In the first of a regular series, the construction minister discusses the pros and cons of legitimising the many illegal immigrants on UK building sites
It's now a little more than a year since the construction industry passed to the tender care of the DTI and I took over as minister for construction. Contrary to widespread belief, politicians are not oblivious to reasonable criticism, and I'm aware that, with most of my time being spent on energy, the construction industry, accustomed to having its own minister, has felt a bit neglected.

So, although the transition to the DTI has gone well and we are pressing ahead with key initiatives such as the Egan agenda (which I was profoundly grateful to inherit), I want to become more personally involved in giving the industry political leadership.

Recently, I shed some of my other industrial responsibilities to spend more time with construction. But, equally, I need a platform from which to express opinions, invite comment and draw attention to some of the good news I come across in the course of my duties. A conversation over several glasses of wine with Adrian Barrick, the editor of Building, led me into this column and I look forward to getting to know the readership of the magazine better in the months – and maybe even years – ahead.

To kick off, let's consider the issue of illegal immigration. Neither ultra-liberalism nor ultra-conservatism is likely to secure the kind of balanced, humane policy that is going to treat people justly while recognising legitimate public concerns. Some of the dilemmas involved are evident within the construction industry. Particularly in the south and south-east of England, building sites are dependent on migrant workers from Eastern Europe and elsewhere, just as they were once dependent on labour from Ireland.

Some of these workers will be in the country legally, but it is likely that a great many won't. Given the skills shortages, which are likely to grow as construction continues to boom, a clamp-down on this workforce would be cutting off the nose to spite the face. In an ideal world, there would be winners all round. The industry would be able to recruit openly from a section of the labour market that is desperate for employment and seems to have an excellent record for hard work; the workers would be able to support their families; the clients would get their jobs done more quickly and efficiently.

An amnesty for all illegal workers would be seen in some quarters as a reversal of our wider policy

The problem is that this scenario impinges on other government policies and could hardly be confined to the construction industry. An amnesty for all illegal workers would be seen in some quarters as a reversal of that wider policy.

On the other hand, illegality plays into the hands of bad employers. It's part of the world history of migration that people who do not have official papers don't have many rights, either. This applies to wages, conditions, health and safety. And if some workers on a site suffer from inferior rights, there is a negative impact on the rest.

In a regulated environment, cultural and linguistic problems can be overcome; in a cowboy environment, where the price of illegality is silence, they are very likely to lead to accidents and recrimination. As a statement of principle, my preference is that everyone who is working on a building site should be employed legally, with all the rights that this entails. That is the view I have expressed to my colleagues in the Home Office, who are leading a cross-government policy review on illegal working and migration.

I'm often impressed by simple examples of clever innovation in the industry. My recent favourite was on a visit to the Torwood Homes factory in Ipswich, which is a good example of how off-site manufacturing can provide excellent house frames from the shelter of the factory.