Johnson said that the backlog of unreturned foreign prisoners and unresolved asylum applications were ignored for far too long and that some communities have had legitimate concerns about the strain on jobs and services. He said Labour had "struggled to contain the huge surge" in people fleeing conflict zones in the past decade.
The home secretary also conceded that some of the counter-terrorism proposals made after the 7 July 2005 bombings were "too draconian" and "not the right way to go".
Johnson, making his first major speech on immigration, at the Royal Society of Arts, insisted however that Labour had not pursued an "open-door" policy and had been the first government to introduce a system which tracked who had arrived in the country and who had left.
The home secretary also made a strong defence of the use of surveillance powers, control orders and the Prevent programme to tackle violent extremism. He strongly hinted that the government’s proposals, which are expected shortly, to reform the use of Ripa (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) surveillance powers will stop local authorities using them for "trivial" reasons such as spying on people putting their rubbish out on the wrong day or letting their dogs foul the streets.
The home secretary said any rational debate on immigration had to recognise that there were communities disproportionately affected by immigration, where people had legitimate concerns about the strain that the growth in the local population had placed on jobs and services.
It also had to recognise that the immigration problems faced by Britain were not unique and that it was reasonable to expect that new migrants should learn the language, obey the laws and pay their taxes.
"Whilst I accept that governments of both persuasions, including this one, have been maladroit in their handling of this issue, I do believe that the UK is now far more successful at tackling immigration than most of its European and North American neighbours," he said, citing policies including the introduction of biometric visas, ID cards for foreign nationals and dealing with new asylum applications within six months, including returning failed applicants.
He admitted that Labour’s record "is not perfect". "When we came to government in 1997, there was no magic button we could push immediately to resolve all the historic political and operation problems associated with immigration," he said.
"The legacy problems with unreturned foreign national prisoners and asylum seekers may have accumulated under previous administrations, but they continued to be ignored for far too long on our watch."
He said that as in other countries, the Labour government in Britain "struggled to contain the huge surge in migration – legal and illegal – that emerged from conflicts such as Kosovo, Iraq, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and Somalia. But this shouldn’t overshadow the real and rapid progress that has been made."
E-borders, which tracks the movements of everyone in and out of the country, should be fully operational by 2014 and the completion of the backlog of legacy cases in immigration and asylum will be cleared by 2011.
He argued that the Conservative claim that Labour operated an open-door policy on immigration was a wilful misrepresentation of the facts and was a hangover from their "dog-whistle politics" of the last election.
In response to a question on counter-terrorism, Johnson said that the Labour government had probably tried to go too far after the 7 July London bombings: "That probably was an understandable feeling that we should be doing more and being more draconian was not the right way to go." The Guardian