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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 February 2005, 03:20 GMT
Analysis: Labour's migration battle
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News community affairs

An immigration officer searches a car
Enforcement: Does tough talk create public confidence?
If you want to neatly sum up the government's public approach to immigration - and the difficulties it will have in selling it - start with the title of its new policy document.

"Controlling our borders: Making migration work for Britain" is a balancing act between the tough stance of the political climate and an attempt to put the case for migration as a positive force.

Confused? Well Home Secretary Charles Clarke thinks you probably are, as he concedes in the introduction.

"The system we have at present works well but it is complex and difficult to understand," he writes.

So how is he proposing to simplify all of this and defend Labour's record on a key public issue?

Key elements

First, the headlines: A points-based system for workers - the more skills you have, the more likely the UK will be to allow you in.

Unlike the Conservatives, Labour says it will not introduce quotas but instead says it will tighten up the criteria in other ways.

New points system for economic migrants
Financial bonds for some migrants
End to automatic right of family settlement
Fines for employers with illegal workers
Skilled workers allowed to stay permanently
Refugees only given temporary leave to stay
More detention of failed asylum seekers
Fingerprinting of all visa applicants
Permanent settlement will be linked to ability to speak English, an extension of former Home Secretary David Blunkett's idea that "active citizenship" means participating fully in society.

But, no matter how good their English, there will be no automatic right to stay for low-skilled workers, even if they have been here for years and are paying their way.

Some prospective economic migrants may be asked to stump up a financial bond to ensure they don't break the terms of their visa, and employers will face 2,000 fines for each illegal worker on their books.

Everyone requiring a visa to enter the UK, regardless of the purpose, will soon have to be fingerprinted.

On asylum, Labour will introduce its fourth substantial change to the system in eight years. Refugees (ie genuine asylum seekers who fear for their lives) will no longer get a permanent right to stay.

If it's safe for them to leave after five years, they will be asked to do so. More failed asylum seekers will face detention prior to removal, pledges Mr Clarke, a system which will be linked to closer monitoring of others through tagging or other measures.

Doorstep pitch

Charles Clarke's doorstep pitch is that the level of economic migration is "about right" - but "too great in other categories", meaning the number of failed asylum applications.

He says he wants the system to be flexible, but not be "an entirely free market situation".

This is an important point because history shows us that governments need to be seen to have political control of immigration because it can raise such strong feelings in people if not managed correctly.

The question for the UK is whether this government is managing both the system and the public's understanding.

Take the statistics, for example. Asylum figures are down on recent years - but up on the early 1990s. Which figure is more important? The Conservatives say the latter. Labour, the former.

How do we judge future performance? On the numbers removed or the quality of the decisions taken? The government wants to focus on its improvements on removals but the refugee sector says it worries about the large numbers of bad decisions - one in five rejections are overturned on appeal.

Then there are the totals for migration. Until the planned and very high-tech "e-borders" system is up and running, complete with fingerprinting, we will not know how many people really come and go every year.

Even then, the new system will not be able to count those who don't declare themselves.

The strain question

One key theme that demonstrates how difficult it is to sum up the effects of immigration is the feared "strain" on public services. Politicians from both political parties are articulating these concerns.

But does this fear include those migrants working in the public services, such as the large number of foreign-born doctors and nurses? In most peoples' eyes, probably not, because they are providing those services. But flip the coin and they are consuming services in others ways: housing, roads, school places and so on.

This admittedly blunt example perhaps illustrates the challenges and responsibilities that politicians face in explaining how migration works.

And if ministers cannot find the language and evidence to support their case, then they may find it increasingly difficult to dispel the fears of immigration that Prime Minister Tony Blair says are now "rightly" worrying the British people.

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