Howard is right to raise the asylum issue - but he should have done it a year ago

Our present asylum arrangements predate mass air travel. They don't even make sense in moral terms

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It was amusing to observe New Labour yesterday. It did not know how to react to Michael Howard's statement on immigration. They could not decide whether to denounce the Tories, or to outbid them. Most prominent Blairites resolved their dilemma by keeping clear of the electronic media.

It was amusing to observe New Labour yesterday. It did not know how to react to Michael Howard's statement on immigration. They could not decide whether to denounce the Tories, or to outbid them. Most prominent Blairites resolved their dilemma by keeping clear of the electronic media.

Any of them tempted to accuse Mr Howard of crude vote-gathering would have had a problem. "Every country must have firm control over immigration and Britain is no exception." Though that might sound like a succinct version of Michael Howard's comments, it is actually a sentence from Labour's 1997 Manifesto. For much of the past eight years, senior Labour figures have worked hard to persuade the voters that the Government was at least as hardline as the Tories. Mr Howard is now pointing out that while ministers have been talking tough, immigration has doubled. It is hard for Labour spokesmen to make a moral case against this, when Mr Howard is merely accusing them of breaking their promises.

Not that it would be easy to raise moral objections to immigration control, which is a highly ethical policy. It would promote social stability and better race relations. It would enhance the quality of life for many of the poorest inhabitants of these islands, and would also reduce crime.

If human beings were differently constituted, there might be no need to worry about immigration. But our species finds it hard to live in multi-ethnic or multi-religious societies. This goes far beyond race. Look at Ulster; look at the disputes between British and French Canadians. Consider Belgium, where Flemings and Walloons are increasingly reluctant to speak each other's language and where - should they wish to - future generations will only be able to communicate across the divide in English.

It is noteworthy that one of the first consequences of the tsunami has been the strengthening of separatist movements in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. In divided societies, crises do not bring people together. They pull them asunder.

We are a long way from that in Britain. Large-scale immigration has created a lot of unhappiness. Many of the Bangladeshis in Tower Hamlets do not seem to be enjoying their experience of Britain. The same is true of many young West Indians in south London, while in some northern towns, community divisions have led to the creation of virtual no-go areas.

These problems are still local and ought to be soluble. That should be the priority; put right the existing difficulties before adding to them by further large-scale immigration. In a globalised world, a degree of social change is inevitable. To avoid excessive disharmony, it is better that this should occur in a gradual and evolutionary fashion. At current immigration rates, that is not possible.

In the mid-Eighties, the Hong Kong Chinese came onto the immigration agenda. There were those who urged the Thatcher government to give them all the right of abode in the UK, but other counsels prevailed. Most Tories would have agreed that on average the Hong Kong Chinese would have been harder-working, higher-taxpaying and more law-abiding than the rest of the inhabitants of Britain; they would also have been more likely to vote Tory. They were excellent social capitol. Even so, the Government took the view that allowing millions of them to settle here would change the country's character far too quickly and far too dramatically. That was the right decision and ought to be a precedent.

There is also the matter of Islam. It could be argued that any difficulties with Muslims arise from their moral superiority. They tend to take their religion seriously, and it is easy to sympathise with their distaste for many examples of Western decadence. This does, however, create sensitivities which make it harder for Muslims to integrate.

There are parallels in Christian European history. From 1517 until the 18th century - much later still in Ireland - Catholics and Protestants found it impossible to live together. Both sides were too devout to tolerate the other one's heresy. It sometimes seems as if contemporary Muslims bear less resemblance to the typical member of a CofE congregation than they do to Philip II or John Calvin.

I suspect that the British churches have benefited from Muslim immigration. It has put them under an intellectual challenge by people who still believe. But there are limits. Secular Islam is largely an oxymoron. The nation's from a Western Christian tradition and the Islamic world are still learning how to coexist. The extent to which they succeed or fail will be a crucial factor in determining the success or failure of the next century. It would be easier for the UK to make its contribution to peaceful coexistence if our Muslim population did not increase too rapidly.

Immigrants are of most value when they are young, able-bodied, industrious and adaptable; when they are likely to return to their own countries but would be easy to assimilate if they were to remain. In that respect, the UK is now spoilt for choice. Hundreds of thousands of Eastern Europeans are desperate for the chance to work here.

Without Poles and Slavs, the London catering industry would be depopulated, as would southern English building sites. As long as such people are eager to come to our shores, there need be no widespread shortages of labour. Where gaps do appear in the labour market for doctors, scientists, computer experts or other specialists, that should be a matter for head-hunting over the internet. It makes no sense to deal with it by a general immigration policy, let alone an asylum one.

Our present asylum arrangements predate mass air travel. They hark back to the era when all the refugees in London could be accommodated in the British Museum Reading Room. Nor do they make sense in moral terms. A terrorist in Belmarsh jail might be able to claim asylum; starving mothers and children would not.

The present asylum arrangements commit us to obligations which we could never meet. Under them, much of the populations of sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab world could make out a prima facie case for asylum status. Britain is a small country. We already make generous and dispropor- tionate contributions to solving the world's problems.

Michael Howard was right to make a statement. But there is one valid criticism.He should have done so as soon as he became Tory leader.

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