Page last updated at 11:11 GMT, Friday, 24 October 2008 12:11 UK

Woolas defends population pledge

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Mr Woolas has said the population will not be allowed to exceed 70 million

Phil Woolas has defended his pledge that the British population would not be allowed to exceed 70 million.

The immigration minister told the BBC that while "movement from EU" could not be precisely predicted, the "general trend" could be controlled.

He said the 70 million figure was not his, but had been "speculated" about and he wanted to reassure the public.

He also denied being gagged by the Home Office after being pulled from a BBC Question Time appearance on Thursday.

'Very complicated'

Mr Woolas, who has made a series of controversial comments about immigration and asylum since taking over the brief earlier this month, said the government had wanted a minister who could talk about the economy to appear on Question Time instead.

And he insisted he had not been barred from appearing on air in case he made further gaffes.

"I'm on air now, it's a very complicated business we are concentrating on the economy," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

FROM THE TODAY PROGRAMME

"The government decided we would put up an employment minister because of the concerns we have ... we put ministers on different programmes. I've just read in the paper that I've been gagged for two weeks and yet I'm on your programme."

The government wanted work and pensions minister Tony Mcnulty, a former junior home office minister, to appear on Question Time in Mr Woolas's place.

But Question Time's producers rejected this and booked Labour's former deputy leader Lord Hattersley instead, meaning the government was not represented on the programme.

EU immigration

Mr Woolas sparked controversy in an interview with The Times on Saturday, when he said: "This government isn't going to allow the population to go up to 70 million.

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

Asked whether he had made an eye-catching pledge that the government could not keep - because it cannot restrict immigration from within the EU - Mr Woolas told Today: "No, I don't accept that at all."

Baroness Warsi criticises immigration minister Phil Woolas

He said: ''What you cannot factor in is how many people leave the country. You cannot factor in, as you rightly say, movement from EU and that is why you can't put a precise figure - but what you can reassure the public over is that the general trend will be controlled. ''

He said he had mentioned the 70 million figure because there had been much speculation that the British population - estimated to be almost 61 million in 2007 - would hit that mark.

"My point is that the points-based system that we are introducing, the Australian-based system allows governments to influence the numbers of people coming into the country to work.

"And there are other changes we are making and therefore I am trying to reassure the country, who are worried about this speculation about increased population that they don't need to worry."

'Talking tough'

He said the new policy was "not the same as a numerical cap, we don't think that is appropriate".

He also said he had been given the position of immigration minister "to change perceptions" and raise the profile of the new points-based system - which he said was "tougher" and the biggest shake-up of immigration policy in 45 years.

But he denied that his predecessors in the role had not been tough enough - and added that he was determined he would not be put off from debating immigration, even though he was aware it could cause controversy.

On Thursday shadow community cohesion minister, Baroness Warsi, who appeared on Question Time for the Conservatives, said it was a "real shame" Mr Woolas was not on the programme to defend his comments.

"One of the concerns that I have is that any new Labour immigration minister comes in, talking tough, then does a U-turn, then doesn't know what he stands for, then has a home secretary who says: 'I don't trust you enough to come on Question Time'. Why should we trust him, as the British public?"




SEE ALSO
I haven't gagged Woolas - Smith
23 Oct 08 |  UK Politics
Woolas in Church of England row
22 Oct 08 |  UK Politics
Minister attacks migration policy
21 Oct 08 |  UK Politics
Woolas rows back on immigration?
19 Oct 08 |  Politics Show

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