By Citra Sidhu THE CHURCH has welcomed proposals to relax Britain's strict immigration laws to allow the mass entry of workers from overseas.
The move was mooted at a Paris conference called The Fight Against Clandestine Entry Networks, during which Immigration Minister Barbara Roche called on 30 counties to recognise the value of migrants in wealth creation.
Relaxing the immigration laws could offset problems created by under-population, a phenomenon facing more than 50 countries which are near the below replacement fertility level of 2.1 children per woman.
In Britain, which has a replacement level of 2.75, the population is ageing and a quarter of people will be over the age of 65 years by 2050.
Implications may include strains on a comparatively smaller, tax-paying workforce; the provision of social services and health care, recruitment of people to menial jobs and to vital services and professions such as police, teaching, nursing and caring.
It is hoped a shake-up to allow access by economic migrants would also lead to enhanced wealth creation, such as that experienced by the United States. Ms Roche said: "Throughout the centuries immigrants have had a very positive impact on the societies they join. We need to find ways to meet legitimate desires to migrate and be ready to think imaginatively about how migration can meet economic and social needs".
Auxiliary Bishop John Jukes of Southwark, chairman of the English and Welsh bishops' committee for work, said the move made sense and dismissed fears that migrants would be exploited.
"We have legislation controlling hours of work and pay. There is also the protective element of trade unions," said Bishop Jukes. "Our national boundaries have always been leaky and our country would be poorer if it was reserved to native AngloSaxons or Celts."
He added: "I want to see legislation that will set it all out properly, as long as it doesn't restrict our response to immigration in general. We, as a civilised country still need to respond positively to the issues affecting refugees.
'We have to balance the obligation of the national state to look after the common good of its citizens, but this must be subsumed into the wider issue of the international community.
"The Government has always allowed people to come into the country to work. So whether this move heralds a sea change in attitude or is part of a prudential judgement that each modern state makes when it can't meet demand by its own workers, I don't know."
Nicholas Coote, assistant secretary to the bishops' conference and a member of its committee for migrants, warned that the move could come with restrictive admissions criteria attached.
He argued that it was likely that all migrants could be assessed solely on their ability to create wealth or contribute to the wealth of the nation, rather than on problems in their countries of origin.
He said: "One doesn't want to muddle the issues of economic migrants and asylum seekers. If the Minister is saying we need immigrant workers then that's very interesting. But why are asylum seekers still regarded as useless mouths to feed?"
Mr Coote added that a main obstacle to integration was negative attitudes to foreigners. He said: "Once the Government gets over that, couldn't they make a valuable contribution? Another question to ask is whether the Minister is only talking about reserved occupations. We also have to make sure that it isn't a racially or culturally subscribed 'open door'.
"We have had waves of immigrants in the past who have made very good indeed. Some have needed help to begin with, but enterprising people will make a contribution. Let's stop talking about an overcrowded England."
Britain opened its door to mass migration from the Caribbean and later from Asia in 1950s after the Second World War and the ensuing economic boom found the country under-populated.
The first national survey by the Policy Studies Institute revealed that migrants were employed mainly in manual work below a level to which they were qualified, and confined to a limited number of industries.
Racism excluded many from permanent employment, while some bosses refused to employ non-whites at all. Discrimination in housing, both private and state, meant many migrants found themselves living in slum areas.
Since 1971, when the immigration was stopped, it has been difficult even for people from the Commonwealth to gain a British passport.
It is predicted that Europe would need to import as many as 13.5 million migrants a year to maintain the ratio of workers to pensioners.