The UK government's plan to clamp down on illegal workers has 3 big problems

UK immigrationREUTERS/Steve Parsons/PoolBritain’s Prime Minister David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May (L) on a visit to UK Border Agency staff at Heathrow Airport, London November 23, 2010.

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) reported Thursday that 641,000 people immigrated to the UK in 2014, which represents a “statistically significant” increase from 526,000 in 2013.

The figures come as Britain’s new Conservative government is planning to unveil proposals to clamp down on immigration by giving police the power to seize the wages of illegal workers as the proceeds of crime.

But here are the biggest problems with the government’s latest plan to control immigration:

1. It doesn’t really lower the incentive of migrants to come to or stay in the UK illegally

The biggest problem I can see with the proposal is that it’s likely to fail on its own terms. In the words of Prime Minister David Cameron, the aim is “making Britain a less attractive place to come and work illegally” but this legislation looks more like tough posturing for a domestic audience than a strong disincentive for would-be migrants.

That’s mostly because those who are working in Britain illegally are already risking arrest and deportation, against which the threat of having their wages seized is unlikely to weigh too heavily.

2. It’s poorly targeted — or not really targeted at all

Nobody has any good idea of just how many people are living and working in Britain illegally at any given time.

The London School of Economics estimated that the figure was around 618,000 in 2009, although that figure has a margin of error of 200,000. That is there could have been anything between 400,000 and 800,000 illegal migrants — a huge spread.

Of them, the vast majority (around 70% according to the LSE) live in London and around 9/10 entered the UK legally but, for one reason or another, lost their right to remain.

So this new piece of legislation would allow the government to target an unknown number of unidentified people, most of whom were allowed into the country through perfectly legal channels in the first instance. Given that most of the work they are likely to be doing will be low paid cash-in-hand work actually enforcing the wage seizures is likely to be incredibly difficult without significantly increasing the amount of money committed to finding them.

Even then the cost is likely to significantly exceed any benefits to UK workers. Again, it looks mostly like posturing in place of genuine solutions.

3. If the goal is to tackle exploitation, going after the exploited is poor policy

The motivating factor behind this latest announcement is notionally the impact that illegal labour is having on the wages of low-skilled British workers. The implication is that unscrupulous employers are using illegal workers, who are unable to claim entitlement to a minimum wage and have no recourse to UK employment law, in order to push down the salary costs of their businesses.

If that is the case, then improving enforcement of existing employment laws against employers is surely the sensible option rather than going after the modest wages of those that they exploit. Firms can currently be fined up to £20,000 per person for employing illegal workers but, according to a BBC Freedom of Information request, around two-thirds of those fines went uncollected between 2008/09 and 2012/13.

The Home Office issued 8,500 penalties totalling £79,300,000 over that period but collected only around £25 million. If you want to find a problem with existing legislation, I would humbly suggest that would be a good place to start.

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