David Blunkett's asylum policies are tough but they should help the construction industry to legitimise its workforce and improve pay and conditions for skilled foreign labourers.
On paper David Blunkett's latest Asylum Bill looks Draconian. In a bid to deter people from making fraudulent asylum claims the government is proposing to stop the benefits of asylum seekers and electronically tag those whose cases are on appeal. Even more controversially, the government says it will put the children of failed claimants into care if they refuse a government offer of a free flight home.

The proposals are the stuff of newspaper headlines and Blunkett knows it. Anti-immigration measures play well in middle England and the government is keen to let wavering New Labour voters know that it is being tough on illegal immigrants.

There is a flip side to the Asylum and Immigration Bill, which is of more interest to the construction industry. In an attempt to integrate and welcome skilled workers from overseas, Blunkett wants to eradicate illegal labour on building sties.

The Government may be about to lead by example. It is considering setting up a labour agency to find foreign workers for PFI projects. There are two drivers: the skills shortage, which is holding back some PFI schemes, and the problem firms have in finding out whether workers employed by agencies are in the country legally.

The idea is that information on all foreign workers will be collected and stored as part of the CSCS card scheme. The CSCS card assures clients that workers are trained to a suitable level and have the required knowledge to work safely on site. Once up and running the agency would vet all foreign workers and be able to supply PFI projects with the skilled workers they require.

A Whitehall source said George Brumwell, currently general secretary of UCATT, could be asked to become the chairman of the CSCS to help implement the plan. This would be a sensible choice as Brumwell is well versed in employees' rights and has extensive contacts with contractors and government departments.

A government run labour agency would have revealed the credentials of workers on the site of the new £244m Home Office headquarters in London. The project's main contractor, French company Bouygues, employed workers through a French labour agency and Brumwell says that UCATT representatives were not allowed on site. This meant that there was no way of knowing whether workers were being treated fairly or whether language problems were affecting health and safety on site.

Whether legitimisation of the workforce will come about will depend on the willingness of clients and contractors to stop using cheap labour. The government for one would see its building costs rise if it started employing foreign workers under the CSCS scheme.

For some small builders the temptation to carry on employing illegal foreign workers on as little as £25 a day will be too much. The government will need to make sure that offenders are caught and punished. More on-the-spot checks will be needed to stop builders taking advantage of poor immigrants' desperate desire to work. The enforcement of Blunkett's policies will be the greatest challenge.