Lib Dems call for amnesty for illegal immigrants

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Up to 600,000 illegal immigrants should be given the right to "earn" full citizenship, the Liberal Democrats said yesterday. It is the first major party to lean towards advocating an amnesty for such migrants.

Nick Clegg, the party's home affairs spokesman, said a route to citizenship was the only way to deal with people who may have been in Britain - but outside the legal system - for many years. Under the plans, to be debated by the party's annual conference next month, people who have lived in Britain for a decade, have no criminal record and show a long-term commitment to the country could gain citizenship.

Applicants would have to show a good command of English, pass a public interest test and pay a fee, which could be waived if they undertake voluntary work. Mr Clegg said the proposal would free people from working in the "twilight world of illegality and exploitation" outside normal employment laws. An amnesty would work alongside tougher border controls, he added.

He said attempting to remove the backlog of failed asylum-seekers and people who had overstayed their visas was "the politics of the madhouse".

But the Conservatives attacked the plans, insisting they would attract illegal immigrants to Britain. David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "This is irresponsible because on the one hand it will encourage people to come here illegally as well as being unfair to those who have obeyed the law and tried to enter the UK legally.

"It will act as a green flag to a new future wave of illegal immigrants who will be told by their criminal handlers that if they remain in the UK long enough they will be allowed to stay permanently."

Last week ministers faced claims that the immigration system was "out of control" after figures showed a fall in the number of failed asylum-seekers deported this spring. Estimates suggest that there could be between 310,000 and 570,000 illegal migrants in Britain.

Last year a report by the Institute of Public Policy Research, a think-tank close to the Labour Government, said that an amnesty could be worth up to £6bn to the economy.