David Cameron has outlined plans for “significantly less” immigration to the UK from outside the European Union.
In his first major statement on the issue, Mr Cameron stressed the possible economic benefits of migration.
But there must be limits to immigration levels because of the impact on public services, the environment and on “community cohesion”, he said.
Home Secretary John Reid, for Labour, said Tory opposition to ID cards meant their plans were unworkable.
The launch of the Conservative policy on economic migration comes with Labour ministers expected to unveil fresh measures in the Queen Speech next week.
The Conservatives have been reluctant to talk about the issue since last year’s general election, as party strategists believe former leader Michael Howard’s focus on the issue helped the party lose the poll.
But opinion polls suggest the issue continues to be a key one for voters.
Conservative immigration spokesman Damian Green told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that, unlike Labour, the Conservatives would set an annual limit on economic migration.
“We would consult all those who are involved in providing public services, and obviously we’d consult industry, so we would get a figure which we think Britain could comfortably absorb every year, of those who are going to be economically beneficial, and we would set that limit.
This specifically doesn’t apply to asylum-seekers, to those who are coming for family reunion, because we think those, those are separate issues that we’ll deal with in the future.”
The party’s proposals are set out in a pamphlet written by Mr Green and shadow home secretary David Davis.
In the foreword to the pamphlet, “Controlling Economic Migration”, the Tory leader writes that the issue deserves serious treatment and would benefit from a political consensus.
He writes: “Britain benefits economically from immigration, but not all or any immigration.”
Limits were needed to reflect the impact “on the ability of the public services and infrastructure to cope with new arrivals at both national and local levels, the environmental impact of a rapidly rising population and the potential effects on community cohesion”.
He says exact limits would be determined after annual consultation with groups like local councils.
But he says he would expect it to be “significantly less” than current immigration levels from outside the EU.
Conservative proposals include separating asylum policy from economic migration policy and a border force to enforce policy and deal with over-stayers and illegal workers.
Mr Reid, who this summer revamped government policy on immigration, called the Tory plans worthless while they did not back ID cards.
He also said the number of people allowed into the UK under the points-based system for skilled workers, would also take into account impacts on schools, housing and hospitals.
For the Liberal Democrats, home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg said: “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.”
Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, which wants zero net immigration, said the Tory proposals were “a step in the right direction, but too little too late”.
“They don’t address the fact that we still have an open door policy to 450m people from the EU,” said Mr Farage.
Labour MP and former minister Frank Field, who called at the start of the summer for effective immigration control, welcomed the Tory proposals but also called for limits on migration from new EU states.