Leading article: Pandering to myths and prejudice

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The Independent Online

Unveiling the details of the Government's new immigration points system yesterday, Charles Clarke was at pains to present it as the sort of measure no reasonable person could object to. According to the Home Secretary, these proposals are all about rationalising the existing system and making it fairer.

Do not be fooled: this measure has some nasty origins. The plan was conceived in the run-up to last year's general election as part of a "bidding war" between Labour and the Tories over who could sound tougher on immigration. The main goal of these plans remains appeasing right-wing prejudices about foreign workers.

This new system discriminates shamefully against the unskilled. Not only will it be much harder for them to take up jobs in the UK; those who do will be denied the possibility of permanently settling here. Yet fruit pickers, bar workers and nannies are just as vital to our economy as doctors, economists and IT specialists.

Perhaps Mr Clarke should consider the immigrants throughout history who have gone on to make a considerable contribution to our economy. Michael Marks arrived from Russia 150 years ago as an "unskilled" refugee; and he went on to establish Marks & Spencer.

The system also threatens to be impractical. Mr Clarke proposes a highly centralised system in which a mysterious panel of experts will decide which areas of our economy are suffering from labour shortages and then recommend the issuing of work permits accordingly. But the free market is much more efficient at deciding what our economy needs. What is wrong with the present system in which employers are allowed to advertise abroad and apply for work permits for their new staff? So long as the companies in question can prove to the Home Office that no one already living in Britain is available, or willing, to do the job, where lies the harm?

There is a clue to the Government's thinking in its admission yesterday that it hopes to attract more low-skilled workers from the European Union and cut back on immigrants from the rest of the world. What explanation can exist for this preference? The truth is that these proposals have no rational underpinning. They merely pander to insidious myths about what constitute "good" immigrants.

If the Government wanted to do something that would genuinely improve our immigration system, it would allow asylum-seekers to work while their applications are being processed. This would expose the slur that refugees are all benefits scroungers. It would also help to draw some of the poison from the debate. A good start would be to explain to the public that the reason Britain attracts workers from all over the world is that we have a strong and growing economy. Judging from yesterday's proposals, however, New Labour is as terrified as ever of doing the right thing regarding immigration.