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Page last updated at 16:12 GMT, Tuesday, 4 May 2010 17:12 UK

Election 2010: Parties clash over immigration and EU

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Party spokesmen have defended their immigration policies during a debate organised by the BBC's Politics Show.

Immigration minister Phil Woolas said Labour's points-based system was bringing net immigration down from its high of 163,000 in 2008.

Tory Damian Green said a planned cap on work visas could reduce the influx, while Lib Dem Tom Brake denied an amnesty would encourage more newcomers.

UKIP's Nigel Farage said numbers could not be limited without leaving the EU.

He suggested people were "routinely abused" for discussing immigration, referring to Gordon Brown's description of a pensioner who raised the issue as "bigoted" and David Cameron's labelling of UKIP members as "closet racists".

Mr Green argued that he had heard UKIP members say "pretty unpleasant" things.

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However, Mr Woolas admitted a situation had developed in which people were "afraid" to talk about immigration because it had become tied to the issue of race.

The minister accepted that an additional 2m people had come in to the country since 1997 and that it had created "pressures" on communities.

But he added: "There is a benefit to our country from immigration. The National Health Service, for example, depends on immigrants. Our economy benefited."

Mr Woolas also said 2.2m Britons were "living and working" in EU nations during the course of a year and disputed figures quoted by UKIP that just 287,000 Britons were working in EU states, compared with 1.6m from Europe working in the UK. He said the latter figure included 500,000 students.

Mr Woolas insisted the points-based system to ensure only skilled workers came from outside the EU was working. He added that the government was "deporting people and turning them back in record numbers" and that any cap would damage business.

However, Mr Green, the Conservative immigration spokesman, said immigration had been "out of control" under Labour, putting pressure on schools and health services.

He said the Conservatives wanted to bring down the level to tens of thousands per year, by setting a cap on the number of work permits issued, creating a border police service and "tackling chaos" in the student visa system.

'Porous' borders

Mr Green added that he could not give a number for the cap until after consultation with businesses and people but said he believed it would be less than 120,000.

He admitted the planned limit would not include dependents or students but said he wanted to bring the world's "brightest and best" talent to the country.

"A lot of them will inevitably be couples. So just to say to one person, you can come over here but if you bring your wife, husband, partner, they can't work would actually damage Britain's economy," he said.

That prompted Mr Woolas to say the policy had just collapsed.

Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Mr Brake said UK borders had been "too porous for too long" and that his party would immediately reintroduce exit checks.

Regional work permits would be trialled in Scotland, he said, denying that this would involve border "checkpoints" but accepting that those accepted could live wherever they liked provided they worked in the right region.

He fended off accusations that his party's planned amnesty for illegal immigrants would only encourage more people to come, as had happened in Spain and Italy.

Placard calling for UK workers to get jobs ahead of foreigners
Immigration is considered a key issue among voters

Describing the plan as "very much a one-off", Mr Brake said people would have to prove they had been in the UK for 10 years, spoke English and had not committed a crime.

"This would have to work hand-in-hand with tough controls... to make sure our borders are secure," he said.

He added that he could not put a figure on the number of people who could claim amnesty but accepted it could be as many as 750,000.

"We want to get these people paying taxes and contributing to the public services they are already using," he said.

However, Mr Farage insisted illegal immigrants simply had to be deported.

He said the other men had ignored the "elephant in the room" which was that none of their policies could tackle EU immigration.

"We cannot have our own immigration policy and be members of the European Union," he said.

"We have got to get back control of our borders. Let's have work permits, let's be fair to people, but let's start putting British people first. Only UKIP has got the guts to stand up and say that."

Mr Farage denied that withdrawal from the EU would force Britons working abroad to return, saying that free trade agreements would be set up with Europe.

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