Page last updated at 18:57 GMT, Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Woolas 'looking to Sun readers'

By Brian Wheeler
BBC News political reporter

Phil Woolas
Mr Woolas has made a controversial start as immigration minister

The government calls the new points based immigration system "Australian-style" to get its message across to Sun readers, Phil Woolas has said.

The immigration minister said it was "not a direct comparison" but he believed it was a fair one.

He challenged a CBI immigration conference audience to come up with a better description for a Sun headline.

"If you ignore the Sun reader in this debate you are not going to move it forward," he added.

"You have got to communicate a policy to the public."

'Fair comparison'

Challenged about whether readers of Britain's top-selling tabloid newspaper understood the finer points of the Australian immigration system, he said: "I think the Sun reader is a lot more intelligent than you give them credit for."

"I do think it is a fair comparison - it is not direct of course."

Sophie Barrett-Brown, chairman of the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association, who quizzed Mr Woolas on the issue at the CBI summit, said she was "amazed" he had not tried harder to defend the government's stance.

"Is the Sun reader an expert on the Australian points-based system? No. It is not helping Sun readers or employers or anybody else by suggesting they are," she said after the meeting.

She accused the government of "misleading" the public by playing on perceptions that Australia was "tough" on immigration, which she said was based in the country's treatment of asylum seekers rather than migrant workers.

In fact, Australia's migration policy was "quite lenient" compared to the new UK regime, she added.

'Misrepresenting'

Companies could recruit some migrant workers without going through the points-based system and permanent residence was offered to highly skilled migrants as soon as they entered the country, when in Britain they had to wait five years.

"The government is trying to present a certain image about what it is doing to address immigration but it is based more on appealing to the public than on dealing with the issue. They are routinely misrepresenting the situation," she told the BBC News website.

Another crucial difference between Australia and Britain, the summit was told by shadow home secretary Dominic Grieve, is that the Australian system places an annual limit on migration, in line with Conservative policy.

Mr Wooolas - who has made a series of controversial remarks on asylum and immigration since taking over the immigration brief - has said part of his remit in the job is "to change perceptions" and raise the profile of the new points-based system.

Explaining his latest comments to journalists after the CBI meeting, he said Sun readers knew as much about the realities of immigration as many "so-called experts".

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