LEADING ARTICLE: Howard plays the race card

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The Independent Online
Michael Howard is a senior member of a government which has promised to cut the red tape that burdens small businesses. However, as we report today, he remains determined to introduce yet another piece of regulation. The Home Secretary wants employers to check whether they are giving jobs to illegal immigrants.

It is hardly surprising that employers' organisations, such as the Federation of Small Businesses, are protesting. Already awash in VAT bills and tax returns, they are in no mood to become immigration inspectors as well.

But if Mr Howard is unmoved by such special pleading, he should listen to what Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, is saying. Thanks to yet another government leak, we know that Mrs Shephard regards the proposal as wrong because it will make it even harder for people from ethnic minorities to get a job.

Mrs Shephard knows that if employers face criminal sanctions for not checking job applicants, they will simply devise the easiest method of rejecting potential illegal immigrants. That will be to turn away anyone with a black face.

This is an appalling prospect. Given his long experience in government, Mr Howard must already know the difficulties and prejudices that people from ethnic minorities face in securing jobs. We should not be making it more difficult for them. The level of unemployment among ethnic minority groups in some of Britain's largest cities is one of the most significant social problems we face.

It is also a fact that most illegal immigrants who have jobs do not in any case work in the formal labour market. They tend to work in the cash- in-hand, informal economy where not too many questions are asked and nothing is put down on paper. Mr Howard's proposals would have little impact on this sector.

His plans could, however, increase the pressure on many legal black and Asian British citizens into taking these low-paid, unregulated jobs if employers in the formal economy take one look at them and turn them away.

So Mr Howard is advocating draconian and ill-considered action against what, in numerical or any other terms, is not a significant problem, compared to the levels of illegal immigration with which countries such as the United States and Germany cope. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Mr Howard's real intent is to play the race card in the approach to next week's Conservative Party conference. There is no place for this kind of politics in Britain.