Janet Street-Porter: We need people to do the dirty work

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The Independent Online

One of the most trenchant attacks on how our immigration system fails people is Stephen Frears's award-winning film Dirty Pretty Things. It should be compulsory viewing for everyone in government. It reveals a parallel world in every major city in Britain, in which illegal immigrants are treated like the rubbish they spend their time clearing up for pitiful pay. And what has happened since that film shocked audiences in 2002? Both Tory and Labour competed to demonstrate that they were going to be tough on immigration.

Now this government has determined to close our borders to all but a select few. When Charles Clarke adopts that treacly "I'm just being sensible here" voice to explain his new points system, it's time to start asking some tough questions. His proposals are based on establishing five tiers of suitability for entry to Britain, administered by a central panel of experts deciding which areas of the economy need how many workers and rationing out permits accordingly.

By some fickle twist of fate, top of Mr Clarke's list of must-have workers, the lucky few who will get in and be able to settle with no sponsors and no problems, are IT workers. The Home Office themselves will obviously be recruiting heavily, because this governments' track record, which inevitably links computers to the word chaos, is all too familiar. There's the Child Support Agency computer débâcle, the Criminal Record computer system, the load of new computers needed for "voluntary" ID cards and all the technology needed for our new, very expensive passports.

Mr Clarke is sure that in future our immigration system will run like clockwork via a new computer system, a panel of experts adding up points, and helpful employers who will grass on their workforce, students and lecturers if they overstay their entry permits. Really?

First, many would question that being seen to be tough is the right way to go about immigration at all. When the present system has so obviously broken down, part of the solution must include dealing with the current problem. These are the workers that Stephen Frears made his film about - cleaners, hotel staff, minicab drivers, machinists, dishwashers, the stateless, paper-less, poor. People who are exploited by men in the sex trade, gang masters, bosses who know they can hire and fire with impunity because their staff are here illegally. I would have had a lot more time for Mr Clarke's new points system, if at the same time he had declared an amnesty for these people who clean our cars, wipe down our toilets, empty our bins and mop up.

A one-off amnesty before the new system came into operation would cut crime; everyone in the workforce (and not just those with the right paperwork) would be eligible for health care, and entitled to the minimum wage and safe working conditions. This is fair and deniably overdue. All asylum-seekers who are currently resting in limbo, working illegally while they wait for their applications to be processed, should have the right to work. That benefits the economy and makes them easier to monitor.

Having declared this amnesty, Mr Clarke should only then unroll a system that will make immigration more transparent and fairer. Where he is wrong, however, is to make the new criteria for points so discriminatory against the old and the unskilled. It values some professions or skills far higher than others, in a somewhat mystifying way. If you are a 25-year-old computer whizz-kid or a 30-year-old entrepreneur, we want you. If you are 50 and an Indian chef - we probably don't.

At the moment, not enough young people are entering medicine or teaching,, and the drop-out rate after training is far too high. Instead of making everyone who trains in these professions either work for a minimum period of two years after completing their studies, or pay back a large part of the cost, Mr Clarke is going to allow into Britain doctors, nurses and teachers with very few restrictions.

He has stated that, from July, professionals from countries outside the EU will have to apply for work permits (thus ending the charge that we are taking all the talent from the third world in fields like medicine and teaching where they are now suffering severe shortages), but they will still be able to tot up enough points, and if they have the offer of a job, they will be able to gain entry. Would it not be better to tackle our skills shortage in secondary schools, with huge incentives like free training and heavy penalties for abusing it?

It is in the lowest end of the pay scale that Mr Clarke's points system seems most unfair. At the moment employers advertise for workers from abroad, and apply for their work permits, if no one here is willing to do a particular job. Statistics show that we don't want to work in restaurants, or as cleaners, fruit pickers and at the very bottom of the pay scale. Now, unless we can find people who want to do these jobs within the EU, they will be hard to fill. For the life of me I can't see what was wrong with the old way of doing things, as long as the people who came here were properly paid.

As Britain moves into becoming a leisure-based economy, it is in the hotel and catering trade that there are severe staff shortages. Keith Vaz is right to point out the 20,000 workers from the Indian subcontinent needed for our Asian restaurants - under Mr Clarke's system, unless trainloads of Estonians or Italians show up who can cook chicken dhansak, we could be facing a crisis at our local curry house. Restaurants and gastro-pubs are opening (and closing) every day all over the country as we eat out more and cook at home less.

Where are the staff to be found? Not to whip up lamb shanks or chicken cacciatore, but to wipe the plates, and load the dishwashers. Unless thousands of Spanish young men or French lassies pitch up in Wigan, Manchester Nottingham or Shoreditch, eager to stick their arms in boiling hot sudsy water for 12 hours at a time for under £6 an hour, businesses will close and our tourist industry will suffer. Delia Smith (and she should know) estimates that there is a staff shortage of 10,000 in the catering industry. In the long term, we will train more home grown chefs, and by using incentives like subsidised courses, it is possible to attract the young. But at the bottom end of the pay scale in catering we just aren't interested.

There's a lot of dirty work to be done in Britain, and those who do it should be allowed to live here legally and not criminalised. These proposals will not stop illegal immigration and the exploitation of unskilled labour. These are exactly the kind of resourceful, hard-working people we want in Britain - the entrepreneurs of tomorrow, not engineers and IT specialists, thank you.