Tony Blair attempted to seize control of the debate over immigration yesterday as he admitted Britain had reached a "crunch point" and launched a "top to bottom review" of the system for entering Britain.
In a speech just four days before 10 new countries become members of the European Union, Mr Blair made a passionate defence of migrants, but announced tough new controls on jobless workers coming to Britain from Eastern Europe.
He insisted that managed migration to Britain was essential for the economy and public services but warned that the public would not tolerate abuses of the system. Liberal Democrats accused the Prime Minister of "pandering to the right", while Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, accused Mr Blair of "blind panic".
Mr Blair acknowledged that public concern about immigration was at its highest since the 1970s, but insisted that concern about migrants entering Britain was not racist. He said: "The vast bulk of the British people are not racist. It is in their nature to be moderate. But they can expect Government to respond to their worries.
"They can accept migration that is controlled and selective. They accept and welcome migrants who play by the rules. But they will not accept abuse or absurdity and why should they?"
He admitted that some immigration procedures "have clearly been at fault", but insisted that he was not going to close the doors to immigration.
Mr Blair reiterated promises of a review of immigration policies first announced at a Downing Street summit after the resignation of Beverley Hughes earlier this month. The Prime Minister said it would be "a top to bottom analysis of the immigration system; how it can be improved, how it can agree migration where it is in our country's interests and prevent it where it isn't".
He also announced new regulations regarding migrants from the eight Eastern European countries due to join the EU at the weekend, which will prevent them claiming council homes or emergency bed and breakfast accommodation until they have been in continuous work for a year.
Mr Blair outlined the decades of benefits Britain has gained from immigration, from the French Huguenots linked to the Bank of England and the Polish pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain, to the foreign teachers and computer professionals who have flocked to Britain's shores in recent years.
He said: "We will neither be Fortress Britain, nor will we be an open house. Where necessary we will tighten the immigration system. Where there are abuses we will deal with them, so that public support for the controlled migration that benefits Britain is maintained."
Mr Blair insisted that Britain was not a big centre of migration and that trends in immigration were in line with its European neighbours. He said: "Those who say migration is out of control or that the UK is taking more people than other countries are simply wrong, as are those who suggest that we exert no control over who comes here."
Home Office sources insisted that Mr Blair was merely reinforcing the Government's strategy of promoting controlled migration while seeking out "scams" and clamping down on illegal immigration.
David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, said: "We are securing the balance in our immigration policy that the Prime Minister is speaking about today in London. But we don't want people who come clandestinely to our country and undercut the wages of workers."
But Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman, accused the Prime Minister of playing to right-wing opinion. He said: "The problem with this Government is they may say the right thing on Tuesday, but they then pander to the right on Wednesday.
"If these words are to mean anything they must be matched with more measured policies from the Home Office."
David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "There was nothing new in Tony Blair's announcement today - it was simply a rehash of measures announced by David Blunkett two months ago that still haven't been implemented.
"Tony Blair clearly knows people have zero confidence in his ability to deliver on immigration. I am pleased that the Prime Minister has finally recognised that 80 per cent of the population who are worried about immigration are not racists. However, with EU enlargement a mere four days away, these measures amounts to too little, too late."Reuse content