Conrad Landin writes:
When Theresa May announced her intention to create a “really hostile environment for illegal migration”, she was hardly breaking with Home Office tradition. In 2009 Alan Johnson said many Brits had “legitimate concerns” over immigration.
“Failed asylum seekers, overstayers and foreign national prisoners who have no right to be here must be speedily removed,” he said in an interview. Three years before, another Labour home secretary, Charles Clarke, announced his intention to “drive out” migrants “coming here who are a burden on the society”. The scandalous treatment of the Windrush generation has brought increasing scrutiny to May’s hostile-environment policy. Hours after taking office, Sajid Javid rejected the phrase.
Perhaps it’s no surprise then that it’s another New Labour policy – the mostly forgotten ID cards programme – that Johnson and Clarke have been championing this week. In a letter to The Times, the pair said the scrapping of the programme in 2010 left Whitehall with “no idea how to tackle the most pernicious form of immigration: illegal entry”.
Johnson and Clarke said ID cards “remain the best way to prove and so protect a citizen’s identity”. But this was only ever half the story. David Blunkett said the scheme would also mean that “when we find people we can identify quickly that they are not entitled and get them out”.
The Windrush scandal is not about illegal migration. In 2014, showing remarkable foresight for a politician, Diane Abbott asked May if “measures that are designed to crack down on illegal immigrants” could be used against “people who are British nationals, but appear as if they might be immigrants”.
And of course, legitimacy was in the eye of the beholder: the Home Office, whose punitive approach is the work of Johnson and Clarke as well as Rudd and May. This latest scandal happened not because of a lack of paperwork, but because of an immigration regime designed to appease the fear-mongering of Ukip and hardline Conservatives.
There is little evidence that ID cards would have helped. Why would Caribbean people who travelled to Britain on their parents’ passports as children have registered for a card in old age? Especially if, as New Labour proposed, ID cards were optional for British citizens and subject to a fee.
Instead, ID cards would drive an even bigger wedge between so-called mainstream society and its margins. As with stop-and-search powers and tenancy checks, black and Asian people would be challenged most often to prove their identity. Only last month, the Equality and Human Rights Commission raised serious concerns that the new voter ID checks for Thursday’s elections would disenfranchise people from ethnic minorities.
There are also legitimate, and familiar, concerns over how the state – whatever its political stripe – would handle our data. There have been too many mass data losses and breaches to list, and police forces have been rapped repeatedly for holding on to photographs of innocent people.
And, police chiefs admitted in March, elite undercover officers are likely to have passed intelligence to an illegal blacklist of construction workers. Thousands of builders were turned down for jobs over several decades until 2009 – often for raising safety concerns on sites.
With opinion against the idea, it was indeed May who abolished the ID cards scheme. But her hostile environment was a policy cut from the same cloth. The Windrush saga has laid bare the cruelty of Britain’s immigration regime. For all his warm words, Javid has yet to draw a line under May’s approach.
While Clarke and Johnson proffer punishment and suspicion amid a rare public appetite for compassion, Abbott, as a longstanding opponent of both the punitive immigration system and the surveillance state, is uniquely placed to offer an alternative while public opinion is most malleable. No wonder Labour’s former home secretaries sound like yesterday’s men.