Was it supreme courage, or suicidal political folly? After a year when asylum-seeker bashing has been the right's favourite sport, Barbara Roche, the Home Office minister, has just called for more immigration. Some on the left will snort. Roche, after all, was identified more than anyone with the tough stance on asylum-seekers, so perhaps she is trying to buy back some political credit. But credit where credit is due. In a speech for the Institute for Public Policy Research last month, she opened a debate that has been closed for years, declaring that Britain needs more, not less immigration, to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
The response to her call was, as she herself admits, surprisingly low-key. There was no hysteria about "swamping" and "rivers of blood"; even the Daily Mail and the Telegraph welcomed the opportunity for a real debate. "Most of the comments were actually pretty favourable," she says. "People on the right didn't throw up their hands in horror. People said, at least let's debate it in a grown-up way."
If this is what Roche, the immigration minister, has achieved, it is really something new. As the recent, viciously attacked report for the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain puts it: "The immigration debate in the UK has always been conducted on the assumption that immigration is a problem, not an opportunity. In contrast to the situation in other countries . . . no detailed economic and social studies have been carried out in the UK into the effect of, or the need for, immigration. However . . . western Europe will soon face a shortage of young workers."
That shortage is already blatantly obvious. Emergency summonses of nurses from the Far East, the arrival of Middle Europeans to do a hundred thankless tasks and the huge numbers of "students" who fuel the black economy are all strongly reminiscent of the conditions that caused the arrival of Caribbean, then Indian and Pakistani workers during the 1950s and 1960s. From then on, however, immigration became one of those too-hot-to-touch political issues. Until now. Taking a long view, it may seem that the hysteria over immigration during the past few decades will look like an anomaly for what is, after all, a nation regularly topped up with immigrant groups. But politics is famously short term, and credit must go to Roche for reopening the question.
It is clear that she feels a sense of pride in being able to speak the unspeakable. She is herself, by her own admission, a "living, breathing melting-pot", with a Polish Russian Ashkenazi Jewish father and Sephardic Jewish Spanish Portuguese mother, a husband who is a combination of Irish, French and Yorkshire, not to mention her own upbringing in the East End of London. "I wanted to be the first immigration minister to say immigration is a good thing," she declares. "We have a multiracial, multicultural society; we are a stronger country for it."
So just what is Barbara Roche proposing? She shies away from giving even a vague figure on the numbers of immigrants she is envisaging. But it is clear that she has in mind not only the highly qualified, well-educated migrants who could fill the many vacancies in the information technology sector. Her IPPR speech was strongly critical of two previous attempts to control immigration - the 1905 Aliens Act, which she says was "motivated in part by anti-Semitism". Equally, in the speech, she described the immigration acts of the 1960s as being a deliberate attempt to limit non-white immigration. Any future immigration, she believes, must not exclude any group on racial grounds, nor should we focus solely on well-qualified migrants. She refers not only to those well-publicised shortages in the health service, but even to fruit farms: "We noticed there were reports during the summer of straw- berry fields where fruit was rotting because there was nobody to pick it . . . well then, you have to respond accordingly."
Does this mean, I ask, simply legitimising the illegal immigrants over here already, who, farmers admit, play an essential part in the summer harvests, not to mention the cleaners, waitresses, bar staff and nannies who may not have visas to work here? Certainly not, according to Roche. "You have to maintain the integrity of immigration control," she believes - for the sake of the illegal immigrant, as much as anyone: "There is smuggling and trafficking, and of course those people can be dreadfully exploited. It's shocking the way some of those people are exploited, with health and safety considerations ignored and people paid almost nothing."
So, who is to decide who comes in and who does not? Roche's idea is to let business, the trade unions, academics, the general public have their say. She is aware of pressure from business for more immigration - "You need to listen to what the business community is saying to you as to what it wants. There is no doubt that, in terms of skills, we're in a global market to get the brightest and the best." But it is not just about pinching the best from the third world: "You've got to be very sensitive as to what effect this is having on the developing world. There are some countries, such as India, that quite welcome emigration because of the remittances that people send back, and the effects of networking - which outweighs any harm. There are other countries that have a different attitude."
Yet isn't it, honestly, a bit rich that the minister who has been tougher on asylum-seekers than even some Tories is suddenly presenting herself as the champion of immigration? Roche insists that her whole purpose is to separate the two issues: "You have to separate off asylum from immigration - they're about two completely different things. The debate was incredibly muddled and confused on all sides." She is unapologetic about the government's attempts to crack down on asylum-seekers. "I believe passionately that we should have asylum . . . you can't have a more ancient or a more honourable concept than the right to seek asylum . . . but it's a matter of whether a person meets the 1951 UN Convention [relating to the status of refugees] or not. If so, you speed it through as quickly as possible; if not, you have to say so as quickly as possible."
She attributes the recent row over asylum-seekers to a complete breakdown in the system of processing claims: "The reason for all the delay in the past isn't because there was a team of people poring over all the cases. Basically, they were just gathering dust on the shelves." Now, she claims, around 11,000 cases a month are being processed, compared to just 2,000 when the government took office. "The system is now working properly. It doesn't mean to say I haven't got some challenges. We're on our way to fixing it - it's a darn sight better than a year ago."
Representing Hornsey and Wood Green, a true melting-pot of a constituency, Roche has personal experience, from her constituents, of the type of problem with which she, as a minister, is trying to deal. Her task, as she sees it, is to strip out the emotion: "As far as the right is concerned, every asylum case is unfounded; as far as the left is concerned, every case is a torture victim - now it's not like that, but it's almost as if there is no middle ground."
According to Roche, it was the sheer number of asylum-seekers who were economic migrants that caused much of the confusion in the public mind. "There was this tendency in the asylum debate to start to take into account economic value - of course, you can't do that when you're considering an asylum claim." But that then skewed the debate on immigration, she says; in fact, she believes that "economically driven migration can bring substantial overall benefits both for growth and the economy".
Is the electorate ready for this new debate on immigration? Hasn't the lesson of the past year been that the xenophobic rants of the Daily Mail can all too easily light a racial fuse? And aren't her superiors at the top of government a tad too willing to bow to that Daily Mail agenda? Roche insists that she has said nothing that hasn't been cleared at the highest level. But she stresses that the government must not go for the easy target: "I think people have to be incredibly responsible about this . . . exploiting this issue is not the way to go." And she is optimistic about the British character: "I've got a lot of faith in the British public. I think, if you're honest about it, that you can have a proper debate. What the public don't like, quite rightly, is that they don't like to see the asylum system being undermined; they don't like illegality. In terms of immigration, what I think we can say is, well, let's look at the history, let's look at what we are, and see if we can debate about it. It's not only a debate that's happening here - it's happening in the rest of the European Union; there's a debate going on in Canada and Australia as well."
We turn to the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, mentioned earlier. Roche clearly has even less time for it than her boss, Jack Straw - in particular, the idea that "British" has racial connotations: "I was really disappointed by their conclusions, because I feel British. What I bring to my Britishness is my Jewish background, just like other people bring their bits. I think you need to reclaim being British for the left. I'm proud to be British. It means fairness and tolerance - we all have our own definition, and we all bring our personal history.
"For me, it's a wide definition of Britishness and that's what we're very good at." Maybe Roche's optimism about the British character and the chances of a reasoned debate on immigration will prove to be justified. It is still hard to believe that the new Labour spinmeisters will let this issue play very big in the forthcoming election campaign, particularly if the right-wing press decide to whip up prejudice.
But the signs so far, as Roche admits, are good.