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Michael Brown: The dishonesty of this spurious debate

There was something of the night about the tone of John Reid's speech yesterday

Just where will New Labour's cross-dressing end? Barely a year after the former Tory leader, Michael Howard, was universally traduced for making too much of immigration during the last general election, John Reid (just four days short off completing his first 100 days in office as Home Secretary) made a speech yesterday, the tone of which had something of the night about its delivery.

It is hard to imagine David Davis, the Tory party's spokesman, being allowed by David Cameron to make such a speech. But what Dr Reid was up to was, however, difficult to discern. Was he simply trying to reinforce his reputation as a toughie by merely addressing the issue without actually proposing any solution, or are there actually policy changes in the offing?

For beneath the tough talk he appeared to be making the case for no more than a debate. "Mass migration and the management of immigration is now the greatest challenge facing all European governments. We have to get away from the notion that anyone who wants to talk about this issue is somehow a racist. They are not. They are intelligent, ordinary people who are interested in the future of their own country, and incidentally they are people who come from all ethnic backgrounds, all different religions and all social areas of our life". Cue both Ukip and the BNP - although probably not the Cameron Tories.

Labour has been shocked by the extent to which, against expectations, migration - especially from Poland since that country's accession - has run into hundreds of thousands rather than the estimated 15,000 forecast when the EU was enlarged in May 2004.

Dr Reid is also presumably reacting to pressure from local authorities, many of which are Labour controlled, who claim they are unable to cope with the additional burdens placed upon their education and housing budgets. Much has been made of suggestions that authorities such as Slough will have to increase their council taxes by 6 per cent to fund the additional burdens mass migration is allegedly placing on their services.

But until the Government also initiates a debate on population, (posed by Dr Tony Wright at last month's meeting of the Commons liaison committee of select committee chairmen with the Prime Minister) and also reopens debate on its attitude to further EU enlargement the Home Secretary is wasting his breath. Dr Wright inquired whether the Government had an optimum population size for the UK. The question fazed Mr Blair but it is the only question worth asking in the context of arriving at the "correct" level of immigration.

It was the 18th century economist Thomas Malthus, in his essay on population in 1798, who first proposed that the country's population needed to be limited. Malthus was initially proved wrong because he failed to understand that a growing population was capable of increasing overall production well beyond subsistence. But maybe a latter-day Malthus would consider that there are limits to finite resources - land, housing, power, and transport - that will be the ultimate determinant of immigration.

There is growing anecdotal evidence that wage rates in the building trade and service sectors in the South-east are being driven down at a time when housing and other costs are increasing. Labour voters are feeling the pinch most as they are forced to accept lower wages to remain competitive. Ironically, it is the middle classes who are the unwitting beneficiaries of mass migration as the cost of employing Polish nannies, builders and London restaurant workers falls - in some cases to below the legal minimum wage.

Dr Reid is probably gearing up for Bulgarian and Romanian EU accession next year which will further increase the pressures. His short-term answer may be to join other EU nations in refusing to allow free movement of these countries' peoples to the UK during the transition period. But this will merely delay the crisis by a few years.

If his speech yesterday is to have any meaning, he will have to recommend that the UK should veto these countries' application. Empty words, unless followed by the logic of his apparent concerns, will mean that Ukip will be the principal beneficiary of his speech. If Dr Reid regards mass migration as a threat then it comes principally from the EU. Ultimately, therefore, withdrawal from Europe is the only logical solution. But this is the part of Dr Reid's proposed debate which the Government cannot allow. Dr Reid can do nothing about mass migration unless he sets out a population policy and proposes withdrawal from the EU. Neither of these will happen - which is why his speech was so dishonest.