Page last updated at 14:35 GMT, Thursday, 20 November 2008

New system may not cut migration

Phil Woolas
Mr Woolas says the UK will 'kick out' more illegal immigrants

The government's points-based migration system could lead to a rise in the number of people entering the UK in the future, Phil Woolas has said.

The immigration minister claims the new system will be "tougher".

And if it had been in place last year 7,900 fewer non-EU migrants would have entered the UK.

But asked by MPs if the new system would mean less immigration, he said "not necessarily" as it could be also be used to increase numbers coming in.

Mr Woolas said he wanted to "reassure" the public that Britain's population would not reach the 70 million mark or higher predicted by some experts including the Office for National Statistics.

He said the new points-based system, which comes into effect on 27 November, would help keep immigration under control.

For example, if it had been in place last year 12% fewer non-EU migrants would have entered the country, or 57,300 newcomers compared to the 65,200 that actually arrived, Mr Woolas told the home affairs committee.

'Control'

The minister, who told the MPs he had been brought in to "raise the profile" of immigration policy, said he was "pleased" that the government could now point to concrete figures in this way, claiming it "profoundly changes the British public's attitude to immigration".

But asked if the new points-based system would actually mean fewer people coming in, he said: "Not necessarily."

Explaining why, he told the MPs: "The criteria within the five tiers can be be moved up and down so in a situation where the government of the day wanted to increase the numbers coming in for certain reasons it could do so.

It is not the case that 300,000 visas have been issued wrongly
Phil Woolas

"Let's say for example there was a massive expansion of university education beyond the already significant expansion we have had over the last 10 years, then you would want to see student numbers going up. That would be an example. But my point is that we can control it."

Under the points-based system, which comes into effect on 27 November, wealthy investors and most graduates under the age of 40 earning amounts equivalent in their country of 40,000 a year can come to the UK from outside the EU.

'Hideous exaggeration'

But unskilled workers are barred and firms can only recruit "skilled" workers from non-EU countries if they can not fill a vacancy or the occupation is on a list of shortage occupations.

Citizens of other EU countries will be exempt from the new system but Mr Woolas denied the government's pledge of "British jobs for British workers" was "not worth the paper it was printed on" as it was illegal under EU law.

He said the focus of the government's training and "full employment policies" was on British citizens.

He also denied a claim by Tory MP Patrick Mercer that he was guilty of "hideous exaggeration" when he told a newspaper the government would "kick out" more illegal immigrants.

Mr Mercer suggested that this gave the impression that more illegal immigrants would be tracked down within the UK and removed, when the figures the government used also included those denied entry at ports and airports.

But Mr Woolas argued that it was fair to include such people in the figures, as "the last time I looked Heathrow airport was in Britain".

Mr Woolas also denied denied that 300,000 visas to visit Britain were issued wrongly.

The figure emerged on Tuesday when the independent visa monitor, Linda Costelloe-Baker said it was "reasonable" to assume around 15% of unchecked applications for short-term visa approvals might be incorrect.

Mr Woolas said many of those errors were spelling mistakes and incorrectly quoted legislation, not the decisions themselves.

"It is not the case that 300,000 visas have been issued wrongly," he said.

Foreign criminals

The committee was also told that 90 foreign criminals are still missing despite efforts to track them down.

Controversy about the government's failure to consider the deportation of more than 1,000 foreign prisoners, as recommended by sentencing judges, led to the resignation of home secretary Charles Clarke in 2006.

The situation was aggravated by the admission that the government did not know where dozens of the former inmates were.

Immigration and Nationality Directorate chief executive Lin Homer told the committee 15 more of the criminals had been tracked down and investigations were being made to find the remaining 90.

"Although we have reached the point where the change in numbers is small, we are still making progress," she said.

"We are not in any sense giving up."



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