John Reid, the Home Secretary, yesterday gave his backing to an annual "optimum" limit to the number of immigrants to be allowed into Britain.
Mr Reid said the migration advisory committee would recommend an "optimum" level of migration which would be "beneficial in terms of enhancing the economy of this country commensurate with our social stability".
The independent body would prevent immigration levels being used as a "party political football" and would provide a clear indication that the Government was listening to public concerns, he said. It is likely its recommendations will be taken as a guide rather than a fixed limit, but it could prove controversial.
The Home Secretary said mass migration was the "greatest challenge facing European governments" but he defended the Government's decision to allow people from new European Union states to work in the UK, which has seen hundreds of thousands of Poles and other eastern Europeans arrive looking for jobs. Polish plumbers, doctors and dentists have "brought a lot of skills and a lot of benefits" to the UK, Mr Reid said.
But he stopped short of saying whether similar rights to settle and work would be granted to would-be immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria when they joined the EU next year.
The Home Secretary called for a more open debate about the impact of mass migration on Britain.
In an address to the think tank Demos on Wednesday, Mr Reid will say that the mass movement of people provides the potential for greater wealth and opportunity. But he will warn that it also brings insecurity into communities which were used to the relatively settled international picture of the Cold War years.
Mr Reid called for an end to the "politically correct" approach which viewed the issue of immigration primarily in terms of race. Britain must have a "mature discussion" about how it balanced its need for the skills brought by migrants with the requirement not to overburden the school and education systems, and drive down the pay and conditions of homegrown workers, he said on BBC News 24.
Mr Reid said the blueprint for reform of the immigration and asylum system which he published last month should provide reassurance for the public by introducing a system of "managed migration" favouring incomers with useful skills.
He knows his reputation may depend public confidence on immigration, which is certain to be raised at the next general election. His predecessor Charles Clarke was sacked after more than 1,000 foreign criminals were freed at the end of their jail sentences without being considered for deportation.
David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "It is welcome that John Reid is finally acknowledging what we have been telling the Government for some time now, but he should realise that the British public expect real action, not just more spin and bluster.
"The chaos and confusion in the immigration system will require more than just a media offensive to put right," he said.
Sir Andrew Green, the chairman of the think tank Migrationwatch UK, said: "This is an important breakthrough. At last we have a Home Secretary who has the courage to acknowledge how serious the immigration situation has become and who seems to understand the depth of public concern."Reuse content