The Home Office faces the ultimate embarrassment as five illegal workers were caught cleaning the offices of the immigration service.
In a farcical twist to the Governments immigration crisis, the group of Nigerians was in police custody after a raid on the London premises of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND), which is run by the Home Office.
Channel 4 News reported that a contract cleaning company supplied the staff for Beckett House, near London Bridge, from where IND officials direct operations to find and deport illegal immigrants.
The arrests came just days after Dave Roberts, a senior IND official, said he did not have the “faintest idea” how many illegal immigrants were in Britain.
The revelation of illegal workers in the Home Office premises is a new blow to efforts by John Reid, the Home Secretary, to get a grip on the turmoil in his department.
Damian Green, the Tory immigration spokesman, said: “We know the immigration department is in chaos and hopeless . . . Every government in decay gets to a stage where you dont know whether to laugh or cry and I think this government has today reached that stage.”
Mr Roberts told MPs this week that people who stayed in Britain after their visas ran out were not pursued by IND as “individuals”. Instead, the strategy was to target larger numbers of failed asylum-seekers who were working for the same employer. The Department for Work and Pensions has also admitted that between 200,000 and 300,000 national insurance numbers were issued to foreigners each year, with immigration checks only carried out on a few thousand of them.
Under legislation coming into effect later this year, employers will be obliged to verify that recruits are in the country legitimately, with a potential fine of £2,000 for each illegal immigrant they hire.
A Home Office spokesman said: “These individuals were the employees of a firm contracted to provide cleaning services. It is policy that all employees and contracted employees working in Immigration and Nationality Directorate buildings have security and employment checks carried out, which include checks on their immigration status.
“Of course, we will investigate further and appropriate action will be taken as necessary.”
Only a handful of employers have been prosecuted in recent years for taking on illegal immigrants.
John Denham, the chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee to which Home Office officials gave evidence this week, has warned: “I suspect unless we get after people making money out of [illegal immigration], including some very respectable household names, we will not make progress.
The Government has been fighting to draw a line under the crisis triggered by the announcement that 1,023 convicted foreign criminals were freed without deportation hearings.
In most weeks, the news that the Home Office had accidentally repealed an extremely important law would have caused quite a stir. Yesterday, however, the fact that it may now be perfectly legal to carry a forged passport, because of yet another blunder by this most chaotic department of state, made only a short item on page six of my edition of The Daily Telegraph.
We have all become so used to tales of monstrous incompetence—dangerous criminals lost without trace, no attempts made to trace illegal immigrants or to enforce deportation orders—that we greet each new instance of bungling with a weary shrug: “Oh, well, it’s New Labour’s Home Office. What do you expect?”
According to Criminal Law Week, the forged-passport fiasco arose when the new ID Cards Act gained Royal Assent in March. A clause in the Act, which gives the Government the power to go ahead with its ID cards scheme, repealed an important section of the 25-year-old law banning fake passports—the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981.
Nobody at the Home Office seems to have spotted that the Act charged ahead with scrapping old laws, without bothering to put any new ones in their place.
Because of all the confusion, a court case involving two men who are said to have been caught with forged passports has already had to be adjourned.
You could argue, I suppose, that it doesn’t really matter if a British passport is forged, at a time when the Home Office is dishing out the genuine articles to all and sundry, whether they are entitled to them or not.
Lots of real passports simply go missing and never find their way to their legitimate owners. It emerged only yesterday that 1,500 UK passports that should have been sent to their owners by the UK Passport Service had been lost over the past two years.
As Damian Green, the shadow immigration minister, said: “A criminal who has obtained [somebody else’s] genuine passport could well use it to obtain a genuine ID card under a fraudulent identity.”
On Wednesday, we learnt that no checks are made on the immigration status of applicants for National Insurance numbers—the first step on the way to a state pension and all the other benefits funded by British taxpayers.
All you have to do is pitch up at the local Jobcentre and say: “Hi! My name’s Osama bin Laden. I’ve just flown in from Pakistan [or Afghanistan, or Sudan, or Switzerland, as the case may be]. Give me an NI number.” You don’t even have to say “please”.
The clerk behind the desk will stifle a bureaucratic yawn and hand over the necessary documents. I have heard it said that there are now more NI numbers than there are people officially resident in the United Kingdom.
The fact is that the Home Office has completely lost control of the numbers of foreigners who flow over our borders. Worse than that, it has given up trying. I have a great deal of sympathy with Dave Roberts, the director of enforcement and removals at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate.
At least he was honest, when he faced the all-party Commons Home Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
How many people were in Britain illegally? “I haven’t the faintest idea,” he said. How many failed asylum seekers simply ignored their instructions to leave? “I haven’t got that figure.” OK, then, how many bogus asylum seekers had been told to leave? He admitted that he didn’t know that, either.
The poor man is so weighed down by the sheer numbers of liars and chancers who have flooded into Britain during Labour’s term, alongside all the countless tens of thousands of lawful immigrants, that he cannot begin to keep track of what is going on. And it is not really his fault.
When ministers make policies these days, they make them because they hope that voters will like the sound of the noises that come out of their mouths—and to hell with the practicalities of putting their “eye-catching initiatives” into action. They “crack down” on this or that—foxhunting, childhood obesity, anti-social behaviour or illegal immigration—without a thought to the administrative difficulties of putting their policies into action. When things go wrong, as they inevitably do, their first instinct is to blame their civil servants.
It used to be said (although nobody dares to say it any more) that Britain’s National Health Service was the envy of the world. It is still said, and up to a point it remains true, that our Civil Service is the envy of the world.
It is certainly less corrupt than most other countries’ bureaucracies, and parts of it remain moderately efficient. But how much longer can our civil servants be expected to do their jobs well, while the Government goes on making intolerable demands of them?
What is quite clear is that the Home Office has completely broken down under the weight of Mr Blair’s initiatives. It is an utter shambles—and its employees cannot begin to cope with the work that has already piled up in their in-trays.
Yet this is the department that is supposed to be introducing ID cards—one of the most ambitious and expensive schemes ever proposed by a British government in peacetime. It is a massive bureaucratic cock-up just waiting to happen.
Setting up a national biometric database is likely to cost anything between £10.6 billion and £19.2 billion (this being a Home Office project, nobody can be more precise than that).
Every one of us will then be expected to pay something like £100 for the privilege of queuing up at a police station to have our fingerprints taken and our irises scanned. After all that expense, we will be given a piece of plastic that will do nothing to cut crime or benefits fraud—still less terrorism or illegal immigration.
Tony Blair proposed ID cards for the same reason that he championed so many of his other initiatives: he thought that they sounded kinda modern, and European, and tough—and never mind the practicalities of administering them.
Never mind that countless thousands of these cards are likely to be dished out to people who have no right to them, or that thousands of others will go astray, and others again will be forged. It is said that many Spanish citizens, perfectly entitled to official ID cards, prefer to buy forgeries because they are just as good as the real thing—and much cheaper.
The Government admitted yesterday that it would take at least a decade to clear the backlog of illegal immigration cases that has mounted up over the past few years. Why can’t we all agree to put ID cards on hold until the Home Office has caught up with the work already on its plate? With a bit of luck, New Labour and its ill-thought-out schemes will be a distant memory by then.