The circumstances under which Mark Harper resigned are, to say the least, piquant.
In 2007, the now erstwhile immigration minister hired a housekeeper from South America. Although he allegedly requested and received documentation evidencing her permission to work in the UK, it recently came to light that these papers were invalid, and that he had in fact been employing an undocumented worker. Adding to the controversy, Harper was unable to produce copies of her paperwork to demonstrate that he had undertaken the prescribed status checks.
As a result, Harper submitted his letter of resignation on 7 February, which was accepted by the prime minister.
Beyond the irony that the minister was forced from his post because he employed an illegal worker, this resignation is particularly poignant in light of the new Immigration Bill wending its way through parliament. In addition to doubling the maximum civil penalties for employers involved in hiring undocumented workers from £10,000 to £20,000, the new bill proposes to oblige banks, private landlords and driving licence authorities to perform mandatory immigration status checks before offering their services.
Borrowing from his own words, Harper’s transgression could be described as the type that ‘encourages illegal immigration’ and ‘undercuts legitimate businesses’. More accurately, however, his actions should be seen as highlighting the onerous nature of the Immigration Bill’s proposed penalties and mandatory checks. Indeed, that the immigration minister was unable to follow the very employer protocols that he championed is a clear indication that they are deeply flawed.
But Harper is not the first to resign under awkward circumstances. Unsurprisingly, there is a storied history of ministers falling on their own swords.
In 2004, David Blunkett resigned as home secretary after an email emerged showing a visa application for his ex-partner’s nanny had been fast-tracked. That same year, Beverley Hughes resigned as the minister for immigration, citizenship and counter-terrorism after news emerged that she had been aware of fraudulent visa applications from eastern Europe being granted.
Ms Hughes said she had not intentionally set out to mislead anyone.
In 2009, Baroness Scotland was fined £5,000 and issued an apology for unwittingly employing an irregular migrant as her housekeeper. While she purportedly obtained evidence of her employee’s permission to work in the UK, it turned out to be a forgery and she failed to keep copies of the paperwork. Fittingly, when she was a minister at the Home Office, Baroness Scotland had been instrumental in pushing legislation through the House of Lords requiring that employers request and retain copies of immigration status documentation.
Despite the controversy, she was not asked, nor did she volunteer, to resign from her position as attorney general, as it was claimed that she did not ‘knowingly break the law’.
It is a truism, but unfortunately not always true, that those responsible for making and implementing policy should have a firm understanding of the areas with which they are charged. In Harper’s case, it is of obvious import that his employee deceived him. And while we do not expect our public officials to be superhuman, we do hold them to a higher standard. Accordingly, Harper resigned.
The more pressing issue, indeed the one that suggests he was ill- equipped for the position in the first instance, was his inability to recognise at the outset that the immigration policies he promoted were, and continue to be, detrimental to immigrants, the general public, UK businesses, and, as we have seen, the UK’s immigration minister.
To revel in Harper’s personal defeat would be callous and inappropriate. On the other hand, one cannot help but appreciate the equitably elegant manner in which his fall from bureaucratic grace neatly captured the onerous absurdity of the very policies that he espoused.
Laura Devine is principal of Laura Devine Solicitors