Our amazing hypocrisy on immigration

The latest tangle over immigration is a telling illustration of new Labour's two greatest weaknesses: its anxiety to please business and its wish simultaneously to placate popular prejudice as expressed mainly by the Daily Mail and the Sun. On the one hand, employers, particularly in the south- east, are screaming for labour, the cheaper the better. On the other, Labour's traditional working-class supporters, particularly in the decayed industrial towns of the north, fear being "swamped" by waves of migrants. Sections of the press scream support; polls and focus groups suggest that, if Tony Blair's government comes unstuck on anything, it will be this. Ministers therefore resort to a series of populist gestures and tough-sounding statements - withdrawal of benefits, loss of rights to judicial appeal, children taken from their mothers and put into care - in an attempt to convince public and press that they can control what is by its nature uncontrollable. Migration is a matter of supply and demand, like prostitution and drugs. Very poor people want work; employers in a very rich country want their labour. One group will find its way to the other as surely as the river finds its way to the sea or a testosterone-fuelled young man finds his way to a tart.

Beverley Hughes, the immigration minister, should not resign over revelations that the Home Office has been fast-tracking migrants from Poland and letting in one-legged roof tilers from Romania. But nor should she try to divert odium to her officials. She should explain that fast-tracking immigrants who will probably have the right to stay here anyway in a few months (because they live in countries that will become part of the expanded EU) is a perfectly sensible policy and a prudent use of public resources. She should also have the courage to explain the impossibility of managing migration. How on earth are consuls in Bulgaria and Romania or minor officials in Sheffield supposed to assess people's suitability to enter Britain? Are the Foreign and Home Offices training up an army of multilingual Inspector Morses? Lacking the means to carry out independent checks, officials will always be bamboozled by local fraudsters.

Our collective hypocrisy on this subject is amazing. We once deplored the border controls that prevented east Europeans from leaving their homelands. Now we demand border controls to stop them arriving here. British politicians eagerly looked forward to an expanded EU in which Poles and Hungarians, with the zeal of new converts, would support free markets and enterprise against the "inflexibilities" of the French and Germans. When east Europeans show that they really believe in the get-on-yer-bike values of capitalism, we want to change the rules. We donate eagerly to Oxfam, hearts bleeding for the global poor. Yet faced with the single most effective form of help - in many developing countries, money sent home by workers overseas exceeds total export earnings, never mind the value of meagre western aid - we want it stopped at once.

Pity everybody involved in this charade: the migrants who want to make an honest living (as most do), the immigration service workers who have to carry the can for ministers. Pity even Ms Hughes and her boss, David Blunkett. The Home Office is a political death trap. Whether it's prisoners, criminals or migrants, ministers will be taken for soft touches or hard-hearted monsters, and often both in the same day. Wise ministers will accept that they can never satisfy the full range of public prejudices and tell the honest truth. Popular opinion does not truly want a complete ban on immigration. It wants to cherry-pick the best, grabbing the skilled workers, entrepreneurs and professionals (the very people who are most needed at home), and it wants to send them back if the employment market goes pear-shaped. Cheap foreign labour, ideally, is a tap to be turned on and off at will.

If ministers really wish to control immigration, there is only one way to do it: to sell off entry permits. Cash would put the whole thing on an open and transparent basis, turn what is seen (wrongly) as a drain on public funds into a clear revenue earner, and put most of the gangmasters, fraudsters and fixers out of business. Anyone satisfying the state's own voracious demand for workers (particularly in the NHS) would get in free. Otherwise, the price and number of permits can rise or fall according to demand for labour, which is more or less what, by a roundabout route, happens now. Migration is already a market; the trick is to put the state in control of it. Clever Romanian lawyers, it is reported, guarantee to get people into Britain (no questions asked, guv) for a fee of £1,000. If you can't beat them, join them.

A majority of 160? Shhh . . .

Those who think the press carries too much bad news - and would presumably prefer their papers to print daily lists of aircraft that successfully completed their flights - will applaud the "policy" of a junior football league that no defeat worse than 14-0 should be reported. Officials duly reprimanded a local paper for reporting a 29-0 defeat for a team of under-nines. The principle could be adapted to general elections, with majorities of more than 14 seats going unreported. In 1997, as it became clear that Labour would win 14 seats more than the Tories, TV screens could have faded and we could all have gone to bed. We would have been spared the sight of Peter Mandelson looking pleased with himself at the Royal Festival Hall. The Tories, excused public humiliation, would have made a stronger opposition. And Tony Blair could have entered the coalition with the Lib Dems that he always craved, and nobody would have been the wiser.