Gordon Brown has announced tough new rules on student visas and cut the number of skilled foreign workers allowed into Britain as he acknowledged public concerns over immigration levels.
He argued that attracting talented migrants remained crucial to Britain's prosperity but said it was foolish to ignore the risks and costs of immigration. In his first major speech on the issue for two years, the Prime Minister said it was "lazy elitism" to portray people with worries about immigration as racist.
The planned clampdown on student visas is aimed at bogus colleges offering non EU-nationals an easy route into Britain. Ministers are preparing to raise the minimum level of a course for which visas are granted and to introduce English language tests before they are given out. Mr Brown also raised the prospect of tougher rules on foreign students taking part-time jobs that "would be better filled by young British workers".
The Prime Minister said the range of jobs available to skilled foreign workers would be reduced by tens of thousands. From next year all vacancies for hospital consultants, civil engineers, aircraft engineers and ship's officers will have to be filled from within Britain and the EU, with other engineering posts, skilled chefs and care workers expected to join the list shortly afterwards. But employers and colleges warned of the potential economic impact of limiting skilled workers. The Institution of Civil Engineers said restrictions on engineers could affect major infrastructure projects such as new nuclear power stations.
Five months after the British National Party won two seats in the European Parliament, Mr Brown said: "Immigration is not an issue for fringe parties, nor a taboo subject. It is a question to be dealt with at the heart of our politics, a question about what it means to be British." He pointed to the cultural and economic benefits of immigration but he accepted there were "significant variations" in how it affected different parts of the country. People living in towns with lots of new arrivals would worry about falling wages, fewer jobs and the supply of housing, he said.
But Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "Gordon Brown is attempting to shut the stable door long after the horse has bolted. His government's catastrophic mismanagement of the system has undermined this country's liberal attitude towards immigration."