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Cable wrong about ‘obscurity’ of those illegal migrant vans

[23 Aug 2013] Vince Cable, the business secretary, has criticized his own Government for trundling two billboard vans around the streets of six London boroughs that declare: ‘In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest.’

Cable said that apart from being ‘stupid and offensive’, the £10,000 campaign (since described as a pilot scheme) would be likely to fail partly because illegal immigrants would lack ‘a sophisticated grasp of English, read at a distance’.

Of the two sentences, the second would probably be clearer to most non-native speakers, given the simple style of language. The first is somewhat elliptical, being short for ‘Are you in the UK illegally?’, but only ‘illegally’ looks as if it might be a difficult word. So, does Cable have a point? Not really, because the Living Word Vocabulary by Dale and O'Rourke, a testing-backed authority on word difficulty, cites ‘illegal’ as a grade 4 word. This means it would be understood by an English speaker with the reading age of a 9-year-old child, which is pretty basic.

Cable’s opinion on the lack of clarity seems to be a proxy for his dislike of the policy behind the message, which has been shared by much of the political class and the Left-leaning parts of the commentariat. David Aaronovitch was of the same mind in The Times: ‘If the Home Office believed that people committing illegal acts were likely to stop because it sent a mobile placard round the streets, then we’d have mugging vans, tax-evasion vans, fraud vans and anti-robbery vans...The claim by the Home Office that in their first week of operation the vans had already been successful seems to be almost certainly a lie, or as near as damn it.’

Such scepticism is healthy, given that so many official proclamations are untruthful. But the bigger lie has surely been how most of the political class and the media have informed – or misinformed – the public about the scale of immigration over the last few years. Around three million people arrived legally from 1997 to 2009, plus perhaps a million illegals, and a million British citizens emigrated, so net immigration was about three million during that time (figures from Migration Watch UK). [cont]

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