Ian Birrell: Why turn away these people that we need so badly?

My daughter needs 24-hour care. Proposed new rules on migrants will drive away her army of carers

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Sonia trained as a nurse in Nairobi before coming to Britain a decade ago. Since then, she has worked long and often antisocial hours caring for elderly people suffering from dementia and younger people with disabilities. She goes to their homes, sometimes just to sit and chat and wile away the hours, sometimes to assist the most basic human needs such as eating, washing and going to the toilet.

She had intended to work as a nurse in Britain, but decided instead that she enjoyed her stop-gap job. The hours may be punishing, the circumstances often testing and the pay pretty dreadful, but she is positive and optimistic. She derives immense pleasure, she said yesterday, from helping people marginalised in our society and giving respite to families on the brink. She is, in short, something of a lifesaver.

Sonia is just one among many, typical of the sort of people one meets when thrust into the nether world of the very old, the very sick and the very disabled. But yesterday it was announced that people like her, this hidden army of helpers, would be banned from Britain, rejected as undesirable migrants.

It is strange that it is only three years since the then-Tory leader Michael Howard was roundly denounced for his "racist" proposals to import the Australian-style points system for controlling immigration. The debate, a firestorm of hysteria and misinformation, has moved so far, so fast. Last year, the Government adopted the idea originated by Howard's Australian namesake. And yesterday, we saw the consequent announcement of new entry regulations for migrant workers – a set of rules that are wrong in principle, wrong in practice and, for my family and many like us, wrong personally. Indeed, they are potentially devastating.

They are wrong in principle because we need economic migrants. The debate is well-worn now, but it seems perplexing to me that we don't want people here who are so determined to succeed that they will risk everything to get here. The statistics present an overwhelming case whether economic (the boost to British growth rates), social (the need for young earners in our ageing society) or even philanthropic (the effectiveness of the huge sums sent back to relatives, the most effective form of aid). Meanwhile, people complain about immigrants taking over Britain as they listen to music born in Africa, eat food from Bangladesh, wear clothes made in China and support football teams owned by Russians.

These new proposals are wrong in practice because governments are, by nature, sclerotic, cautious and ill-suited to responding to the pace of economic change. While business must adapt quickly or lose market share, governments are far less fleet-footed. In Australia, the pioneer of this insular new world, the immigration bureaucrats produced a five-kilo book that examined nearly 1,000 occupations before detailing 399 that qualified for a skilled migrant visa, the 61 jobs in short supply nationally, and four separate lists for individual states. Then there were different lists for temporary residence sponsored by an employer, with 515 occupations qualifying. A list of 478 acceptable jobs for those seeking permanent homes. And lists for privileged occupations. And for skilled independent regional visas in response to localised shortfalls. And so on and so on.

Meanwhile, the majority of people on Australia's rich list are immigrants, many of them originally unskilled refugees who fled there after the Second World War. But as the man running this Kafkaesque entry system told Philippe Legrain in his book Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, these successful entrepreneurs wouldn't be allowed in these days. "They wouldn't fit the pattern for any skills we want."

This is the route we are going down. Yesterday, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), a quango tasked with pulling up the British drawbridge, proudly boasted that it had analysed 353 occupations, considering five indicators of skill and then another 12 indicators of whether there was a skill shortage. At least this will provide a few more jobs in the public sector, but who benefits beyond that? Scan our own rich lists, then ask if these bureaucrats would let in the likes of Sir Gulam Noon, creator of hundreds of British jobs and prominent Labour donor who arrived with little more than dreams in his pocket?

But worst of all, for me, are the impact these restrictions will have on my personal life. The MAC has ruled that Britain needs ballet dancers, hovercraft drivers and fish filleters from outside Europe, but not midwives, social workers or carers lacking qualifications. It is even suggesting the revival of pay controls, insisting that skilled carers must earn £8.80 when many are currently lucky to get much more than the minimum wage.

As the father of a profoundly disabled girl, my family relies on an international army of carers. My teenage daughter is blind, unable to walk or talk and in need of 24-hour care. Last autumn, her condition worsened with more frequent seizures, spasms and breathing problems, leaving her unable even to attend her special school. One minute she looks fine, the next she is grey and stops breathing. One day she is her mischievous self, full of smiles and eating well, only to spend the night shrieking and contorted in awful seizures.

Our house is filled with people from Poland, from Kenya, from New Zealand and from Zimbabwe, ensuring that we get some respite from watching over our daughter every second of the day. This gives my wife and myself snatches of time to spend with our son, with each other and to get some sleep at night. But, as everyone in the caring business knows, it is already a constant struggle to find people to fill such posts even before these ludicrous proposals come into force. And without these carers we – and many other families struggling to cope across Britain – will crack. And it is the state that will have to pick up the pieces.

One of the boons of spending time with these bright young women is that it challenges hoary old myths. The Poles – one of whom, incidentally, has decided to repay British hospitality by volunteering as a Special Constable – all fly home when they need health care rather than risk our ramshackle NHS, even if this means months of unpaid maternity leave. So much for the lure of our public services.

But it is not just about carers. I am happy to see Cuban ballet dancers and Nigerian footballers here, but why do we not need social workers? We are on our 14th social worker in 14 years, such is the appalling shortage in this Cinderella public service. Each one arrives keen, takes months to get to grips with their caseload, then leaves in despair. And what about midwives, when there are endless tales of shortages in maternity units across Britain?

British attitudes to the demented and the disabled are already shameful. Those looking after them are forced to endure a nightmare of bureaucracy and funding shortfalls to secure even the slightest help. Now this will be a nation that not only turns its back from those most in need of support, but also turns away those migrants who want to help. Have we really become this fearful and selfish?

i.birrell@independent.co.uk

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