In a House of Commons written answer (reported here, and in Hansard here, immigration minister Des Browne confirmed that "a variety of joint multi-agency street crime operations" has been mounted in London over the past 15 months, and that: "Focusing on crime hotspots, the Immigration Service has been invited to attend where an immigration offence is expected."

Browne was fielding a question from Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman Mark Oaten, who had requested a statement on these joint exercises, and data on the number of individuals questioned and the number arrested. Browne's answer, you will note, fails to focus on the specific question and, unsurprisingly, fails to produce complete data. In 235 operations involving the Immigration Service between May 2003 and July 2004, around 1,000 immigration offenders, including 717 failed asylum seekers, were arrested. The data on the numbers of people questioned, on the other hand, is kept by police officers "in their individual notebooks" and "not collated centrally."

Regrettably, it is therefore not possible for the Home Office to assess the race relations impact of such operations; news reports from last month however suggest that there probably is one. Oaten's question appears to follow up a story from the Evening Standard which revealed joint Immigration Service and Transport Police operations, and witnessed "a series of people getting off Tube trains [being] stopped by immigration officers dressed in body armour and carrying handcuffs." An immigration officer helpfully explained: 'If you hear someone speaking a language that's not European we approach them and ask, do you mind if I ask you what nationality you are?'"

According to Browne's statement immigration officers "may legitimately question people to determine their immigration status where there is reasonable suspicion that a person is an immigration offender", so it's useful clarification to note that the officers on the ground see speaking foreign languages as grounds for "reasonable suspicion." A report of a specific swoop from the Bucks Free Press provides more details.

"Operation Collegiate" was mounted in early August at Harrow and Wealdstone station by the Immigration Service and British Transport Police in conjunction with train operator Silverlink. "Suspected fare dodgers were approached by police officers and their names checked against databases on handheld computers to see if they were illegal immigrants or were wanted for other offences." This, incidentally, suggests we have a trawl within a trawl, as it is not part of the usual business of Transport Police to operate as ticket inspectors. As the Free Press tells us, however: "A BTP spokesman said that many criminals also avoid paying their fares on public transport."

So we can see the ability to check ID against databases via handheld terminals as yielding multi-level synergies to this kind of operation. 'Reasonably suspicious' immigration officers can demand your papers, transport police suspecting fare dodging can throw up immigration irregularities and a range of other wanted criminals, and ticket inspectors can trigger intervention by either or both of the other two. Even discounting the Bucks Free Press' apparent suggestion that changing platforms constitutes "acting suspiciously," there seems to be plenty of scope for demanding ID here.

As we reported earlier, however, such joint immigration-police operations have included a "walk up" at identified locations, including "car washes and other similar activity". Which is another example of checking ID in areas where immigration officers might have reasonable grounds for suspecting people who look and/or sound foreign.

Presuming the ID scheme is introduced, the national identity register will provide a useful tool for these scenarios. If the authorities do not have reasonable grounds for suspecting that you've committed an offence, then they cannot demand that you establish your identity. However (we argue the wackiness of the situation here), if they do profess reasonable grounds, mobile biometric readers would (if they work, which we continue to doubt) be a simple mechanism for establishing your identity, and any refusal on your part to have your biometrics read might look, well, even more suspicious.

One of the points worth noting here, however, is that well ahead of any central national ID register we have cross-referencing of databases by multiple government agencies, who are using pretexts such as 'criminals don't pay fares' or 'illegal immigrants run car-washes' as pretexts for trawls. Increased data sharing and consolidation of databases and the deployment of mobile terminals on such trawls is therefore progressively constructing such a register anyway. ®

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