Immigration: truth slips through the net

Michael Howard wants to stop scrounging by illegal entrants. But how much of his plan is based on fact? Heather Mills reports
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Michael Howard said yesterday that he was embarking on a crackdown to stop benefit, housing and health fraud by illegal immigrants. Immigration and refugee welfare groups said it was no more than a "snoopers' charter", of limited and unproven effect, which risks damaging race relations.

Who is right? The only thing that is clear is that this is the latest in a series of measures aimed at what is rapidly becoming a favourite target of the Government - the illegal immigrant and the bogus asylum seeker. Recent months have seen new legislation and immigration rules that have dramatically reduced the numbers qualifying for asylum, made it far more difficult to gain entry into the UK as a visitor and reduced appeal rights.

Yesterday's moves were the result of a two-year Home Office study designed to develop greater co-ordination between government departments to uncover illegal immigrants.

The problem is that the Government still has no idea how many illegal immigrants there are, where they come from, how they live when they are here - and, fundamental to Mr Howard's claims over welfare scroungers, how many abuse the system. The latest figures suggest that the Home Office detected 13,000 suspected illegal immigrants last year - but it has no idea whether or not they received any benefits.

Yet his proposals to train public officials to identify and report illegal immigrants have the potential to turn headteachers, health administrators, college admissions tutors, benefit and housing officers into de facto immigration officers. And if the experience of France, which has similar policies in place, is anything to go by, it will prompt a rash of reported cases, which will turn out to be based on prejudice rather than fact.

The rest of the package falls short of his trailed crackdown. Recognising that black Britons will be even more discriminated against in the job market if he requires employers to screen would-be employees, he has held back from compelling companies to carry out immigration checks.

Mr Howard's proposals include a Department of Social Security review of eligibility for benefit, a possible tightening of access to student grants by the Department for Education and Employment, and a review by the Department of Health of the availability of free medical treatment. The only measure backed by legislation is the ban on local authority housing for those on temporary admission to this country. All in all, these particular proposals amount to very little.

But the encouragement of public officials to report on suspected illegal immigrants, together with the emotive rhetoric that surrounds the issue, risk alienating that great majority of law-abiding black Britons who will no doubt be called on repeatedly to prove their immigration status every time they confront authority.

A better solution might be to give more resources, training and facilities to the immigration service. Earlier this year the National Audit Office, in itsreview of what happens to the 57 million people who go through passport control each year, said inefficiency and outdated practices meant immigration officers were failing to detect illegal immigrants at ports and airports. Yet the cost of finding and deporting an illegal immigrant once he or she is in the country is estimated to be about 12 times as much as for those found at ports of entry.

And while most illegal immigrants are those who overstay their visas, there is no way of monitoring them. The NAO said that intelligence files which could substantially reduce the number of illegal immigrants slipping though the net are kept on paper and hold only about 2 per cent of the information available. The index has to be updated manually every day at a cost of pounds 1m a year in staff time. Yet a computerised checking system could lead to early detection of illegal immigrants.

If Mr Howard was serious about the problem of illegal immigration, he could commission proper research and overhaul the immigration service without upsetting race relations.

So, do we have a problem?

How many illegal immigrants are there in the UK?

No one knows. The Home Office has never investigated the problem, claiming it is too difficult and costly to find out. But some countries count heads in and heads out - at least giving an idea of how many people are overstaying their visas. Estimates vary wildly, from 20,000 to anything up to 1 million. The only thing we do know for sure is that between 4,000 and 6,000 illegal immigrants are deported every year - last year the figure was 5,032.

Do we have an immigration problem?

No. The UK has a much smaller influx of immigrants and asylum seekers than other European countries. In 1993, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK stood alone in Europe in achieving minus figures for immigration - in other words, although accepting about 55,000 people, there was still a net loss of 11,000 people overall. Germany topped the European league by accepting 150,000, France 85,000 and Holland 62,000.

So why act now?

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, says he needs to stamp out fraud and save millions of pounds that illegal immigrants are taking up in benefits and services. He claims that the detection of a single illegal immigrant claiming benefit and services would save about pounds 125 a week, or more than pounds 6,000 a year.

But there are no hard facts and figures to say how many illegal immigrants are actually cheating the system. There are anecdotal tales of illegal immigrants signing on in different names and claiming benefits and housing and free services. But equally there is evidence that employers in industries with unsociable hours and low pay, such as cleaning and catering, are dependent on illegal workers - the only ones prepared to take on the hours and wages with no rights.

Other factors are mounting pressure for more internal checks as our European partners demand that we drop our external passport controls for travellers within the EU, and only lukewarm Cabinet support for a national identity scheme.

But aren't lots of these checks in place already?

Yes. It is common within the Metropolitan Police area for officers to stop black and Asian people or members of other visible minorities on some purported criminal or traffic violation and then to seek evidence of a legal residence.

It is also difficult to apply for a national insurance number for the first time or to claim income support without evidence of lengthy residence in the UK. Some hospitals already have clear guidance for immigration checks on those applying for free health care. Similarly, student loan administrators operate an ad hoc system for checking applicants.

So why do we need more checks?

Mr Howard says that there is slack in the system and greater co-operation between government departments, outlined yesterday, could unearth more illegal immigrants. Although he has so far fallen short of forcing employers to check on their staff, such long-term measures have not been ruled out.

What do his opponents say?

Immigration and refugee pressure groups claim that by linking immigration and fraud, he is simply playing a dangerous race card. They claim the measures and sentiment - not backed by fact and figures - will lead to further harassment and discrimination against the black community. There are real fears that the children of illegal immigrants and of genuine asylum seekers will suffer because their parents are too frightened to seek the help, medical care or support they need. And there are concerns that sensitive information could fall into the wrong hands.

So how do other countries, which are confronted with large numbers of immigrants, uncover those who are illegal?

Most rely on some sort of identity system. Denmark gives all its nationals a personal identity number at birth which governs their access to employment and services and is included in their taxation and personal business records. Germany and France have identity cards. But France, without external border controls, clearly does not regard this as sufficient. It has been the driving force behind tighter controls throughout the EU. Facing an influx from Algeria, it proposed imposing sanctions against employers, public servants and indeed anyone else coming into contact with any illegal immigrants - exactly the agenda that Mr Howard has been considering.

So what will be the effect of these new measures?

No doubt they will uncover some more illegal immigrants. They will probably also attract a few more Tory votes in an area where the Labour Party, dependent on its black electorate for many seats, will not seek to encroach.

But the danger is that the modest financial and political gains will be at the cost of alienating the vast bulk of law-abiding black Britons, who will inevitably have to face greater checks on their freedoms and could be deterred from claiming the services and benefits to which they are entitled.