Page last updated at 18:30 GMT, Saturday, 18 October 2008 19:30 UK

Labour 'floundering' on migration

Immigration officer
Immigration into the UK remains a controversial subject

The government is "floundering around" on UK immigration because it believes the issue is an "electoral liability", the shadow home secretary has said.

Dominic Grieve spoke out after the government said the number of migrants entering via the points system may have to be cut owing to the economic crisis.

Immigration Minister Phil Woolas told the Times immigration became "extremely thorny" if people were losing jobs.

The Tories have urged the government to show how they would deliver the plans.

Mr Woolas said the government would not allow the UK population to pass 70 million.

He said setting a population policy - which would be a first for Labour - would enable the government to set a limit on migration.

Tough talk is simply not enough
Dominic Grieve, shadow home secretary

In a wide-ranging interview Mr Woolas, who became immigration minister earlier this month, told the Times: "It's been too easy to get into this country in the past and it's going to get harder.

"There has to be a balance between the number of people coming in and the number of people leaving."

Tougher immigration policies would also require getting the British "back to work", for example with more retraining for the unemployed, he said.

Mr Grieve said Labour were matching Tory policies on setting immigration limits.

But he insisted it needed to be "carefully explained".

"The government hasn't got to grips with this issue at all, and that they're floundering around because they know it's now become a serious electoral liability."

He added: "Tough talk is simply not enough, they must now explain how they intend to deliver."

'Powerful controls'

The government recently introduced a new points-based system to attract migrants from outside the EU to certain jobs.

The Home Office said the UK's new system provided "a powerful and flexible set of controls" which allowed it to "raise or lower the bar" according to needs.

What are you going to say to the employer who is desperate to fill a job, but can't find anyone suitable in the European economic area?
Keith Best, chief executive, Immigration Advisory Service

Figures from the Office for National Statistics show the population grew by nearly two million to 60,975,000 people between 2001 and 2007.

Various official projections predict this to rise to 77m in 2051 or 110m in 2081.

BBC political correspondent Ross Hawkins said it was significant Mr Woolas had quoted an upper limit for the UK population.

The government had previously shied away from setting a "population policy" because it was difficult for ministers to explain how it would be managed, he said.

Keith Best, Immigration Advisory Service: 'Migrants tend to get blamed'

This is because immigration from inside the EU cannot be controlled, and neither can a limit be placed on genuine claims for asylum.

Former Labour minister Frank Field, a member of a cross-party group on immigration, welcomed Mr Woolas's comments.

The MP for Birkenhead said when the country was moving into a recession the immigration policy suitable for a boom was unsuitable.

He said the key was to "break the link" between people coming to the UK to work and gaining citizenship, which increased the population.

'Distorted picture'

Sir Andrew Green, chairman of Migrationwatch, which argues for balanced migration, told BBC Five Live Mr Woolas's remarks showed a significant development in the immigration debate.

"This is the very first time that a government minister has recognised the link between immigration and population," he said.

But the chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, Keith Vaz, said he disagreed with Mr Woolas.

A Labour government had never supported a quota for immigration, he said, adding that the points-based system was based on needs of the economy and not numbers.

He said the government should avoid providing a vehicle for the "distorted picture the far right will want to portray".

People have looked for scapegoats in immigrant communities for economic problems and in fact exactly the opposite is the case
Chris Huhne, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman

Keith Best, chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service, said immigration quotas were not workable in a modern trading economy.

"What are you going to say to the employer who is desperate to fill a job, but can't find anyone suitable in the European economic area?" he said.

"Are you going to say 'sorry, the quota has been filled, you'll have to wait till next year'?"

Chris Huhne, the Lib Dems' home affairs spokesman, said it was surprising the issue was being considered now, when many immigrants were returning home because of the financial crisis.

"I do find it rather worrying that Labour and the Conservatives seem to be opening up this debate now at a time when traditionally people have looked for scapegoats in immigrant communities for economic problems, and in fact exactly the opposite is the case.

"The people who get the hardest hit first are often migrant communities."

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