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Britain Considers Wider-Open Doors for In-Demand Workers

Labor government's proposed 'managed migration' would allow some skilled positions to be filled by foreign job-seekers.


LONDON — Western governments seldom propose relaxing immigration restrictions, least of all when they expect to face elections soon against an opposition warning about huddled masses who can't speak the language properly.

Yet that is just what the Labor Party government of Prime Minister Tony Blair has done this week. Barbara Roche, the Home Office minister in charge of immigration, called for "managed migration" to help plug Britain's shortage of skilled laborers in key areas of the economy.

"An increasingly global culture raises expectations and ambitions. And international migration is a central feature of this global system," Roche said in a speech to the Institute of Public Policy Research in London.

"We are in competition for the brightest and best talents--the entrepreneurs, the scientists, the high-technology specialists who make the global economy tick," she said, adding that this is "not necessarily a buyer's market."

Noting that economic growth in the United States has been sustained at least in part by the large number of immigrants in the 1990s, Roche said that Britain must make it easier for skilled laborers from outside the European Union to secure British work permits.

She said that about 60,000 migrants a year on average have been allowed to settle in Britain since 1972 but that the number of people emigrating from the country has outstripped those entering. Meanwhile, she said, Britain faces a demographic time bomb, with nearly a quarter of the population expected to be older than 65 by 2050.

Calling them "wealth creators" rather than the more common "economic immigrants," Roche even hinted at giving skilled foreigners a chance to become British citizens.

It was a tentative proposal, of course, absent numbers or a timetable for implementing a new immigration policy. Some advocates of more open borders called it no policy at all, saying it was an attempt to plug a labor shortage in the information technology sector rather than a means to stem the flow of economic migrants entering the country illegally because there is no legal way for them to get in.

"Nobody would look at Labor and say it has been soft on immigration," said Polly Toynbee, a columnist in the Guardian, a left-of-center daily. "They've been dripping out this idea which is all about very nice, very skilled people from very nice places--when it comes to immigration, both parties are profoundly racist."

Nonetheless, the speech did signal a shift--and at a potentially difficult time, nine months before Blair is expected to call elections. The promise of more immigrants is rarely a vote-getter, even in these hearty economic times. And the opposition Conservative Party has taken the opposite tack. Tory leader William Hague has been pressing for tougher immigration laws to crack down on "bogus asylum-seekers" ever since 58 Chinese immigrants died trying to enter the country in the back of a refrigerator truck in June.

Hague also has called for foreign-born doctors to be given English tests before being allowed to work in Britain's National Health Service.

Britain's business community hailed the Labor policy shift, as did refugee and immigration workers. Roger Montague, director of the Bristol-based firm Mastek, which recruits information technology workers from India, said: "We are in favor of anything that eases the work permit situation here. Telling someone he has to wait six weeks for a work permit here in [information technology] terms is a long time."

Immigration lawyer Andrew Nicol added that the new policy direction would not eliminate problems arising from the growing number of asylum applications. "What hopefully it will help to do is change attitudes to immigration generally," he said.

That already appears to be the case. The Times of London acknowledged that labor shortages and the lowest unemployment rate in 20 years mean that when it comes to immigration, "the stance of the ostrich is no longer an option."

And the Independent newspaper said: "The fear that one more job for a foreigner is one less for a Briton is false. An improved labor supply allows faster growth and generates more jobs."

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