and HEATHER MILLS
Plans to use health administrators, teachers, benefit and housing officials to check for illegal immigrants were yesterday condemned as a "snooper's charter".
The new measures to train staff in public services to detect and report suspected illegal entrants would intensify a "climate of fear" felt by legitimate British citizens from ethnic minorities, their support groups said yesterday.
Coming so soon after the political row that followed the comments by Sir Paul Condon, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, linking race and mugging, Mr Howard's latest initiative is seen as another move against the black community.
Claude Moraes, director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, accused Mr Howard of "playing a race card".
Unions dismissed the plans as providing an "immigration service on the cheap". However, Mr Howard said that 13,000 illegal immigrants had been detected last year although the real number was "considerably above that". In a much-criticised multiplication exercise, he said that if they had each claimed pounds 6,500 a year in benefits they could have cost the taxpayer nearly pounds 100m.
"Some claimants enter the country illegally or break their conditions of entry then milk the system for all they can get, occasionally using a string of false identities," Mr Howard said.
Four government departments will work closely with the Home Office on these proposals - prompting most concern the Department of Education and Employment will encourage headteachers to see if any of their pupils come from families of illegal immigrants or those who have outstayed their visitors' permits and will look at tightening access to student awards or loans.
The Department of the Environment will ensure that people from abroad will not be entitled to council houses; the Department of Social Security has already tightened up procedures to stop illegal immigrants claiming income support, housing benefit and council tax benefit but will now consider aligning non-contributory benefits - child benefit and family credit - with immigration status. The Department of Health will work on better ways to control access to free NHS treatment for those not entitled to receive it.
The Home Office said no one needing emergency treatment would be turned away and doctors would also not be allowed to inform on patients' status as that would breach patient confidentiality. But administrators would be trained so that they could identify who should be paying for their treatment.
Gareth James of the National Association of Head Teachers said school heads would have "grave concerns" about becoming involved in this area.
Gloria Mills, head of equal opportunities at Unison, said: "It is a disgrace that the Government could suggest that social workers or ambulance staff should provide an immigration service on the cheap," she said.
"We do not believe that any amount of training could possibly equip health or council staff to act in a fair, effective or appropriate way."
Mr Moraes said that no previous Home Secretary had attempted to give powers over immigration matters to public figures outside the immigration service."This is a new phase of control because it is a form of internal control, however innocuous it may look, and separated for the first time from the traditional frontier checks," he said. "We are moving towards a system of checking people once they are living and working within the UK. In this country, unlike some other European nations, almost everyone in the black ethnic community is British."
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