Roche urges Labour to promote the benefits of legal migration

Tony Blair should promote the benefits of legal immigration to Britain, and "not back off" from plans to create a super equalities commission, Barbara Roche, the former equalities minister, has urged.

Ms Roche, who was sacked in the Prime Minister's reshuffle, said the Government could reconnect with Labour voters upset by the war on Iraq by championing a radical agenda on behalf of ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, the disabled, older people and women. The party could create "clear water" between it and the Opposition by speaking up for legal migrants and introducing legislation to end discrimination.

Ms Roche said she was considering a Museum of Immigration to the UK, similar to that in Ellis Island, New York, before she was dismissed. She also said ministers should not be frightened of tackling discrimination and should create a single equalities body to protect and promote the rights of ethnic groups, homosexuals, religious groups, the disabled and older people.

Ms Roche said she was proud to be the first Immigration Minister to talk of the merits of inward migration, a political gamble that nevertheless led to an extension of work permits for skilled migrants.

As Equalities Minister, she steered through Whitehall new regulations outlawing homophobic and religious discrimination by employers, drew up plans for civil partnerships for homosexuals and won new cash to tackle domestic violence. She also produced a little-noticed but far-reaching report on how to get people from ethnic minorities into the jobs and careers they deserved.

The MP for Hornsey and Wood Green was appointed Small Business Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry in 1997, and was moved successively to Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Home Office Minister of State, and then to the Cabinet Office and Deputy Prime Minister's Office.

A cautious New Labour politician, she was a classic safe pair of hands. But she took a political risk when as Immigration Minister she urged the relaxation of controls on foreign workers in favour of "managed migration" to meet skills shortages. The speech, to the Institute for Public Policy Research, a left-of-centre think-tank, in December 2000, also called for an US-style citizenship ceremony to ensure immigrants attached symbolic importance to their acceptance into British society. Her remarks were later echoed by David Blunkett after he became Home Secretary.

The child of a Polish-Russian Ashkenazi father and a Sephardic Spanish-Portuguese mother, Ms Roche has reason for her feelings on immigration. "My being Jewish informs me totally, informs my politics. I understand the otherness of ethnic groups. The Americans are ahead of us on things like multiple identity. I'm Jewish but I'm also a Londoner; I'm English but also British."

Ms Roche still hopes the single equalities body will go ahead. It would replace the Commission for Racial Equality, Disability Rights Commission and Equal Opportunities Commission. Despite the controversy, she does not want it delayed or killed now she has gone. The proposals are nothing to do with political correctness, she stresses. "Equality is essential to competitiveness," she said, but also "a social justice issue, a fairness issue.

"And anyway, when our age discrimination regulations come into force in 2006, people will see that equalities affects all of us. Let's not forget that older people tend to vote too."

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