There are not many skills I brought from my previous job which are any help now that I spend my days playing trains, changing nappies and being a smile in an anorak at the school gate. Those years spent honing a curt – yet kind – nod to indicate things needed to be tidied up? Pulling rank to hit a deadline? No. I live in a perma-mess, and arrive at school, day after day, trailing children like flags from the pushchair, just as the bell rings.
The capacity to maintain a straight face and an encouraging tone of voice while listening to a dubious Good Idea remains, though. It’s surprising how many similarities there are between a client who thinks he has found an instant solution to all his problems and a small child off on a frolic of his own in some beatific world of dreams.
It is with this one remaining transferable skill (assuming – perhaps wrongly – that there is no call for playing trains, changing nappies, or indeed smiling in anoraks, at Westminster) that I respond to the proposal in yesterday Queen’s Speech that we all, in our own way, adopt the proud mantle of Defender of the Borders. A kind of Dave’s Army, if you will, turning signposts the wrong way and scanning the shores for suspicious looking arrivals (oh no, sorry, that was Hartlepool)
Without having seen the proposals in detail, it’s hard to know exactly how it’s envisaged that this will work. The general idea, as far as I can tell, seems to be that wherever nasty furriners pop up to
scrounge avail themselves of any kind of service or amenity, their residence status should be checked by the person dispensing it. The initial suggestion is that this would apply to private landlords and medical professionals, but the obvious extension would be teachers, advisers – hell (possibly wrong word) even clergy. What simpler way to stop someone from taking advantage of a benefit to which they are not entitled than scuppering them at source?
The problem is (adopting the gentle tone of voice in which I explain to my son that it’s a little late for his father to become a professional footballer and make us wealthy beyond our wildest dreams) that it just wouldn’t work.
Immigration law is fiendishly complex, governed by legislation, regulations, treaties and charters both domestic and international. If even the Government can’t pin down whether an obvious undesirable such as Abu Qatada is legally entitled to remain, it seems a bit rich to suggest that a hard-pressed nurse in A&E ought to be able to make a snap decision. Who, actually, will be deemed to be entitled and how is it to be proven? At the very least it would need some kind of sooper-dooper, infallibly efficient system spitting out red, green and amber cards each time an individual’s circumstance changes. Perhaps that’s it. Finances and track record alike indicate that the Government would have no problem in commissioning and operating that kind of database. Don’t they?
Even with fail-safe, up-to-the-minute identity documents (carried at all times, by all who need them), there are an awful lot of questions. Will front-line service providers (I can’t even get my head around the idea of how this could apply to private landlords, so will stick to the easier to grasp notion of healthcare) be fully trained and given appropriate refresher courses each time the law changes? Will they have their contracts updated to include a new duty to check entitlement before providing care? What will the consequences be if they fail, and who is to do the enforcing? How will they know whom to challenge, and will they be indemnified against a claim for racial discrimination if they decide simply to play it safe and ask every patient with an accent or a non-white face? Similarly, I assume the Government will put in place indemnity insurance to protect those who wrongly turn away someone who then dies – surely an inevitability.
It couldn’t work, and even in not-working it would cost a fortune. A naive observer may suggest that putting money directly into the beleaguered Border Agency, would perhaps yield better results in terms of monitoring who is here and on what terms. A cynic may suggest that the Government knows perfectly well that this idea is a non-starter, but, in these UKIP-flavoured days, is throwing a crust to those who are encouraged to believe that uncontrolled immigration lies at the root of all our ills.
Me? I think that the Government is acting unforgivably in proposing that everyone, in Michael Gove’s words, should play a role in upholding immigration law. One person’s patriotic Captain Mainwaring is another’s racist vigilante, and in an environment where suspicion and resentment are officially endorsed, tragedy is likely to ensue. I may nit-pick at the practicalities of the proposal, but I despise the tone of the debate.