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How Blair high tech 'security' pledge will fix the wrong problem

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Analysis ID cards have made it onto the Labour Party's election pledge cards as a late addition, with the planned five pledges becoming six as Labour's response to the Tories' making immigration an election issue. The new pledge, unveiled at Leeds-Bradford Airport on Friday as part of Blair's 'pledge per stop' heliborne tour of the UK, reads: "Your country's borders protected," with the flip side of the pledge card explaining: "ID cards and strict controls that work to combat asylum abuse and illegal immigration."

Blair produced the pledge the day after the ID Card Bill had its third reading in the Commons, where it was passed by 224 votes to 64, with most of the Tory party abstaining. Next it goes to the House of Lords, where the Tories may switch to voting against after giving the Government 'one last chance' to fix it in accordance with their 'five tests.'

Labour's pledges, made for an election that has yet to be called but that is generally expected to happen in May, are notably light on specifics and timescales, but the ID pledge at least represents a promise to ship ID cards. And given that the public is - at least in the view of the major parties - massively exercised over the immigration 'problem', it will no doubt be expecting some kind of visible progress before any incoming Labour Government goes back to the polls in 2009, or thereabouts.

Which is perhaps a slight difficulty, because even if everything goes according to plan (i.e., Parliament finally passes the ID card scheme, all of the bits of the project get commissioned and built to schedule and they work, ID cards will by no means be universal by then. Besides that, the public's view seems to be more that immigration in general is too high, while Labour's intentions are to encourage immigration in key areas - students in order to help fund education, professionals to cover skills deficits. The non-skilled deficit, Labour calculates, can be filled by workers from the new EU states, who now have a right to come to the UK and work anyway, so aren't particularly restrictable.

If it's visible immigration the public is worried about, then it is going to get more worried, because this is going to increase over the next few years anyway. The "asylum abuse and illegal immigration" goals of the pledge card are however intended to be addressed to some extent by last week's announcements on immigration control, including switching all visas to biometric form. Contrary to popular belief illegal immigrants do not in the main come into the UK stowed away in container lorries, but come through ports and airports on false documentation, or they overstay or break the conditions of genuine documentation. A biometric visa provides a record of these, although doing anything useful with that record will require a level of database efficiency that has been notably absent in Government departments, historically. And the Home Office's record on tracking down and deporting immigration defaulters is woeful (just under 20,000, according to Home Office figures, removed in 2003, of whom 8,270 were failed asylum seekers), which means there's currently not necessarily a great deal of risk in defaulting on a visa or switching to a new ID once you're past the border.

Biometric visas, however, give the Home Office the capability to identify anyone who came into the country on one, but then switched to a new ID. So, for example, it would not be possible for someone to come into the country on one identity then destroy their documentation and claim asylum under another one, because the 'new' asylum seeker's biometrics would match ones that were already on file. It would also allow the Home Office to identify where they'd come to the UK from, and how long they'd been here, so in most cases they could be sent back there without delay, and without their being able to claim asylum as a delaying tactic. Making this work oughtn't to be anything like as hard as making the kind of live, online checking envisaged for the ID scheme work, because it can generally be done by comparing a new application to the existing database, and although the existing database needs to be accurate, it does not need to be available immediately.

So the eBorders system stands some chance of reducing the number of new defaulters loose in the country. But on its own, it does not do anything for the indeterminate number (the Home Office determinedly says it has no idea) who are here already. Until such time as it's impossible to do anything in the UK without having your biometrics sent to the Home Office (which is what the ID scheme network does), it will still be perfectly possible for people to come into the UK and get lost. If their biometrics are on record they shouldn't be able to permanently change identity, but if they can work and eat and they're not being arrested, they quite possibly might not care.

Tony Blair's promise (not on a pledge card, but he made it last week) to deport more failed asylum seekers than there are new applications won't make any visible difference whatsoever, if that really is what's troubling the public. New asylum applications now are low, in the tens of thousands, the Government having made it very hard for many of them to get here in the first place, so exceeding this declining number is such an easy target it might as well have been on a pledge card. Stacked alongside this, however, we have the permitted and encouraged categories: about 300,000 students a year, 140,000 skilled workers, 90-100,000 estimated from the new EU countries. And then there's the dependants, reduced to immediate family by last week's measures, but still a highly visible number.

ID cards, once they're here, if they work, might at some considerable cost in terms of IT investment and close scrutiny of the doings of the entire population, grab a goodly proportion of the country's unknown illegal immigrants, but they won't make visible immigration stop or reduce. The policy, and the need, is for it to go up, and if the population doesn't like that the politicians really ought to shut about fear and put some hard questions to them.

The bottom line is that sooner or later somebody's going to have to explain to the great British public that the unpalatable alternatives to immigration include paying more for education, emptying your own bedpans, picking your own strawberries and chopping your own salads. And you've probably left this one a little late already, but if you want a decent pension and don't want to work forever, breed harder.

Blunkettwatch: Barely ex-Home Secretary David Blunkett returns to the limelight this week, touring key marginal constituencies at the request of Tony Blair, as part of the election campaign for the election we're not having yet. Blunkett modestly told his local paper that the move put him on "equal footing" with the rest of the Cabinet. Except he's got a nicer house than most of them, except for Tony Blair. But Blair has to pay lots for his. The added lustre brought to the campaign by Blunkett will be much augmented by news that he is launching paternity action over Kimberley Quinn's new-born son. Blunkett told the Sheffield Star interview, more or less, that the spare time he has now he's not a Cabinet minister means he can spend more time with his lawyers. ®

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