Leading article: Progressive, or pandering to popular prejudice?

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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.