Let in Belarussian brickies, not South African virologists

By Simon Jenkins (THE GUARDIAN, 08/03/06):

The government's proposal to award points to immigrant applicants is sound. So is its refusal to set a limit on the number of entrants. But the scoring system is outrageous. Since the parliamentary Labour party no longer considers itself institutionally liberal, the House of Lords must once again remind the government of the meaning of the word. I try to imagine the childhood of our dear home secretary under his father, the Treasury statistician Sir Otto Clarke, patron saint of control freaks. I see father and son in conclave on the Titanic, refusing to abandon ship since nobody has calculated the closing speed of the iceberg, the specific gravity of the water, or why a £6bn EDS computer for allocating lifeboat space has not yet been delivered.

Charles Clarke is beyond a computer salesman's wildest dream. He spends billions on them without question. He believes that if only every policeman, prisoner, immigration officer, terrorist, passport official, mullah and paedophile, indeed the entire human race, were only a digitised numeral hardwired to a Treasury mainframe, the world would be a happier, and certainly more orderly, place.Clarke's departmental battle-honours include the Passport Office computer, the criminal records computer, the magistrates' data computer and the mother of them all: the "voluntary"-ID cards computer. At £16bn going on £30bn, this last could have rehabilitated every prisoner and drug addict in Britain. The home secretary is the Jeremy Clarkson of microchip procurement. If it costs a fortune, it must be good. Were Clarke's brain a game of sudoku, each line would be an anagram of computers.

The news is that Clarke wants to hand immigration over to a computer by next year. I can hear cheering in the bazaars of Peshawar and fiestas in the barrios of Bogotá. This sceptred isle, whose rocky shore beats back the envious sea, is to be protected by something called an "e-border". As the hordes pour in, Clarke will doubtless tell the Commons he is still "waiting for someone from IT to show up".

The intention is to amalgamate "80 immigration streams" for non-EU citizens into just five. This must make sense in itself, but it reflects the new emphasis on immigration as a commercial resource, not a matter of personal choice or personal desperation. Immigration is to be a human feeder-tank to top up the supply side of the British economy. In particular it is to obscure the government's most glaring failure, £9bn of public money blown on training and skills.

Clarke's points are borrowed straight from the registrar general's class system. Most points go to professionals and executives - such as doctors, professors, engineers, technologists and financiers - who are to be admitted without question. The next category is nurses, teachers and IT technicians, who will be directed to areas of shortage (presumably just as a first job). The third tier is skilled workers, plumbers and electricians, if they have job offers. After that comes the dross, labourers and students. In other words, immigration is about class.

This is imposing economic sanction on the developing world. Britain is raiding the poorest countries for their talent because it doesn't have the guts to make students benefiting from its lavish higher education system either pay for their education by working in their allotted skill or at least pay back the cost. The drop-out rate from British medicine (cost £300,000 per doctor) is 15% inside two years. A quarter of nursing students fail to become nurses, at a cost of £57m. Why the sick of sub-Saharan Africa should be penalised for this indulgence is a mystery. Last year, Britain recruited 3,300 trained nurses from Africa, the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent. How many people died as a result?

I am all for a robust global market, but robbing the world's poorest countries of their most precious resource, qualified manpower, cannot be right. Nor does policy at the bottom of this ladder make any more sense. Britain's most glaring shortage is for precisely the low-paid workers whom Clarke wants to keep out: cleaners, labourers, fruit pickers, and kitchen and domestic staff. These groups do work considered beneath the dignity of those blessed by Gordon Brown's tax credits. Their immigration is crucial to holding down labour costs in the service economy. By denying it, Britain is not just hurting itself but depriving the countries of origin of one of their most valuable "exports", worker remittances from abroad.

Immigration tests the credentials of liberals and conservatives alike. No wealthy nation can sustain wholly open borders, any more than it can sustain wholly closed ones. Money walks as well as talks. When the iron curtain came down, I wondered how long it would be before it went up again, erected by the west to keep people out rather than the east to keep them in.

Some deterrence to migration is needed if political and social institutions in receiving countries, even melting pots such as London, do not degenerate to "gangs of New York" status. Equally, a civilised society wants to welcome those who have made the always agonising decision to change homes. That is why the Home Office decision to imprison and break up families of those who have arrived in Britain in defiance of control seems so heartless. The policy of making it hard to come but nice to stay may seem paradoxical, but it is fair.

Sovereign states are entitled to determine who will or will not become part of their society. If they are sensible, they will make this determination a liberal one. The whole European economy needs new blood. By the same token, states are entitled to demand that those who do arrive and settle should merit that citizenship. The relation of guest and host is reciprocal. I cannot see anything wrong with the language and culture tests now being required of immigrants. The Education of Hyman Kaplan did New York migrants nothing but good.

A new British immigration policy should have the opposite bias to the one declared. It should award 100 points to a Somalian cleaning lady or Belarussian brickie, and no points at all to a South African virologist or an Indian engineer. Least of all should it be a piracy licence on the high seas of world talent to prop up Britain's inefficient public services. Modern immigration policy is always an aid policy in reverse.