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Detained illegal immigrants are the latest to fall victim to the Home Office's bizarre love affair with electronic tagging. The draft immigration and citizenship bill, published this week, puts forwards proposals for "large" but unspecified bail bonds along with tagging as an alternative to detention.

The proposed "immigration bail bond" is intended to apply those awaiting decisions, alongside those who are subject to an expulsion order and have no further avenue of appeal. Only those who can afford the bail bond and who are deemed unlikely to abscond will be given the opportunity for electronically monitored 'detention in the community', so the numbers tagged could turn out to be small, perhaps only a handful, unless the UK Border Agency suddenly and miraculously increases its throughput.

The Home Office claims that 63,140 illegal immigrants were deported last year. Currently there are only a couple of thousand people - including asylum seekers - in immigration detention at any one time, and plans announced earlier this year by immigration minister Liam Byrne would in the future bring the total capacity of the detention system to around 4,000. Home Office statistics (for 2006, analysed here) indicate that around a third of detainees (about 7,000) were held for between 15 days and six months in that period, with relatively few (370) being held for longer. In 2006, 12,545 of the 21,045 who left detention were asylum seekers, and a single day snapshot showed 68 per cent of those in detention were asylum seekers. A similar snapshot for Q3 2007 showed 1,625 asylum seekers in detention, which was 70 per cent of the total. According to the recent report on mistreatment of detained asylum seekers, Outsourcing Abuse, about 25,000 people a year are subject to immigration detention.

So today, if we presume there are around 2,300 people currently in immigration detention with, say, 60 per cent of these being asylum seekers, that gives us 900 immigration detainees who might be eligible for tagging. How many of these have the resources to post bail, and will be deemed by the Home Office to be unlikely to abscond? How many of these are likely to be in custody for long enough to make tagging a viable alternative? Quite.

But, strange but true, this year's fairly pointless looking exercise in immigration policy theatre seems to have a certain amount in common with a similar exercise two and half years ago, which itself was a revision of a pilot introduced in 2004. In a statement to Parliament in November 2005, Tony McNulty, that year's immigration minister, altered the rules for the electronic tagging of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants and anticipated that the number of people tagged would increase. This was done under the terms of the 2004 Immigration and Asylum Act.

So what's different now, just the immigration bail bond? In a March 2006 statement McNulty said that tagging was being focussed on higher risk cases where it was suspected that the individual might abscond or otherwise refuse to comply. At that time 154 people were tagged, and again McNulty expected the number to increase. Subsequently, neither he nor his successor seem to have shared any further data on the immigration tagging experiment with Parliament.

But as this year's model intends to concentrate on soft targets who can afford a bond, and would certainly exclude the higher risk subjects the earlier version was being aimed at, one suspects it might not have been entirely successful. Wackily, the Home Office's introduction booklet to the immigration and citizenship Bill is entitled Making Change Stick. Cough... ®

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