Immigration is a big worry for many British voters
Labour's immigration minister has conceded that the record inflow of immigrants could be harming the worse off and has ''deeply unsettled the country''.
Liam Byrne admits in an article today that the issue is now near the top of the list of voter worries - and could cost Labour power.
He says it is ''not racist'' to debate immigration - even though Labour attacked the Tories for raising it during the 2001 general election.
Mr Byrne's comments, in a pamphlet published by the Policy Network think-tank, marks the latest milestone in a staged Labour retreat from the immigration policy it has embraced since 1997. A few years ago, David Blunkett, the former home secretary, said there was ''no obvious upper limit'' to the numbers that could come legally to Britain.
But Mr Byrne says: ''We have to accept that laissez faire migration risks damaging communities where parts of our anti-poverty strategy come under pressure.
"When a junior school, such as the school in Hodge Hill in my own constituency in Birmingham, sees its population of children with English as a second language rise from five per cent to 20 per cent in a year, then boosting standards in some poorer communities gets harder.''
Mr Byrne also challenges the idea that immigration concerns have been media driven. ''The only problem with the 'it's all the media' thesis is that it is not quite true,'' he writes.
''During the 1990s, the UK did change from being a country of net emigration to being one of net immigration - 2.4 million people left Britain and 3.4 million came in.''
He said the change had brought ''enormous economic benefits'' and had contributed to economic growth.
But he added: ''The step-change in public concern about immigration has been one of the most dramatic aspects of the changing political agenda since Labour came to power.
In 1997, the EU, unemployment, education and the NHS led the list of issues that voters said were vital. Ten years on, the issue list looks different - crime, race relations and defence have rocketed up the table.''
Polls have consistently shown around 40 per cent of voters rating immigration as their top concern.
''Here are a set of changes which have made Britain richer but have deeply unsettled the country,'' Mr Byrne said.
Figures due to be published by the Office for National Statistics tomorrow will show that net immigration in 2005 was close to 200,000 - four times the number when Labour took office in 1997.
At the present rate of immigration, the population of Britain will grow by 12 million in 40 years - an unprecedented rate of increase.
Last month, the Home Office said it was establishing a forum to assess the impact of migration. The Government is also introducing a points-based work permit system which favours highly skilled immigrants.
John Reid, the Home Secretary, met Francois Baroin, his French counterpart, in London yesterday amid concern over plans for a new refugee centre in Calais, fearing it will become a ''second Sangatte''.
A Home Office spokesman said the two ministers had reaffirmed their opposition to "any type of centre that could encourage the trafficking of illegal immigrants".
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