Migration squeeze

Under Britain's proposed immigration scheme, only skilled workers who speak and write English are welcome to settle permanently.

By Michael White - Alan Travis
Published February 8, 2005 7:06PM (EST)

The British government is to close the door on low-skilled migrants from the developing world who come to Britain legally under existing work permit schemes, Home Secretary Charles Clarke disclosed Monday. The measure is part of the Labor Party's five-year plan for immigration and asylum, which includes a "points system" for new migrants that critics fear will lead to a "two-tier guest-worker" labor force.

Skilled workers -- those with qualifications equal to A-levels and above -- will be able to settle in Britain with their families once they have worked for five years and passed an English-language and citizenship test.

But lower-skilled migrants, mainly from other E.U. countries, will not be able to bring their families, will be barred from claiming welfare benefits and will be expected to leave after five years. Those from "higher-risk countries" will be required to deposit an unspecified financial bond -- which they will forfeit if they fail to return home.

Clarke received praise and criticism from M.P.'s when he explained the proposals to the House of Commons. Left-wing Labor M.P.'s, some Liberal Democrats and nationalists accused the home secretary of entering a "bidding war" with the Conservatives over asylum and urged Clarke to be more positive about the benefits of immigration.

When Tory spokesman David Davis accused Clarke of responding too late to remedy a "confused, weak and chaotic" Labor policy since 1997, including 250,000 failed asylum seekers who had not been removed, Clarke said the Tory quota scheme would damage the economy and weaken human rights. He called it "Stalinist."

Tony Blair, whose spokesman denied suggestions that No. 10 had pushed Clarke further down a hard-line road than the Home Office intended to go, gave his full support in a foreword to the five-year plan. Though Blair stressed the importance of managed migration -- "essential for our continued prosperity" for centuries past -- he put "rooting out abuse" at the top of his priorities and warned that cheating could be used increasingly "by extremists to promote their perverted view of race."

Clarke said the points system would soon replace work and student permits. It would be simpler and more effective for those wishing to work in Britain, focusing on the "highly skilled migrants that can help us build our economy."

The quota-based schemes for the low-skilled in agriculture, food processing, and the hotel and restaurant industries will be phased out "in the light of the additional labor now available from the new E.U. countries." Last year 17,000 people from developing countries outside the E.U. came to Britain to work under such schemes.

The new regime will be accompanied by 2,000-pound, on-the-spot fines on employers who use illegal labor.

In an extra twist Monday night, the immigration minister, Des Browne, announced that immigration fees are doubling to between 300 and 500 pounds to raise 170 million pounds a year to make the migration program self-financing within three years.

Fresh pressure on ministers is expected Tuesday in a report from the Commons public accounts committee that criticized the handling of asylum cases and urged better procedures for fast-tracking them. Only 9 percent are fast-tracked in Britain, compared with 40 percent in the Netherlands.

The five-year plan heralds moves to step up the removal of failed asylum seekers, including more widespread use of detention and the introduction of tagging of asylum claimants. And the right to permanent settlement after five years in Britain will end for those granted refugee status. Their position will be reviewed after they have been in the country for five years.

The Refugee Council and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants questioned how the measure would enable them to develop a commitment to British society.

Michael White

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Alan Travis

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