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ID checks could have stopped cockler deaths, says Blunkett

Or more properly, could have lost them their jobs

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A claim by David Blunkett that he could have saved the lives of the 21 cockle pickers who died in Morecambe Bay last February provides further evidence of his intention to force employers to operate immigration controls for him. Speaking to Stephen Pollard, the author of his biography, Blunkett said: "Take the gangmasters. We were working on it months before the cockle pickers died. We tried to get agreement to put something in the asylum bill, but it was blocked by the DTI" (Sunday Times news report)

Somewhat imprudently, given his current beleaguered state, Blunkett had told Pollard how useless he thought practically everybody in the Government was, excepting himself. In this case the victim is Patricia ('doesn't think strategically', says pot) Hewitt of the Department of Trade & Industry. It's particularly impressive that Blunkett views this tragedy as having been the DTI's fault, considering that when it happened it was generally held to be the fault of his department, the Home Office. So how does he make that out?

It is of course about identity. The measures Blunkett wished to put in the asylum bill that the DTI would be likely to object to govern the employer's obligation to check the immigration status of their workers. Once the identity card scheme is operational Blunkett intends to prosecute employers who do not make adequate checks, but (as we explained in our earlier piece), employers, and hence the DTI, will object to an obligation that is both costly and difficult to carry out. Blunkett must therefore have been talking about tightening this procedure up early to make it easier for the Home Office to prosecute gangmasters using illegal immigrants in their labour force, and hence making it much less likely that these immigrants would have drowned in Morecambe Bay.

Prior to the tragedy, however, Blunkett's department had been aware for months that illegal immigrants were working at slave rates in dangerous conditions in Morecambe Bay, and during this period it was perfectly capable of doing something itself - but it did not.

It will not have escaped your attention that David Blunkett's Home Office is extremely keen on apprehending illegal immigrants and ushering them out of the country, so as it was aware of the presence of numbers of illegal immigrants among the cockle pickers of Morecambe Bay, it could have detained them. Local MP Geraldine Smith had warned the Home Office the previous June, but was told that there were "resource issues," and that there was little point in the immigration service intervening. In a Parliamentary question after the tragedy, Smith suggested that "when Chinese people are picked up and identified as illegal immigrants, they are simply documented and released back into community, where they are once again vulnerable to exploitation."

Immigration Minister Des Browne responded: "She identifies a significant problem—returning illegal immigrants to China is difficult, as those immigrants tend not to co-operate with the Chinese Government's redocumentation procedures", effectively confirming Smith's claim. Note that Browne's perception of the problem appears not to be that these people are being exploited, but that they're very difficult to bag up and ship out of the country. New Labour, New Moral Compass.

The immigration service doesn't do anything about illegal immigrant Chinese cocklers because it can't think of anything to do, and they are therefore left out there. The immigration service doesn't have problem mounting stop and search operations on London's transport network, because there it stands a good chance of improving its returns targets.

When ID cards have been introduced and the Home Office is better equipped to force employers to check immigration status, the situation will change. As it will be much harder for gangmasters to employ illegal labour, the Home Office will be able to deem the Morecambe Bay problem 'solved'. But presumably it still won't be able to think of anything to do with Chinese illegal immigrants, so it still won't do anything, leaving them to find work at even worse terms if they can, or starve. Does this not cast a slightly different light on the self-proclaimed saviour of Morecambe Bay?

Blunkettwatch: Blunkett's personal immigration issue took a small, largely unnoticed turn for the worse yesterday, with a claim that he produced a letter from the immigration service to his lover's nanny in a meeting with Home Office officials. This, if true, would be significant first because it would establish that the letter was passed to Blunkett, and second because it would suggest that Blunkett had intervened not once, but twice.

Blunkett has previously said that he checked that the application was in good order, and that he had asked two civil servants to read it for him in order to do this. Here he must of necessity be talking about the nanny's original application for leave to stay. Prior to yesterday's claim the delay letter was known to have been given to Blunkett's lover by the nanny for 24 hours, but the nanny herself did not know what happened to it during that period. According to the Sunday Times, however, Blunkett called a meeting with Home Office officials to discuss speeding up processing of applications, and when they claimed the situation was under control, produced the letter to prove them wrong. Says the Times "The insider said the Casalme letter was taken by an official. 'A phone call was then made to the casework team at Croydon [headquarters of the immigration department] to pull the file with the instruction to get this sorted.'" A Home Office spokesman however today insisted that Blunkett's only involvement with the application was the checking of the original form. He had "no contact with the letter at all, at any stage." ®

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