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ID cards good for tracking immigrants, says Blunkett

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The 'tracking' capabilities of the UK ID card system, hotly disputed by Home Office ministers whenever the notion is floated, have been commended by no less a person than former Home Secretary David Blunkett. Speaking on the Today programme yesterday on the subject of amnesties for illegal immigrants, Blunkett said "it's impossible to have an amnesty without ID cards and a clean database, because you firstly don't have any incentives for people to actually come up front and register, and make themselves available, and secondly you have no means of tracking them."

This, he said, was the response he'd given to a similar question in 2003, during his tenure as Home Secretary, when he was also prime mover behind the ID cards scheme. Blunkett's notions here are a neat fit with the proposals for an ID card-related amnesty floated by the IPPR earlier this year. According to the IPPR, the ID card network's "internal controls" will make it easier for police to catch illegal immigrants, making it more practicable to introduce a regularisation process for illegal immigrants already in the UK, while strengthened border controls as pushed by Tony Blair, make it much harder for new illegals to get into the country.

Blunkett, meanwhile, is suggesting that an amnesty could be used as an incentive to induce illegal immigrants to come out of the shadows, be given an ID card and go onto the books. Which you might note is precisely what The Register said, in our report of the IPPR suggestion, that a "cynical and despicable Home Secretary" would do, presenting the general amnesty in tough 'round up all the foreigners' garb. Note also that Blunkett is still grinding on about "a clean database". Blunkett pushed this line repeatedly during his time at the Home Office, and although (as The Reg habitually points out), a clean database is generally an empty one, it's perfectly natural for a Home Secretary confronted by multi-agency database hell to want to torch the lot and start with a clean slate.

Specifically, if we consider the immigration issue (actually that makes us feel dirty - we'll call it their immigration issue), we can see how the clean database isn't just important - it's vital to the survival of the whole project. In addition to maybe 500,000 illegal immigrants in-country, the Home Office theoretically ought to have current records of the immigration and work permit status of all the legal immigrants, all those on student visas, all those on visitors visas, and so. But we've been here before so we won't labour the point - briefly, it doesn't, and where it does/might have accurate records it needn't necessarily know where the records are or whether they are indeed accurate. So in reality the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) is lacking a fit-for-purpose database covering millions, not hundreds of thousands, and building a new one from scratch would probably be cheaper than fixing the existing mess. Finding the existing data, checking it, disputing it with the subject/suspect and shoehorning it into the new "clean" database, on the other hand, would cause the entire operation to grind to a halt.

So here, the National Identity Register is the lifebelt, and it makes sense to pretty much forget the existing pooh-pile. Identifying legal immigrants and UK citizens via the NIR's interview and identity checking process oughtn't to be hard, but given the state of existing IND records it would be very hard indeed to deal those of debatable and illegal status. Nor, without the incentive to turn themselves in, are the illegal immigrants (or the ones who're just confused) going to make it easy for you to drag them to the filter. Amnesty, however, simplifies the process massively; illegal immigrants can be offered a one-time ticket to legitimisation, and then anybody who doesn't come forward or who arrives after the amnesty's over has only themselves to blame when IND comes down hard on them.

There are however some odd questions the Government will have to answer if an amnesty is ever to happen. How, for example, would the system tackle those on short term work or student visas? Does every last nanny win indefinite leave to remain? Do several hundred thousand lucky students get lifetime tickets to work just because they happen to be studying this year, and not last? If not, then why should these legitimate migrants known to the system be treated worse than illegal ones? And if yes, what would that do to the intricate regime constructed by Charles Clarke's Home Office just over a year ago (i.e., the one intended to leave low-skill jobs to the new EU entrants, and to encourage skilled migrants)? Even the clean break, if it happens, is surely going to turn out to be more complicated than anticipated.

And tracking, or as the IPPR puts it, "internal controls"? The IPPR associates these with the ID card providing "disincentives to enter a country as it is more difficult to live and work there", and a Blunkett speech from 2004 (at the IPPR!) gives us a clearer idea of how this would work. Currently, although companies theoretically face heavy fines for employing people who aren't legally entitled to work, the law is, as Blunkett said then, practically unenforceable because of the difficulties involved in establishing entitlement. This is largely because of the mind-boggling range of terms, conditions, proofs of entitlement and immigration stamps that are current, and is not necessarily an argument for ID cards. But in Blunkett's view the existence of ID cards as an absolute proof of identity and entitlement will mean that employers will have no excuse, and the legislation can be made to stick.

If employers at last really do face heavy fines for employing illegal immigrants, then they will clearly be incentivised to conduct NIR checks whenever they employ someone. Employers will therefore operate (and pay for) a major component of the internal control system, and it will indeed become more difficult for illegal immigrants to work here. Note also that forcing this burden onto the private sector is politically and financially far less painful than early deployment of the public sector controls in, for example, health, education or policing.

Does that count as "tracking"?* Not exactly, because it's more about trapping than tracking, and a system of internal controls would have to be far more pervasive than employment checks and a series of public sector entitlement checks before it got anywhere near a national movement database. But Tony Blair himself used the t-word recently when he presented e-borders and ID cards as the only viable fix for their immigration problem, and if one thinks of this as tracking down then it fits. With the NIR operating to specification (imagine, OK?) you've got current and previous addresses, current and previous employers, country exit and entry records, and an audit trail of any skirmishes with the police. It's not tracking as such, nor does it become impossible to disappear, but anybody who wants to is going to have to put rather more thought into the matter than was previously the case.

* Government denials that the ID card will track your movements tend to major on the card's RFID capability, rather than on NIR records. Having spent a little time denying that the card has RFID and describing the strangely RFID-like but mysteriously unthreatening radio capability it does have, the spokeperson will then extol the (allegedly...) excellent nature of the card's security, and then conclude that, obviously, it will not be possible for nefarious persons to suck data from the card, unbeknownst to the owner, as it passes by. Actually that's not strictly true, but actually, it's not the point - the database is the point. ®

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