Ministers were accused of starting a "bidding war" with the Tories to sound the toughest on immigration and asylum after matching the Opposition's pledge to bring in a points system for economic migrants.
Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, rejected the criticism. He stopped short of implementing the Tory scheme, modelled on the Australian system, for an annual limit for immigration including a quota for asylum seekers. He praised the vital role that migrant workers played in the economy.
Although ministers insisted they had been working on their blueprint for months, the new measures were seen as an attempt by Labour to neutralise the Tory attack over immigration launched two weeks ago. The Tory plans unsettled Tony Blair, who took an unusually high profile role in presenting the plans by giving a series of media interviews.
Mr Clarke came under strong pressure from Mr Blair to produce a tough package. But some ministers had reservations, with the Chancellor Gordon Brown echoing concerns in the business world that the curbs on migrants might harm Britain's economy.
Unveiling a five-year plan on immigration and asylum, Mr Clarke announced that skilled immigrants, such as doctors, engineers and IT specialists, would be the only group able to come to Britain without a job offer.
Skilled workers, including nurses and teachers, will be able to come only to fill a vacancy. Low-skilled workers from outside Western Europe will be allowed in only if there is a job for them and they promise to leave at the end of their stay. Under the points system, applicants will be given marks for their skills and qualifications.
Only skilled or highly skilled workers will be allowed to settle permanently in Britain - and then only if they speak English and pass a "Britishness test".
Mr Clarke said successful asylum-seekers would lose the right to stay in Britain permanently. They will be given temporary leave to remain, which will last up to five years and then be reviewed.
Numbers of removals would also be stepped up and more asylum-seekers held in detention centres. All visa applicants will be fingerprinted by 2008. He said: "It's a weakness of the current system, a failure that we don't have as many people removed as we would like."
In the Commons, Mr Clarke attacked the Tory plans to pull out of the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees as "unworkable, unjust, counterproductive and immoral." He added: "A rigid quota would cause considerable hardship and is not acceptable."
David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "This is the latest headline grabbing initiative from a panic-stricken Government in the run-up to a general election. The Government's plans to introduce a points system will not necessarily reduce the number of immigrants coming into Britain unless a limit is introduced."
Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, warned Mr Clarke: "There is now a bidding war taking place on immigration and asylum between the Government and the official Opposition. Isn't it important to speak up for the positive role that migrants play and also to defend at all costs the principle that in this country we welcome refugees?"
Maeve Sherlock, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said ending indefinite permission to remain would leave successful asylum-seekers in limbo. "We would be very concerned if someone who has been accepted as a refugee has to live through five years of uncertainty until the UK Government confirms they can remain here permanently," she said.
In a report today, the Commons Public Accounts Committee attacked the bureaucracy and slow decision-making in asylum applications. The report said the Home Office's target of considering them in two months was far too long, as it took only nine hours to assess the validity of a claim. The committee also discovered that the cost to the taxpayer of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate last year was almost pounds 2bn.
Leading article, page 28;
Steve Richards and
Shamim Chowdhury, page 29
WHERE THE LINES BLUR
Tony Blair has been repeatedly accused of stealing the Tories' clothes, adopting policies similar to those of the Opposition to deny them the "political space" to attack. A frustrated Michael Howard, the Tory leader, complained: "The Government stole our language. Their policies are very different from ours, much less effective than ours." The key areas where the lines have blurred are:
The Tories claim that three elements in Labour's immigration and asylum blueprint were stolen from a package they announced nine months ago - a points system for economic migrants, tougher embarkation controls and restricting the right to permanent settlement. The Government denied a "bidding war" to sound the toughest on immigration.
The Government's five-year plans for health and education, published last July, extended the concept of "choice" for patients and pupils and Labour may go further in its general election manifesto. The Tories say Labour adopted the "choice" slogan to mask differences between the parties. The Tories claim they would offer greater choice.
LAW AND ORDER
In an attempt to head off a Tory pre-election drive on crime, the Government ensured that "safety and security" Bills dominated the Queen's Speech last November. The measures ranged from an identity card scheme to reduce the terrorist threat to moves to stamp out antisocial behaviour. Ministers admitted they were deliberately "crowding out" the Tories on their traditionally strong territory of law and order.
Mr Blair neutralised Europe as an election issue last year by matching the Tories' pledge to hold a referendum on whether Britain should adopt the proposed EU constitution. The tactic took the wind out of Tory sails. But it has left the Prime Minister with a headache - how to win the referendum.
The Tories have long favoured allowing housing association tenants to buy their homes. Alan Milburn, Labour's election and policy co-ordinator, wanted to match the pledge but John Prescott, whose is responsible for housing, was opposed. Labour will allow tenants to buy a part-equity "stake" in their homes.Reuse content