Former Home Office permanent secretary Sir David Normington has said the UK’s post-Brexit need for unskilled migrant labour will bring the issue of ID cards for citizens back onto the political agenda.
Normington, who held the top post at Marsham Street from 2005 to 2011 before going on to become First Civil Service Commissioner, said it was likely that the controversial issue – explored extensively under the last Labour government but subsequently dropped – would re-emerge.
In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Normington also criticised the current government’s official immigration policy of seeking to reduce annual net migration to the “tens of thousands”, originally introduced by David Cameron.
The former perm sec, who is now pro-vice chancellor at Warwick University, said he had no problem with governments choosing to set immigration targets. But he observed that that targets got “discredited if they were never met”. The current target has never been met. Office for National Statistics data published last month said net migration figure for the year to March was 270,000.
“I’d say to the government that if you are going to have a target, it would be better if you set one that is achievable to begin with and that what we don’t have is one that is out of reach,” he said.
On post-Brexit migration, Normington said he believed ministers would look at extending the current work-permit system for non-EU workers who want to take up jobs in the UK to EU passport holders. However he predicted different systems were likely to be introduced for skilled workers and unskilled workers.
He said the current system for testing whether skilled labour from outside the EU was required was a “very good” one. But Normington observed that ministers’ real dilemma was with unskilled workers.
“I suspect that this is why they’re having such difficulties deciding what the policy is,” he said. “It’s much more difficult. To introduce work permits for unskilled workers, for people working in bars, restaurants, in hotels, for casual workers, agricultural workers, is quite troublesome, quite cumbersome.”
Normington said that any points-based system for unskilled workers would probably need to be introduced over time and would require the introduction of ID cards to keep track of who was entitled to be in the country.
“Those people who worry about ID cards not only worry about the civil liberties aspects of it but they also worry about the Home Office’s ability to introduce a big computer system,” he said.
He said that more than 80% of UK residents had passports, and as their data was stored by the Home Office it “wouldn’t be a big deal” to give holders of those documents an ID card, leaving “15% or 20% of the population who you would have to persuade”.
Normington said that although he was aware the UK economy was currently “buoyant” and had more than 800,000 vacancies, employers also bore some responsible for a shortage of skilled labour.
“In my civil service career I spent a lot of time with ministers trying to persuade employers to do more skilled training and it hasn’t worked,” he said.
“If I’m critical of British business, it does too little training and too much recruitment of people from overseas.
“I’d love to see that changed, but most governments have been trying to change that for the last 30 years and haven’t got very far.”