- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2000

LONDON The British government, facing a severe skills shortage, will relax immigration controls for the first time in 30 years to allow settlement by as many as 100,000 foreign workers a year.

It will be the most significant change in the immigration system since 1971. A blanket ban on immigration was introduced that year, excluding only asylum-seekers and those with relatives in Britain, following racial unrest and high-profile calls for controls.

Before 1971, almost anyone was free to apply to enter Britain for economic reasons. In the late 1950s and 1960s, the country developed campaigns in Asia and the Caribbean to recruit public transport and health service staff.

Now, with unemployment at a 20-year low, ministers believe that economic immigration should resume. They argue that it would be hard to retrain the poorly educated, unskilled jobless in sectors such as information technology, engineering and teaching.

Barbara Roche, the Home Office minister, will outline the proposals in a speech at the Institute for Public Policy Research in London this week.

The plan, which is likely to be introduced in a pilot version in April, will allow foreigners to come to Britain on the basis of points awarded for age, education, language skills and family ties.

The Home Office will set a maximum quota, probably of 100,000 a year. Priority will be given to people with skills needed in Britain or those with firm job offers.

The minister will talk about immigration controls and the action the Department for Education and Employment already has taken to streamline the work-permit program, and will acknowledge the existence of shortage areas, a Home Office spokesman confirmed over the weekend.

Ann Widdecombe, a spokeswoman for the opposition Conservative Party on Home Office policy, said she saw "no reason to relax the existing controls on immigration… .

"This will no doubt be sold as a method of tackling illegal immigration by allowing more people into the country legally. In fact, it will do nothing to tackle illegal immigration, and we must have robust-but-fair immigration and asylum policies."

For three decades, only asylum-seekers or people wanting to join relatives or a spouse have been allowed to settle. The only exception has been made for those setting up businesses or entertainers who could prove that they had at least $400,000 to support themselves.

Overseas skilled workers who have been offered jobs in Britain can apply for temporary leave to enter the country for work purposes, but that does not confer a right to remain indefinitely.

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