Conservative leader David Cameron today pledged to cut net immigration into the UK, warning that the current rate of arrivals was placing an " unsustainable" pressure on the country's public services and infrastructure.
In his first major speech on immigration, Mr Cameron set out what he termed a "modern Conservative population strategy" to slow the rate of growth in the numbers of people living in the UK.
A Tory administration would set annual limits on economic migration from outside the EU "substantially lower" than the current rate; set up a Border Police Force with powers to track down and remove illegal migrants; and impose transitional controls on the right of nationals of new EU states to work in the UK.
And Mr Cameron said he would raise the minimum age for spouses coming to Britain to 21 and demand that they are able to speak English.
A failure to reduce net immigration would "make it more difficult for a Conservative Government to deliver its vision of opportunity, responsibility and security", he warned.
Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that, on current trends, the UK's population will rise from 60.6 million today to more than 71 million by 2031, increasing pressure on housing, healthcare, schools, the transport system, energy and water supplies.
Some of the increased pressure comes from Britain's ageing population, as well as the "atomisation" of society through divorce, family break-up and later marriage, which means more single-person households, said Mr Cameron.
But with 190,000 more people coming to the UK from abroad than leave the country each year, the bulk of the population rise - around 70% - is driven by immigration.
"Of course we should recognise that in an advanced, open economy there will be high levels of both emigration and immigration," said Mr Cameron in his speech in central London.
"But what matters is the net figure, which I believe is currently too high... It is time for change. We need policy to reduce the level of net immigration. And we need policy to strengthen society and combat atomisation. "
And he warned: "Our current level of population growth and atomisation is unsustainable.
"Immigration is too high. Family breakdown is too high. Unsustainable demographic change makes it harder to build the opportunity society I want to see, where young people can get on the housing ladder and where everyone has more power over their own lives.
"It makes it harder to build the responsible society I want to see, with strong families, communities and public services. And it makes it harder to build the secure society I want to see, with our quality of life and our environment protected in equal measure."
Mr Cameron accused the Government of failing to develop a population strategy and said it was time for a "grown-up conversation" on what level of population was right for the country.
He said a Tory Government would reduce demand for labour from abroad by introducing a "revolution in skills training" to ensure British workers are able to fill vacancies currently going to migrants from eastern Europe and elsewhere.
And he said welfare reforms and pro-family policies would help combat the atomisation of society.
Mr Cameron acknowledged that immigration has a "broadly positive" impact on Britain's economy, increasing overall GDP.
But he quoted research suggesting that unskilled British workers suffer lower wages and higher unemployment because of competition from migrants arriving from overseas to compete for the same jobs.
Immigration creates a demand for 73,000 new households a year in England alone - one-third of the total extra homes needed - contributing to the pressure in the housing market, said the Conservative leader.
And he said schools were facing "immense" difficulties coping with a situation where 13% of primary pupils in England do not speak English as their first language - rising to 76% in Tower Hamlets, in east London.
Population growth was also having a "marked effect" on transport congestion and placing "considerable pressure" on resources like water and energy.
Mr Cameron rejected calls for Britain to close its doors to new migrants.
"Immigration brings many benefits to our country - economic, social, and cultural," he said. "And even if it were possible to pull up the drawbridge, in our new world of freedom, where Britain has so much to gain from being open to the world, to do so would be not just wrong but self-defeating.
"Instead, we should bring down the level of net immigration to a more sustainable level."
This could best be done by cutting levels of economic immigration from outside the EU, he suggested.
"Non-EU migration, excluding British citizens returning to live here, accounts for nearly 70% of all immigration," said Mr Cameron.
"Of course overall non-EU migration includes asylum seekers, students and family members as well as economic migrants. But non-EU economic migration is something we can and should limit, and I cannot understand why this Government has not done so.
"As (home affairs spokesmen) David Davis and Damian Green argued in our policy document Controlling Economic Migration last year, we need explicit annual limits on non-EU economic migration, set at a level substantially lower than the current rate."
Mr Cameron said he did not want to stop arranged marriages between UK citizens and spouses from abroad, which he said "work well for many of our citizens and are an important aspect of their culture".
But he said the minimum age for foreign nationals to join spouses in the UK should be raised from the current 18 to 21, to ensure that "both parties to a marriage have agreed, and are capable of making, the momentous decision to move halfway across the world to live".
Mr Cameron also urged ministers to commit the Government to " transitional arrangements", similar to those operated in relation to Romania and Bulgaria, which would limit the right of nationals of any future EU entrants to work in the UK. This could apply to countries currently in the queue for EU membership including Croatia, Macedonia and 70 million-strong Turkey.
Asked how much immigration from outside the EU should be reduced by, he said "substantially".
He would not set a quota today, however, saying that that would be made on the basis of advice from a new body comprising the Migration Advisory Council and the Migration Impact Forum.
Asked whether the Tories would propose a specific quota by the next general election, Mr Cameron said the experience of recent months had shown it was impossible to say when that might come.
He rejected the suggestion that he was steering the Tories back towards a right-wing course, saying: "I just don't accept that at all."
Mr Cameron added that having a proper understanding of demographics was not a right or left-wing issue.
And he ruled out any directions to families not to have as many children. "I think the decision a family makes about how many children it wants to have is totally for it," he said.
Immigration minister Liam Byrne accused Mr Cameron of "rehashing platitudes".
"He talks of a limit on immigration numbers but nowhere does he say what this would be," he said.
"Talk of a cap on numbers, when you can't, or won't, name a number is nothing but a smokescreen for his lack of new, credible thinking, especially when the small print reveals his cap appears not to touch EEA nationals, overseas students and dependants - groups who made up the vast majority of Britain's incomers last year.
"The British people expect serious, considered policies.
"We are introducing a new Australian style points-based system of immigration to ensure only those who benefit Britain can come here, while measures such as ID cards for foreign nationals will help us safeguard access to work and benefits.
"Labour's approach to immigration is based on firm, fair and serious policies - that is what the British public want, not populist soundbites.
"Sadly they have come to expect nothing but the latter from David Cameron."
Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg said: "This is yet more
fantasy politics from David Cameron.
"He tries to appear reasonable whilst pandering to the right wing in his own party, and claims that immigration numbers should be cut without having the faintest clue as to how that would happen.
"Does David Cameron have a magic number in mind or does he seriously think that immigration can be turned on and off like a tap?
"Only the Liberal Democrats have a grown-up approach to immigration based on effective administration, including a properly resourced national border force and giving local authorities the ability to plan for population changes. Integration should be encouraged by promoting English amongst all newcomers, as well as getting long-term irregular residents out of the hands of criminals and into law-abiding, taxpaying existence."
UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage described Mr Cameron's comments on immigration as "sheer unadulterated hypocrisy".
"When these issues were being voted on in the European Parliament, British Conservatives were the greatest enthusiasts of open borders to Eastern Europe, which is where the huge rise in immigration has come from," said Mr Farage.
"And in spite of these weasel words, they are still in favour of open borders which will mean even more migration, regardless of what they say in Britain."Reuse content