Leading article: The immigration debate we need

The Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, suggests in an interview with this newspaper today that the Government has "shied away" from the debate about immigration. In fact ministers have often seemed to talk about little else over the past decade. It may be that this debate has often resembled a dialogue of the deaf, but it seems bizarre to imply that it has somehow been brushed under the carpet of public life.

However, the Home Secretary is correct when he suggests the Government would be a more credible participant in the discussion if it did a better job of emphasising the benefits that immigration brings to Britain. How often do we hear ministers heralding the crucial role migrants play in the National Health Service, or in looking after the elderly in our care homes? They should also do more to debunk the popular myths about the supposedly preferential treatment of migrants in the welfare system.

It is still widely asserted, for instance, that new migrants jump the queue for social housing despite the fact that only 1.8 per cent of social tenants have moved to the country in the past five years. Gordon Brown even bolstered this myth when he announced plans in June to allow councils to "give more priority to local people". If Mr Johnson wants a more honest debate he might start by apprising the Prime Minister of the facts.

There are plenty of other sensible points that ministers ought to be making. They should point out that tens of thousands of migrant workers from Central and Eastern Europe have left Britain since the recession hit; an illustration of the reality that substantial inflows of foreign labour throughout our history have been driven by strong economic growth.

Yet if Mr Johnson seeks to make immigration into an election issue, he needs to tread with caution. It is all too easy for careless politicians to stoke popular anti-immigrant sentiment at a time of economic hardship.

An honest debate in which the costs and benefits of migration are analysed would indeed be a relief. But the last thing the country needs is a continuation of the grotesque bidding war between politicians of all stripes over who can sound "tougher" towards immigrants.