Blair drops 'unworkable' points plan

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Tony Blair has dropped plans for the Government to introduce an Australian-style points system designed to limit the number of immigrants allowed into Britain to work.

Tony Blair has dropped plans for the Government to introduce an Australian-style points system designed to limit the number of immigrants allowed into Britain to work.

Downing Street was attracted by the idea of copying the Australian system and ordered a detailed study of how it worked. Blair aides believed it would help neutralise the Tory attack over immigration and asylum launched yesterday by Michael Howard, which included a pledge to introduce a points scheme to decide whether to grant work permits.

But such a system will not now feature in a five-year plan for immigration and asylum to be unveiled by Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, next month. Government sources denied yesterday that Mr Clarke had fought off the No 10 plan, saying Mr Blair had accepted it would be unworkable.

Ministers have agreed a points scheme would be "too inflexible" as it would be difficult to take account of the changing needs of employers and of skills shortages in the workplace. They believe that business people share their view.

Labour will now make the case for managed migration but answer the Tory criticism by announcing another crackdown on asylum. It plans to increase the number of failed asylum-seekers who are removed from this country and the speed with which they are sent abroad.

In its 2001 manifesto, Labour promised to remove more than 30,000 failed applicants in 2003-04 but the target was missed, with 17,040 people sent back. Its current policy is to ensure that by the end of this year, the number returned each month exceeds the total of unfounded applications.

Privately, Mr Blair and his ministers believe Labour is vulnerable to Tory attack. The five-year plan, likely to include reforms of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, is designed to reassure the public before the election that Labour will have a "firm but fair" policy.

Mr Blair said yesterday: "Every wealthy country around the world faces the same problem. More people are coming in and out of the country for perfectly legitimate reasons, to work, to study and visit. But there are abuses of the immigration system.

"The real point about the Conservatives' proposal is that by cutting the number of front-line immigration staff at our borders, they will actually make the problem worse.''

Asked if immigration was likely to be a big issue at the election, Mr Blair replied: "I think there are abuses of the system but ... the real problem with the Conservatives' proposals is that they are simply unworkable.''

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