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By Philippe Legrain ADD COMMENTS

With a stagnant economy and Led Zeppelin performing, Britons could be forgiven for thinking they had travelled back to the 70s. This week saw yet more throwbacks, with the proposal of Labour MP Frank Field for non-EU migrants to be thrown out after four years – sorry, for "balanced migration", and the return of manpower planning. Oh dear.

Field should know better than to team up with the Tory MP Nicholas Soames and MigrationWatch to put forward a "one in/one out" temporary-worker scheme. The plan is unfair, unworkable and harmful to the economy. Throwing out people who have been working here for four years would deprive us of people who have demonstrated their contribution to society and adapted to British life; it would also deter many talented people from coming. And since only a select few would be allowed to settle, with priority given to the rich and well-paid, Russian oligarchs and American investment bankers could doubtless stay while Asian acupuncturists and African nurses would be turfed out. This is Powellism dressed up in statistics.

The Field-Soames plan is in tune with the Conservatives’ sketchy plans for an immigration quota. Fortunately, the government has rejected it. Unfortunately, its own policies are not much better. It is pressing ahead with a new points-based system, modelled on Australian lines, for vetting workers from outside the EU.

This system will allow a top tier of highly educated people to enter, while slamming the door on those with fewer skills. Among a middle tier, only those with a job offer in areas where a shortage is deemed to exist will be admitted. On Tuesday, a government-appointed committee of wise men and women delivered a provisional shortlist of shortage occupations, which the government is due to finalise in October. Doctors, secondary-school teachers and social workers are no longer welcome, nor are midwives, most nurses and, crucially, care workers.

Neil Kinnock once warned Britons not to be young, not to fall ill, and not to grow old; and the government will now be turning away people from Kenya or the Philippines who could help meet the desperate need for carers for the young, the old and the sick. With suitable British applicants vanishingly few and Polish workers increasingly going home as the plunging pound devalues their wages, pensioners will not just be struggling with fuel bills this winter, they will be shamefully short of care. The immigration minister, Liam Byrne, trumpets how "tough" the new system is, but it is toughest on the weakest and poorest.

While there are lots of things that Britain might want to import from Australia – such as its wine and cricketing success – its devilishly complicated system of micromanaging immigration is not one. Governments are no good at second-guessing the ever-changing labour needs of complex modern economies. Even if the government could somehow ascertain whether Britain needs more IT staff or welders right now – its advisory committee says not – it certainly can’t predict what the economy will need a year from now. Only a year ago estate agents were in hot demand; now bailiffs are.

The new points system is like an 11-plus for foreigners. It prejudges how people will contribute to society and denies opportunity to those who don’t make the grade. It would have turned away most of the people on the Windrush, the father of Olympic hero Kelly Holmes, and – had he been born abroad – a young Richard Branson. A Labour government should know better.

Posted 11 Sep 2008 in Published articles

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