In theory, such an approach will solve several problems. First, it will take some heat out of the asylum debate by providing desperate immigrants with hope. Second, by increasing the pool of trained labour, Blunkett will start to remove contractors' excuse for hiring illegals – and so make sites safer. Serendipitously, one beneficiary of that may be the Home Office itself, after UCATT's George Brumwell expressed concern about the treatment of foreign workers on its headquarters.
More broadly, the Tool Army will help to ameliorate the skills shortages hampering PFI projects, as well as redressing the industry's shameful lack of ethnic and gender diversity. Leaked CITB figures show that of nearly 9000 entrants this year, less than 1% were women, and less than 2% from ethnic minorities. It's a depressingly familiar tale – and one that immigrants can rectify. And far from being a problem in construction, the influx of foreign workers is a symbol of vigour and eclecticism, as anybody who saw our "The Indispensables" cover earlier this year may recall.
Questions remain about Blunkett's approach, however. Will asylum seekers deprive UK workers of apprenticeships? If contractors are reluctant to hire the Tool Army, will Blunkett be forced to impose quotas for government jobs? And – most controversially – what impact will the initiative have on the economics of construction? Nobody would wish to deprive asylum seekers (or anybody else) of a fair wage. But the fact is that contractors and clients – including the government – have made money from employing illegal labour. That must stop, whatever happens to build costs.
Nor is CSCS flawless. Inevitably, you can buy a card for £25, no questions asked – which rather undermines the goal of creating a well-trained, safety-conscious immigrant workforce. To thwart the cheats, some contractors are using iris-recognition cards alongside the CSCS, and – interestingly – Blunkett is planning to use the same system for his national identity cards for foreign citizens, to be rolled out over the next three years. Consequently, it would make sense to incorporate a CSCS component into some ID cards.
That's the positive aspect of Blunkett's good cop, bad cop routine on asylum. The dubious part will be a crackdown on illegal immigrants. There are, as yet, no details. But to be meaningful in construction, it must include more police raids on high-profile sites – like the one at Paternoster Square last year – as well as the dogged pursuit of the gangmasters who traffic in people. Forging a successful and righteous immigration policy presents huge challenges for Blunkett. He'll need good people to meet them. One idea is to hire Brumwell to head the CSCS regime. Good thought. If anyone can bring order to the asylum chaos – in construction at least – it's him.
Adrian Barrick, editor