The Tories today called for a new approach to economic migration and set out plans which they claim would "significantly" cut the number of workers entering the UK from outside the European Union.
The "tough and thoughtful" proposals, which are detailed in a paper by shadow home secretary David Davis and immigration spokesman Damien Green, aim to maximise the economic benefit of migration to the UK, by limiting access to those with in-demand skills.
They also advocate an annual limit on non-EU economic migrants, designed to ensure that Britain's public services, infrastructure and housing can cope with the numbers coming to settle here.
And they propose a new unified border force, empowered not only to control movements through the UK's ports and airports, but also to track down and remove those who have overstayed their permission to remain in Britain.
Mr Green said the policy was "tough and thoughtful" and rejected any suggestion it represented a shift to the right by Mr Cameron.
"This is not just a Conservative heartland issue: across the country people with all political views recognise that you need controlled immigration not least because...you will improve community relations.
"That seems to me to be an entirely sensible, realistic, compassionate message," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
He conceded that the proposed system was not "radically different" from the Government's proposed points-based system, but added that it would help build a public consensus over the immigration system and ensure that Britain benefited from immigration.
Today's paper concludes that: "Asylum policy should be separated from policy on economic migration" and that the country "benefits economically from immigration, but not all or any immigration".
It does not estimate the annual limit which would be imposed on economic migrants, but said it would be "significantly" lower than the current level of about 200,000 a year.
However, Mr Davis and Mr Green acknowledged their proposals would not stem the flow of workers coming from new EU member states in eastern Europe, believed to have reached 600,000 since 2004 according to some estimates.
The new direction set out in today's paper has been approved by Tory leader David Cameron and the shadow cabinet and is expected to form the basis for policy in the manifesto for the next General Election.
Under the plans, a two-stage process would first identify as eligible for admission those - such as entrepreneurs and skilled professionals like doctors - who are likely to contribute more to the economy than they take out.
In the second stage, the Government would consult each year with bodies including local authorities, housing providers and public services to set a ceiling on the number to be admitted.
They would take into account the ability of the health and education services and the public infrastructure to cope with the additional people, the availability of housing, the likely environmental impact of population growth and the potential effects on community cohesion.
Meanwhile, a single border force with the combined powers of immigration, customs and police officers would be formed from the various agencies which currently oversee movements through ports. And they would have additional powers to tackle overstayers and those working illegally in the UK.
Mr Davis said today: "Immigration is an important issue, which deserves calm and serious treatment.
"We believe that Britain would benefit if a consensus could develop about the best way to make sure that we benefit from migration.
"We also believe that a socially-responsible immigration policy needs proper controls to build public confidence in the system. This is an attempt to help build that consensus."
Mr Davis acknowledged that his proposals for deciding eligibility for admission would build on the Government's plans for a points-based system giving priority to would-be migrants with skills.
But he said that his procedure for setting the annual limit on economic migrants would be more sophisticated than Home Secretary John Reid's planned Migration Advisory Committee, as it would look not only at the economic impact of new arrivals, but also the social consequences.
There would be no need to set up an expensive new bureaucracy to determine the limit, as the bulk of the information needed is already gathered by local councils and other bodies, he said.
He said the scheme would probably lead to a positive level of net migration into the UK each year, but dismissed suggestions that it might prove a vote-loser with core Tory supporters who want immigration shut off altogether.
"The country at large doesn't mind immigration when it is for the good of the country," said Mr Davis. "They want it controlled and they want to have confidence in the system. If we can restore public confidence in the system that is a good thing in itself."
Sir Andrew Green, of pressure group Migrationwatch UK, said: "This is an intelligent and well-judged paper.
"The direction is right, but the beef must follow."
A spokesman for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said: "Very importantly David Cameron recognises that just talking tough on immigrants does not help the immigration debate. However, it is a shame that a politician who has done so much to energise the debate on the environment is failing to do the same on immigration.
"A really compassionate approach to politics, which he advocates, would start by recognising that most migrants come here to flee poverty, human rights abuses and conflict and that migration can help make poverty history."
Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg said: "The Tories are doing the splits on immigration: sending out a hardline message to their membership, while attempting to sound reasonable for the PR purposes of David Cameron.
"It simply doesn't add up to advocate the economic benefits of immigration on the one hand, and then claim that a Conservative government would significantly cut inward immigration without specifying how this would happen."
Labour former minister Frank Field said a bi-partisan immigration policy will be of advantage to the country provided it is the right policy.
He said: "Britain, in effect, has little control over its borders.
"One key plank of any successful strategy of managed migration - the Government's objective - must be to limit movement from the enlarged European Union and not just from the rest of the world.
"In proposing such a reform, the Government will find it has powerful allies in the European Ministerial Council."Reuse content