Leading article: Progressive, or pandering to popular prejudice?


Now that the Home Office minister, Liam Byrne, has announced when the new points-based system for immigrants will come into effect, it is worth setting out again why this scheme is a thoroughly bad idea - just as it was when the idea was first proposed by the Conservatives under Michael Howard. Under the existing arrangements, foreign workers or employers apply for a work permit directly from Whitehall. But, from next year, prospective immigrants are to be awarded a points score depending on their skills, the sector in which they are applying to work and other factors including their age. To be successful they will have to acquire a high enough score.

This all betrays a fatal misunderstanding on the part of the Government of how an open and growing economy functions. Will a civil servant in Whitehall really be able to judge whether a particular worker will be of benefit to the economy? Are we seriously expected to believe that immigration officials will respond quickly when informed that there is a labour shortage in a certain sector? The free market has always proved better than officials at filling labour shortages. But ministers seem determined to create a system of central planning.

The most immediate effect of the scheme will be to reduce the number of unskilled foreign workers allowed in. It will, for instance, shut the official door on unskilled labour from beyond the European Union. This discrimination against the unskilled makes no economic sense. Such workers have been absolutely crucial in the UK's economic boom. They have contributed as much as the "scientists and entrepreneurs", who are the most favoured immigrant group under the new system.

Yet we should be in no doubt as to the real purpose of this scheme. It is designed to placate those powerful forces in our society that want to curb the number of foreigners coming into Britain. How can the Labour Party, which has always presented itself as internationalist and progressive, justify this?

The unctuous Mr Byrne has become the latest in a long line of ambitious Labour ministers to attempt this task. He has contributed to a pamphlet, arguing that although immigration has made Britain richer, it has also "deeply unsettled the country" and is "damaging" some of Britain's poorest communities. Mr Byrne points to pressure on public services, claiming that in his own constituency, Birmingham, the population of children with English as a second language in one school has risen from 5 per cent to 20 per cent in a year. He also cites overcrowding in private housing and "cost pressures" on English language training.

It is true there are social pressures related to immigration levels. But this is only part of the story. Schools and other public services are under pressure in many areas, some of which have experienced no immigration at all. And is immigration really the cause of the South-east's housing problems, or is it the scandalous lack of new homes being built? Meanwhile, to argue that one of the "problems" associated with immigration is pressure on English language training shows breathtaking hypocrisy. It seems immigrants can be castigated by ministers for their failure to learn English, and also blamed when they take up the opportunity to do so. To make matters worse, the Government is scrapping free English training for migrants altogether.

Immigrants are being unfairly blamed for a whole host of problems and disgracefully few senior politicians are speaking up in their defence. The truth is that these latest efforts to curb immigration have nothing to do with dealing with the underlying problems they purport to address and everything to do with pandering to popular prejudice and misplaced resentment.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nicola Sturgeon and her former boss Alex Salmond  

I voted Yes in the referendum – but that doesn't mean I'm going to vote for the Tory-esque SNP

Alasdair Clark

If I were Prime Minister: I'd shrink the gap between the highest and lowest paid

Marina Warner
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power