UK parties urged to restrict immigration

A report by parliamentarians demands the three major parties make pledges to prevent the population reaching 70 million by 2020.

LONDON // A concerted effort is being made to get the major political parties in Britain to put stricter immigration controls high on the agenda of the upcoming general election. Last week, Lord (George) Carey, a former archbishop of Canterbury, controversially called on the government to give priority to Christians wanting to come to Britain - widely taken to mean that he wanted to see fewer Muslims admitted.

His call followed the publication of a report by an all-party group of parliamentarians that demanded the three major political parties in Britain made pledges to prevent the population of the United Kingdom from reaching the projected 70 million in the next decade. It currently stands at about 60 million. In the report, members of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords said net immigration to the UK should be restricted to 40,000 a year, about one-quarter of the 2009 figure and a level lower than it has been for 20 years.

Many backbench MPs believe that the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties must address the question of immigration, something they have all shied away from in recent years. If the parties continue to refuse to address the issue, many politicians and much of the media fear that the far-right British National Party (BNP) will have a clear field to exploit people's fears, especially at a time of high unemployment, during spring's general election campaign.

Party leaders, however, fear just the opposite: that, if they open up the debate on immigration controls, it will legitimise the BNP's position and give it greater credibility with the electorate. Nevertheless, last weekend has seen the first sign that at least the Conservatives are becoming more willing to raise their profile on the issue. Chris Grayling, the shadow home secretary, announced on Friday that, if the Tories win the election, foreign students seeking to enter the UK from such countries as India, Pakistan, China and Nigeria would be subject to extra scrutiny before being allowed into the UK.

Pointing to widespread abuses of the student visa system, leading to many illegally staying permanently, Mr Grayling said that under new immigration laws the Conservatives would also demand that many overseas students pay thousands of pounds in cash deposits on entering the country, which would be returned only when they left. Mr Grayling said the current student visa system left a "huge loophole in our border controls". Almost a quarter-million student visas were granted last year, up from 70,000 only a decade ago.

Phil Woolas, the ruling Labour Party's borders minister, has been forced to admit that student visas are the "Achilles' heel" of the immigration system and are being used, particularly by people from the subcontinent, China and West Africa, to get around stricter work permit controls introduced in recent years. Reacting to Mr Grayling's call, Mr Woolas said the prime minister, Gordon Brown, would soon be receiving the government's own review of the existing system.

Much of the attention suddenly being paid to immigration can be traced to Lord Carey's controversial call for new immigrants to have an understanding of Britain's Christian culture and democracy. Although he said that he was not calling for a ban on non-Christian immigrants settling in Britain, he warned that if people's concerns about the level and nature of immigration were not addressed, it simply played into the BNP's hands.

"What I am concerned about is that we should give priority to those who are committed to our democratic values, to parliamentary democracy and understanding of our history," he said. "And certainly anyone who comes to our country must be committed to learning the English language. Those who really come from Christian nations may be regarded a priority." Lord Carey suggested that the points-based immigration system could take these cultural aspects into consideration.

"We Christians," he added, "are very often so soft and allow people to walk over us. And we are not as tough in expressing our beliefs because we do not want to upset other people. We have to be more outspoken." Under the headline The Church Fights Back Again Islamafication, Damian Thompson, a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, described Lord Carey's comments as a "brave call to limit immigration" and "a timely defence of Christian values".

However, the journalist Samira Shackle commented in the New Statesman current affairs magazine: "There is something profoundly uncomfortable about taking one faith and stating that its members are by nature more democratic, particularly given that Christianity is by no means monolithic. "The call for a cap on immigration is said to be motivated, in part, by a desire not to play into the hands of the far right. But stirring up divisions along religious lines risks doing just that."