Plans to make it easier for employers to recruit economic migrants to fill skilled-labour shortages were welcomed yesterday by business leaders.

Plans to make it easier for employers to recruit economic migrants to fill skilled-labour shortages were welcomed yesterday by business leaders.

Barbara Roche, the Immigration minister, said Britain needed to do more to attract "wealth creators" to plug skills gaps in hi-tech industries. In a speech to the Institute of Public Policy Research, she said rules on work permits could be relaxed. Permits for people from outside the European Union could be made "contingent primarily on a job offer at a sufficiently high level rather than seeking to identify employment sectors with shortages".

Patrick Kerr, of the business group London First, said: "We promote London overseas as the world's most multicultural city in which to do business and the language skills and cultural awareness found here are increasingly seen as part of our competitive advantage. We should be opening our doors to key workers from overseas, not closing them."

The Confederation of British Industry also backed the idea of making it easier for workers with "high-level skills" to fill job shortages in Britain. However, the CBI's head of employee relations, Dominic Johnson, warned that the initiative should not be at the expense of efforts properly to train and educate the nation's own workforce.

Ann Widdecombe, shadow Home Secretary, said: "If Barbara Roche is so concerned about a shortage of information technology] workers, she should look again at Labour's IR35 stealth tax, announced when she was a Treasury minister, which is creating a brain drain of these very people away from the UK."

In her speech, Mrs Roche said that since the early Seventies the number of people emigrating had outstripped those entering Britain. In addition, by 2050 one-quarter of Britons will be over 65.

The minister said the large number of asylum-seekers entering Britain was "unfortunate", because it had "skewed" the debate on migration. "Asylum procedures are increasingly being misused by those who have no real fear of persecution," she said. "I fully understand public concern about the asylum system and about the wider threat to a properly regulated system of immigration control."

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