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Does Reid plan to punish businesses mean ID card for immigrants?

Perhaps an ID card, but not as we know it...

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Company directors will be disqualified if their firms are caught employing illegal immigrants on two separate occasions, according to proposals to be put forward by Home Secretary John Reid. The move is apparently planned as a 'central plank' of Reid's master plan to deal with the immigration component of his "dysfunctional" department.

On its own this is a difficult one to take seriously, if you've been paying attention. It's already a criminal offence to fail to make an adequate check on a potential employee's work status. This penalty has however proved extremely difficult to enforce because the complexity of the immigration system and a plethora of different documents make it genuinely hard for an employer to be absolutely sure, and fairly easy to to produce a persuasive defence. So Reid would appear to be proposing to add a second unenforceable penalty to the first one. Even David Blunkett, not exactly known as the most liberal Home Secretary since the Second World War, conceded that the penalty wasn't a great deal of use - albeit in the context of a sales pitch for ID cards.

But there, perhaps, is your connection. The ID cards scheme was discovered to be wrecked just a week ago, and it remains so. However, for as long as Mr Tony is in the chair, it will continue to twitch, and Blair (along with Reid) remains insistent that ID cards will happen.

Last Wednesday the Prime Minister's Official Spokesperson (PMOS) claimed that ID cards remained "broadly on track", and that what we might see was a "slight re-sequencing" that addressed the issue of foreign nationals first. Reid was said to believe firmly that ID cards were a crucial part of dealing with migration and other identity issues.

Asked if cards for foreigners might be brought in earlier than they were for UK nationals, the PMOS said that by 2008 we would be "going for the foreign nationals". While that might perhaps not be the most delicate way to put it, we can see how things are going. John Reid needs a convincing fix for the 'immigration issue', and as the 'more legislation' gambit is now well past its sell-by date, piling on another dud penalty isn't it. But Tony Blair is insistent that ID cards will happen and have not slipped, and appears to believe genuinely that ID cards are the immigration solution.

So should we expect a heavy sales pitch for ID cards for immigrants as the actual central plank of Reid immigration strategy? With a 2008 date attached? The flaw here is that all of the specification, design and procurement roadblocks that make it impossible to begin shipping ID cards for everyone from 2008 apply equally to a card for immigrants, unless that card is a lower specification "variant" that doesn't operate with the National Identity Register, because the National Identity Register doesn't exist yet. The civil servants clearly don't think it can be done, but that hasn't stopped Reid and Blair in the past, so this week's announcement could prove to be absolutely fascinating. Note that the Immigration and Nationality Department at least in theory has records of the immigration-related work entitlement status of all known immigrants, and at some point will have to nail down that data and get on top of it anyway. Note also that policy (UK and EU) is to move towards biometric visas for non-EU visitors and immigrants. Conjuring with those two sets of data, one might conceptualise some form of 'immigrant work card' which one could call an ID card, but which would really be a rather different animal from the one described in the ID Cards Act.

The disqualification proposal, incidentally, is interesting in itself. In the case of smaller companies directors frequently do have direct responsibility for employment, so at this level the legislation would have at least some chance of hitting the appropriate target. But disqualifying the directors of small companies causes an inconvenience quite a few of them could live with - they're not trying to impress the City, and the shareholders are often relatives. Further up the chain, however, directors don't control the minutiae of hiring, but are going to find disqualification a major issue.

So the proposal would cause severe wrangles in Parliament, and if it did make it onto the statute book, would be likely to face serious legal challenges. Which would be the case in spades if Reid puts forward the proposal (mentioned in the Sunday Telegraph report) to disqualify the directors of companies whose contractors employ illegal immigrants. Several of the companies who would find themselves thus exposed are very large, and were very interested in the construction of the Gangmasters Licensing Act. Their directors would not be happy - not at all. Significantly, in interviews on Sunday Tony McNulty seemed to be rowing back from the main proposal, claiming "these issues are currently under discussion. No decisions have been taken." ®

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