Leading article: Staying power

Wednesday 09 April 2008 00:00 BST

Last week's House of Lords report on the impact of immigration typified the "us and them" approach to the issue which has done so much over the years to poison the debate when it comes to the subject of foreign workers in Britain.

The Lords economic committee chose to measure the impact of immigration by asking the narrow question of "How much richer are existing UK residents as a result of immigration?" before coming to the (flawed) conclusion that the answer is "not much".

A more open-minded way to evaluate migration is to look at the jobs migrants are doing and which would otherwise go unperformed; the low-status and usually thankless tasks, such as factory packing, fruit harvesting and looking after the elderly in care homes.Many of those foreign workers who perform these sort of jobs are in Britain thanks to the European Union freedom of labour rules. Others, in particular those from outside the EU, will be irregular workers, those who have over-stayed their visas or entered the country illegally.

The numbers in the latter category have been estimated by the Government to be between 310,000 and 570,000.

But just as we ought to value the economic contribution of regular migrants, we should equally value the contribution of irregular workers here. The best way to do this is to enact an amnesty of the sort proposed today, to regularise the immigration status of these workers and shrink the shadow economy.

An amnesty is the most moral, humane and practical option open to the Government; ministers should set about implementing it without delay.

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