LEADING ARTICLE:Howard plays on prejudice

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Michael Howard should get his facts straight before tackling sensitive issues involving race relations. Yesterday the Home Secretary blundered into the question of illegal immigrants abusing the welfare state. He talked in terms of up to pounds 100m being fraudulently claimed, of ineligible foreigners gaining access to council housing, the NHS and education. These are serious accusations.

But where were Home Secretary's facts? It turns out that the pounds 100m figure is mere speculation. It was arrived at by multiplying the number of illegal immigrants detected last year (about 13,000) by the maximum amount a single person could gain by claiming social security benefits. Yet the Home Office cannot say how many, if any, of those 13,000 people had, in fact, defrauded the system. He tarred them all with the same brush.

It is a fact that Mr Howard does not know how many illegal immigrants live in this country. If records were computerised it would be possible to count visitors into Britain, count them out, and discover who and how many had overstayed. Unfortunately much of that information is gathering dust in thousands of manila files. Nor do we have good data on where illegal immigrants come from, how they get here or their lifestyles. Independent research, if commissioned, could help.

Ironically, the only figure Mr Howard can rely upon suggests the problem is diminishing: last year saw a decrease in the number of illegal immigrants deported.

Despite the poverty of research, Mr Howard yesterday unveiled plans to increase the monitoring of potential illegal immigrants through schools, the National Health Service, universities, local authorities and benefit offices. In effect teachers and health workers are being encouraged to act as immigration officers. The zealous will react with enthusiasm. There will be quiet telephone calls to the Home Office suggesting that it should investigate X who seems very foreign. Such snooping is already occurring in France, where similar changes were recently introduced.

All this would not be so bad if it was easy for suspects to prove their entitlement to certain services. "Lawful residents," as Mr Howard says, "have nothing to fear." But it is often difficult to prove our rights since we do not have a single document establishing whether a person can, for example, have free NHS treatment or claim income support. Inevitably, black Britons will find themselves under suspicion.

It is perfectly reasonable for a government to seek to enforce its immigration laws. But this is an area requiring particular sensitivity. Immigration is also a metaphor for British ethnic minorities with dark skins. If the Government is going to act, it should be in possession of the facts: it should know exactly what it is doing and be confident about the effects of its policies. If it is not, then it is guilty of deliberately playing on fear and prejudice.