Balance the ins and outs

The European commission's population projections at the end of last month should result in calling time on the UK's open door immigration policy. It predicted that within 50 years Britain would become the most highly populated country in Europe. England is already about to overtake the Netherlands as the most densely populated country in the European Union. On the government's own figures, the population growth due to immigration by 2031 will require building something like seven new Birminghams. This is simply not sustainable.

To highlight a much better alternative to this open door policy, Nicholas Soames and I are today announcing a cross-party group, Balanced Migration. Our central idea has the advantage of being both simple and workable. We propose cutting the link between economic migration and the virtually automatic right of workers from abroad to settle here permanently.

Every poll emphasises how deeply concerned voters are about the rate of immigration and its impact on British society. Late in the day, both the government and the opposition are feeling their way towards a new policy. Neither party's approach has much prospect of controlling, let alone reducing, the number of newcomers who become permanent residents.

The government claims it will control immigration through its new points system. By a subtle use of mirrors it suggests that this is based on the Australian model. What the government doesn't say, however, is that, unlike here, the Australian government starts by deciding the number of new citizens it believes it can be integrated.

The Tory proposals are no better. Shadow ministers talk about a cap but fail to specify what they mean. Their approach is more than likely to result in another bureaucratic nightmare. Governments are not good at guessing the labour needs of the economy.

What is new is our insistence both on cutting the link between economic migration and settlement and advocating that employers should be the drivers and the guardians of such arrangements. The proposals will, therefore, maintain competitiveness.

Employers would have to advertise jobs, first locally and then throughout the EU - as they should now, but some plainly do not. For its part, the government would wish to ensure applicants' qualifications were genuine. These workers would then be admitted, but only for a maximum of four years. They would come to the UK on that clear understanding. Employers would have to produce evidence that workers had left at the end of their contracts. No departure, no approval for new contracts.

Employers would, therefore, have a vested interest in policing the system properly. Our proposal would also minimise the cock-ups that any centrally directed approach invariably has in guessing future labour market demands. Not so long ago we saw health planners issuing contracts like sweets for overseas doctors when the first wave of extra "home produced" doctors was about to hit the labour market. Our group's objective is summed up in its name. The overall goal in the longer run would be to bring into balance the number of people coming into Britain to settle with the number who leave to live elsewhere in the world.

Workers who have done well, and have proved their long-term worth to their company, and who did not wish to return home, would be free to bid for a place in a strictly limited annual quota set by the government in the light of the circumstances at the time. But there would be no automatic right to those places.

Our approach does not, of course, solve all Britain's problems on the social cohesion front. But it does offer, for the first time, a real possibility of controlling the number of new citizens, thereby achieving a degree of population stability.

The aims of our group fit in with the government's objective of seeking educational reforms that raise significantly the skill levels of young people coming into the labour market. Employers faced with our system would have, for the first time, a vested interest in increasing the skills of their own workforce and better-skilled school leavers. Above all, it would protect the position of low-paid workers who have borne the brunt of the recent influx into Britain.

We are putting these ideas forward to start a debate. The onus is now on the political establishment to respond in a way that also meets the overwhelming demand of voters.

Frank Field