By Angela Haggerty
A row over a new Home Office campaign targeting illegal immigrants has escalated after the Unite union revealed it was seeking legal advice over whether or not the government’s “go home” billboard ads were “inciting racial hatred”.
The news emerged as a fresh row erupted on social media when the Home Office Twitter account began sending out tweets detailing immigration raids using the hashtag #immigrationoffenders.
Questions have even been raised about whether the government has breached Contempt of Court restrictions by adopting a hashtag implying those arrested are guilty of an offence, pre-empting the outcome of any legal proceedings.
The advertising campaign urging illegal immigrants to “go home or face arrest” hit headlines following a one-week pilot after concerns were voiced about the ethnic undertones of the phrase “go home”.
SNP MP Pete Wishart criticised the campaign and said he had written to the Home Secretary to find out if the government had plans to bring the ads to Scotland, while Unite leader Len McCluskey called them “vans of hatred”.
“It is not surprising the use of the vans has received widespread criticism,” said Mr Wishart. “The illegal immigrants the vans are trying to target are even unlikely to have a good enough grasp of English to understand what is being communicated.
“These billboards are clearly designed to address the growing influence of UKIP and the anti-immigration plank of their agenda. The UK Government’s priority should be fixing the immigration system and clearing the backlog so that more people take the legitimate route into the UK.
“It seems the UK government is acting in desperation, pandering to a swing to the right in some places south of the Border, and using inflammatory rhetoric in a bid to respond to UKIPs rise in the polls.”
Social media users appeared stunned on Thursday when the Home Office began tweeting live updates and photographs of arrests being made on suspected illegal immigrants, expressing criticism that the campaign was overly aggressive and could create racial tensions.
Downing Street has defended the tone of its efforts to drive illegal immigrants out of Britain, saying there was evidence it was working. However, the government has been slammed by politicians and commentators.
Business Secretary Vince Cable was one of the first to speak out, describing the adverts being driven around London streets on billboards as “stupid and offensive”. Six vans have carried the billboards around north London, displaying a text message number to provide “free advice, and help with travel documents”.
“It is designed, apparently, to create a sense of fear in the British population that we have a vast problem of illegal immigration,” Mr Cable told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show. “We have a problem, but it’s not a vast one and it has got to be dealt with in a measured way, dealing with the underlying causes.”
The controversy has put strain on the Westminster coalition, with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg joining Mr Cable in voicing fears over the issue. Speaking to BBC Radio 5 live, Mr Clegg said the vans were not a “very clever way” of tackling illegal immigration and described his surprise at seeing the billboards being driven “aimlessly around north London”.
Meanwhile, the mother of murdered teenage Stephen Lawrence, Doreen Lawrence – who is also a new peer – spoke of “racial profiling concerns” on ITV’s Daybreak, while Scotland Yard revealed a complaint about the vans had been made in Hounslow.
Immigration Minister Mark Harper said he was confident the ad campaign had been legal and proportionate and defended the Home Office tweets.
“We are sending a clear message to employers who choose to use illegal labour – we will find you and you will pay a heavy penalty,” he warned.
A number of tweeters encouraged others to join them in reporting the Home Office for sending out spam tweets in response to the surprise stream of information, while a series of high profile journalists passed comment on the latest Downing Street tactics.
Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker tweeted: “Hey @ukhomeoffice why not make your tweet-a-long-a-stormtroop gallery of brown folk thrown in vans even more dystopian by using cattleprods?”
Legal correspondent for the New Statesman, David Allen Green, added: “For the @ukhomeoffice to say those arrested are already #immigrationoffenders is to prejudge their cases and possibly contempt.”