David Blunkett revealed today that he ruled out an amnesty for illegal immigrants when he was home secretary three years ago because identity cards were not in place.
His comments follow immigration minister Liam Byrne’s refusal last night to rule out an amnesty in the future. The minister was twice asked about the possibility of an amnesty by the Commons all-party home affairs select committee, which is investigating Britain’s immigration system in the wake of the foreign prisoner scandal.
On neither occasion did he rule it out, as previous home secretaries and immigration ministers have done.
Mr Blunkett revealed today that the idea was floated in 2003 at a "little debate" held at the Royal Institute for International Affairs which was never supposed to have been made public. But he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that the move would not have been approved under his watch before identity cards had been introduced.
"You firstly don’t have any incentives for people to come up front and register and make themselves available," he said. "And secondly you have no means of tracking them."
Mr Blunkett added that raising the prospect of an amnesty raised a new set of problems for the government, though he accepted Mr Byrne had done this yesterday. "What you can’t do is announce an amnesty in advance of the date of the amnesty because obviously you then act as a magnet for pulling people into the country."
Mr Blunkett defended Mr Byrne by claiming that ministers would only have faced more criticism further down the line had he denied it, only for the government to approve it later on.
In sharp contrast to previous denials by the government that an amnesty could go ahead, Mr Byrne told the panel of MPs yesterday it was "too early to tell" whether he would allow the controversial move.
He has commissioned officials to prepare a report on the "issues" around launching an amnesty for illegal immigrants before making a decision. "It’s too early to tell", he said. "I’m one of these people who has to have the analysis in front of them."
He said he did not want to mislead the committee by giving an answer that later proved incorrect. Mr Byrne said : "The position I’m in is really needing to understand in more detail than I do at the moment the precise segmentation of people whose positions have not been regularised."