Leading article: The practical and moral problems of imposing a 'cap'

If the latest proposals from the Home Secretary, John Reid, to impose a "cap" on the number of people permitted to work and settle in Britain sound familiar, there is a good reason. The former Conservative leader Michael Howard proposed something remarkably similar in the run-up to the general election last year. At that time, Labour rejected the Tory plan out of hand, arguing that it was impractical. Fifteen months later, the Government is apparently planning to implement it. When politicians wonder why they are held in such low regard, perhaps they should consider the impact of such cynical reversals.

We are told that the Home Secretary is calling for a "migration advisory committee" to recommend an optimum level of immigration. We shall have to listen to the specifics of the plan when Mr Reid explains them today, but a number of problems would seem to present themselves immediately. Most obviously: would this immigration cap include asylum-seekers? If so, what would happen if there was a humanitarian crisis somewhere in the world and our cap had been reached (not an implausible scenario in the present international climate)? Would Britain refuse to take in its fair share of refugees?

There is also the question of how the cap will be calculated. It will prove immensely difficult to predict how much labour certain sectors of the economy will need to import in advance. Until now it has been left up to companies to recruit labour abroad as and when they need it. The idea of setting a quota centrally in Whitehall sounds suspiciously like the methods of a command and control economy.

The context for all this is crucial. There is no issue in British politics so wilfully misrepresented as immigration. Reactionaries talk of a breakdown in community cohesion and an unbearable strain on public services as a result of newcomers. The problem is that the terrifying image conjured up bears little similarity to the reality of modern Britain.

The wave of immigration that has resulted from the eastward expansion of the European Union is a case in point. Such was the hysteria in the right-wing press and on the Tory benches of Parliament before enlargement in May 2004 that the Government would have found it almost impossible to resist imposing a cap on numbers had such a facility been available to ministers at the time. The consequences would have been deeply regrettable. It would have shut out thousands of Polish plumbers, Latvian caterers and Hungarian fruit pickers who have taken advantage of their new freedom of movement to earn a living in the UK. These people have not been a burden on Britain, as the right prophesied at the time. Far from it: they have boosted our economy. The same beneficial results will spring from the forthcoming accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU.

There have been occasional frictions in our society when immigrants arrive, particularly when they are concentrated in deprived areas. But the vast majority of Britons get on perfectly well with new arrivals. And the idea that the nation has been swamped is fanciful. There will always - sadly - be a sizeable element in Britain that wants to make foreigners scapegoats for the nation's problems. But it is the job of our political representatives to stand up to such ignorant prejudice, not pander to it.

Britain would be a diminished place - both materially and spiritually - if we danced to the tune of the right on immigration. An arbitrary quota for immigration would be impractical and morally wrong. The Government should remember the sound reasons why it rejected such a plan when it was proposed by the Conservatives.