Mark Harper MP was a junior minister making a name for himself. He oversaw the publication of the government’s controversial “Life in the United Kingdom” citizenship test – likened to “a bad pub quiz” – and he supported the equally controversial “Go Home” vans that were driven through London in a brief trial.
Harper had been the champion of a new immigration bill making its way through parliament. The bill would require GPs and landlords to check the immigration status of their patients and tenants, and would double the fine for hiring illegal immigrants from £10,000 to £20,000. Critics claimed the bill would create confusion by turning citizens into border agents, but without the appropriate training; still, the bill is a key part of the government’s programme on immigration reform, and Harper had proven an effective advocate for its progression in parliament.
It is then deeply ironic that he has so readily become an example of why critics oppose it. Harper has now resigned as immigration minister after he discovered that he had been hiring an illegal immigrant as his cleaner. While he claims to have been shown documents appearing to confirm her indefinite leave to remain, it now appears her papers were fakes.
Harper’s critics ask why, if the minister for immigration can’t ensure his staff are legal immigrants, we expect everyone else to do better? GPs, landlords and employers might soon face significantly increased fines if they fail to take steps an immigration minister himself could not take. There may still be political ramifications: the public doesn’t look kindly on politicians who push for plans and regulations they can’t honour themselves.
It is unsurprising to see these revelations, clearly a real embarrassment for the government, used to support opposition to the Immigration Bill. Critics can point to Harper’s folly as proof the new law would create problems. We can also expect the bill’s opponents to remind us about this case for as long as the law is debated.
Go home and study
But while commentators may be quick to draw attention to the irony of Harper’s conduct, there is a crucial question all have overlooked: what does it say about the immigration debate that the immigration minister cannot recognise the correct documents certifying that someone is permitted entry to work in the UK? It is striking that someone in his position could be so easily fooled by false documents, given that few should be expected to know better what they should look like.
This case is just one of a long list where ministers have proven more focused on headline-grabbing announcements than on practical realities. Harper’s relatively successful efforts at winning media coverage for a new citizenship test, the “Go Home” van pilot, and his support of the immigration bill were all instrumental in attempting to help the government appear more “tough” on immigration. But each has been subjected to scathing criticism without any convincing response.
Few accept the “Life in the UK” test as an unproblematic exam for citizenship; the “Go Home” vans proved ineffective at encouraging illegal immigrants to leave the UK and were decried as deeply offensive. Now Harper has become his own best proof that requiring employers to confirm the lawful immigration status of employees is more challenging than the government has conceded.
The Harper resignation is not an isolated case of government policy moving in the wrong direction, but an example of a much wider problem. Ministers simply seem to know too little about the realities of immigration. They have so far failed to engage with and learn from the experiences of immigrants who have come to the UK and built lives here. They also need to look far more closely at the process of immigration and understand it intimately. Immigrants should not be the only people who know what a valid indefinite leave to remain visa application looks like.
The problem is that engaging with the very groups they wish to control better is either unappealing or thought unnecessary. But until such interaction is launched in earnest, I fear we can expect to see more mistakes from a government that is increasingly out of touch – even with issues it claims to take especially seriously.