Leading Article: Clumsy steps in the wrong direction

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is apparently no longer enough for aspiring UK citizens to work, pay their taxes and obey the law like the rest of us. The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, says migrants must "prove their worth" in other ways under a "new deal for citizenship".

So what exactly does this mean? A Home Office Green Paper proposes a hike in visa application fees to create a "transitional impact" fund. The details are unspecified but we are told that the purpose of this fund would be to "ease the pressures" caused by the movement of people. It could see migrants with children or elderly relatives paying higher fees.

There is also to be a new requirement for migrants to prove their integration into communities over a probationary period of 12 months before full citizenship is granted. That will entail more English language testing and a requirement for proof of charity work and letters from referees to be produced.

This is pure gesture politics. For one thing, none of this will apply to EU migrants, who make up the bulk of those coming to the UK. Such restrictions on the movement of labour within the EU would be illegal. For another, these new measures serve no real social need. This is a typically clumsy attempt by the Government to demonstrate that UK citizenship comes with responsibilities as well as rights, that this status will henceforth be "earned". But do not the vast majority of immigrants already know their responsibilities? Do those who come to live and work in Britain not already "earn" their citizenship by contributing to our economy and obeying the laws of the land?

What is going on here is that ministers are reacting to a spasm of hysteria over the "ghettoisation" of immigrant communities and pandering to the pernicious idea, stoked by the xenophobic media, that immigrants are a drain on our society; that they take more than they give. The opposite is true. Migrant workers look after children as nannies and au pairs, they work in factories, pick crops, clean offices and mend leaky pipes. Immigrants are significant contributors to our economy. It is often argued that migrants increase pressure on public services. But how often are we reminded that it is migrant doctors and nurses that keep the NHS afloat?

Undoubtedly, more can be done to encourage cultural integration, such as free English classes. But in a revealing indication of where the Government's priorities lie, the provision of these lessons has been drastically reduced. Rather than listing all the many benefits that migrants bring and developing sensible measures to promote integration, the Government has chosen to re-enforce fear and prejudice. It is tempting to argue that it is not immigrants who need to "prove their worth" but ministers.