Migration is good for Britain, Tony Blair declared today as he took on his critics ahead of the expansion of the European Union to take in 10 new countries on Saturday.
The Prime Minister, who has been buffeted by criticism of his U-turn over a referendum on Europe, tried to regain the initiative when he made a major speech to a Confederation of British Industry conference in London. In a pre-emptive strike against critics who claim that EU enlargement will result in a new influx of migrants, Mr Blair defended his "tough but fair" immigration and asylum policy and spelt out the benefits to Britain of people coming to this country.
He said: "We will neither be a 'Fortress Britain' nor an 'Open Door' Britain. Instead we will tighten the immigration system as necessary and deal with abuses so that public support for controlled and selective migration which benefits Britain is maintained." He added: "Those who say that migration is out of control in that the UK is taking more people than other countries are simply wrong."
Mr Blair acknowledged that concern about immigration has risen but said the nature of Britons is to be moderate. The country can accept controlled and selective migration but the Government cannot simply dismiss the concerns as racism.
Launching a drive to dispel "myths" about migration, the Prime Minister cited a Mori poll showing that people believe 23 per cent of the population comes from ethnic minorities; the real figure is 8 per cent.
Similarly, he insisted that Britain is "not a particularly high migration country" and has a lower foreign-born population than Germany or France. Less than 5 per cent of the UK workforce was born overseas, compared with 8 per cent in Germany and 15 per cent in the United States.
Looking ahead to the EU's expansion, Mr Blair insisted that no one from the 10 new member states will be able to come to Britain to live off the state and claim benefits. He recalled that there were similar "scare stories" about large-scale economic migration from Spain before that country entered the EU in 1986. Now, a total of 300,000 UK citizens live in Spain.
Mr Blair said that the benefits of migration to Britain have never been greater, citing Treasury forecasts that the country's economic growth rate would be almost 0.5 per cent lower in the next two years if net migration ended.
Saying that the movement of people in and out of the UK is and always has been "absolutely essential", the Prime Minister said that Britain is immeasurably richer because of the contribution of migrants to society: for example, one in four NHS professionals was born overseas.
Labour officials are worried that the EU's expansion and the recent criticism of the immigration service could provide a "dangerous cocktail" that could damage Labour at the 10 June elections to the European Parliament and local authorities.
Mr Blair's announcements today were a "blind panic" response to a problem that should have been foreseen, Tory leader Michael Howard said.
"You could not have a better example of how the Government has let us down than on immigration," he said.
Even as former immigration minister Beverley Hughes resigned, Mr Blair had insisted that migration from the accession countries of the EU would not put pressure on council houses, the Tory leader said.
Now, just four days before millions of people will be allowed into Britain, he was being forced to act, Mr Howard added.
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