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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 July 2007, 16:28 GMT 17:28 UK
Soames calls for immigration cut
Immigrants board a plane
Ministers say they are phasing out low-skilled migration
Immigration levels to the UK need to be cut to avoid "profound changes" in British society, MPs have been told.

Senior Conservative MP Nicholas Soames warned there were "dangerous shoals ahead" unless the UK took action.

In response the government said it was "phasing out" low-skilled migration from countries outside Europe.

For the Lib Dems Nick Clegg called for a process to be established so the estimated 600,000 illegal immigrants in the UK could earn legal residence.

'Change tack'

Mid-Sussex MP Mr Soames, who initiated the debate, said numbers of immigrants entering the UK each year had quadrupled since 1997.

He added: "The present scale of immigration is absolutely without precedent in our history.

"This rate of migration cannot be sustained without the most profound changes taking place in our society."

If we do not change tack very quickly, very smartly on this issue then the sense of our national identity may be lost
Frank Field
Labour MP

He accused the government of failing to "get a grip" on the asylum system, trebling the number of work permits it issued since 1997, and changing the rules to make it easier for people to bring their husbands and wives in.

Mr Soames, a grandson of Winston Churchill and longtime friend of Prince Charles, said immigration from outside the EU should be limited to the numbers leaving the UK - about 100,000 a year.

He disputed government claims about the benefits to the general economy from immigration and said the public could "sense the falsehoods" in government claims.

Mr Soames proposed cutting work permits, tightening family reunion rules and also asylum applications.

He said any immigration system was only as good as its power to remove people, and if necessary human rights rules needed to be looked at again.

He said access to the welfare state should only come after people had contributed to it for five years to "defuse the very strong sense of grievance".

'Political classes'

"Muddling on" would risk adding to the pressure building in society, he said.

Mr Soames stressed that his proposals were not racist, saying they would apply as much, say, to the US as to Uganda.

He said free movement of people within the EU would continue but he did not think that would be a long term problem as living standards rose in new member states.

During the Westminster Hall debate, ex-Labour minister Frank Field, said the "political classes" had failed to listen to people's legitimate concerns about the level of immigration.

He added: "If we do not change tack very quickly, very smartly on this issue then the sense of our national identity may be lost."

He questioned the free movement of people around Europe and said one million people coming in from eastern Europe was "unsustainable".

'Without precedent'

But Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg said he did not see how it was possible to "turn off the tap" of people coming in to the UK.

He added that there should be a process for illegal immigrants to earn legal residence - saying it was "fanciful" to think that the estimated 600,000 illegal immigrants in the UK could be deported.

For the Tories, shadow immigration minister Damian Green said his party would set an annual limit on the number of immigrants which would change with the country's economic requirements, and urged the government to set up a border police.

Immigration minister Liam Byrne said world migration had increased hugely, and said there were many other countries who have had more immigrants than the UK.

He accepted there was a "social impact" as well as an economic one and said the new points based work permit system was being brought into force.

He also highlighted new government systems that he said would track the majority of migrants by 2009.

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