Vince Cable today condemned David Cameron’s speech on immigration as ‘very unwise’ and suggested it could ‘inflame extremism’.
The Business Secretary hinted that the Prime Minister was electioneering by giving his first major speech on the controversial issue weeks before local elections.
Mr Cameron’s speech this lunchtime is the strongest on immigration by a Prime Minister for more than 20 years.
He admitted Britain has been torn apart by the biggest influx of immigrants in history and spell out how the Government aims to bring levels back down.
The address pitched him straight into a row with Mr Cable, who has been outspoken about migrant levels ever since the coalition formed last year.
Today, the Business Secretary made clear the Lib Dems–who backed an immigration amnesty during the general election–were distancing themselves.
He said: ‘The reference to the tens of thousands of immigrants rather than hundreds of thousands is not part of the coalition agreement, it is Tory party policy only.
‘I do understand there is an election coming but talk of mass immigration risks inflaming the extremism to which he and I are both strongly opposed.’
Lib Dem sources have tried to play down Mr Cable’s comments, insisting that the coalition partners are agreed on immigration policy.
‘This is a Conservative Prime Minister speaking to Conservative party activists using Conservative language,’ the source said. ‘Vince is saying that we are of a slightly different opinion on immigration.’
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg was shown a copy of the speech beforehand and is said to be ‘proud’ of the coalition’s ‘sensible’ approach.
Mr Cameron later rejected the criticism, insisting he was dealing with the issue in a ‘sensible, measured, serious tone’ and that everything had been signed off by the coalition.
‘The country elected a Government wanting us to roll up our sleeves and deal with some of these issues,’ he said.
‘This speech is, I think, a very good explanation if how we are dealing with them in an extremely fair and sensible way.
‘I am very willing to be judged by the British people, not only on the content of the speech and the action we are taking, but also the very measured way in which it is being described and put forward.’
He admitted there had been some ‘really serious arguments’ in the Government over the policy but insisted they had all been laid to rest.
‘The policy has been agreed by the coalition. It is coalition and Government policy and it is being put in place right across the board,’ he said.
‘Coalitions do mean you have discussions and argument within your Government. We have had those, we’ve settled the policy, we’ve agreed it. We have a very good, robust policy and that is the policy of the whole Government.’
In his address to party activists, Mr Cameron blamed a welfare system which has paid Britons to stay idle and foreign jobseekers ‘not really wanting or even willing to integrate’ for turning neighbourhoods into ghettos.
Immigration has been ‘too high’ for many years and has created ‘discomfort and disjointedness’ across the country, he said.
The Prime Minister made the explosive claim that Labour is to blame for allowing extremist parties such as the BNP to flourish by dismissing legitimate concerns about mass immigration as ‘racist’.
And he insisted that measures being implemented by the Coalition will cut immigration by up to 75 per cent from its peak.
He said annual net immigration levels will fall from around 200,000 in recent years to the ‘tens of thousands’ seen under the Thatcher and Major governments.
Mr Cameron spelt out a series of steps the Government is taking to bring down numbers of immigrants, including:
■ A limit on the number of skilled workers coming from outside Europe of 20,700 this year;
■ A minimum age of 21 for spouses coming to the UK;
■ A crackdown on student visas to cut the number issued by 80,000 a year;
■ Limits on ‘health tourism’ and illegal workers claiming benefits;
■ Welfare reforms to end the option of a life on the dole for British workers.
Mr Cameron rejected the Business Secretary’s warnings that limiting the number of foreign workers and students risks damaging British companies and universities.
Immigration minister Damian Green defended the speech this morning, saying: ‘This is an item that people really care about and if mainstream politicians don’t talk about it, we leave the field open to the extremists.’
But the BNP claimed the Prime Minister was taking up their policy and accused him of ‘cynical opportunism’.
Spokesman Simon Darby said: ‘It’s almost like a ceremonial adoption of our policy about two weeks before any major vote. In other words, he knows what ordinary British people are thinking.
‘He completely ignores that until two weeks before a major poll and then all of a sudden starts pressing a few buttons to try and make people believe he’s actually doing something about immigration.
‘It’s a farce, it’s a con, and if we had copyright on our manifesto we’d have our lawyers round his office within hours.’
UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage welcomed Mr Cameron’s admission that ‘mass immigration has caused division within society’.
But he added: ‘Sadly there isn’t much he can do about it because the elephant in the room is the European Union and we have a total open border with all of them . . . We cannot have our own immigration policy and be part of the European Union.
Addressing party members in Hampshire, the Prime Minister insisted immigration is one of the chief concerns of voters and that it is the role of politicians to speak about it ‘sensibly and reasonably’.
He said that Britain has benefited ‘immeasurably’ from immigrant workers and entrepreneurs, pointing to their contribution to the NHS, schools, charities, financial services, fashion, food and music.
But he added: ‘I’m also clear about something else: for too long, immigration has been too high.
‘Between 1997 and 2009, 2.2million more people came to live in this country than left to live abroad. That’s the largest influx of people Britain has ever had, and it has placed real pressures on communities up and down the country.
‘Not just pressures on schools, housing and healthcare–though those have been serious–but social pressures too.’
Mr Cameron argued that communities are ‘forged by friendship and conversation’, whether on the school run or ‘down the pub’.
‘These bonds can take time, so real integration takes time,’ he added. ‘That’s why, when there have been significant numbers of new people arriving in neighbourhoods, perhaps not able to speak the same language as those living there, on occasions not really wanting or even willing to integrate, that has created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods.
‘This has been the experience for many people in our country–and I believe it is untruthful and unfair not to speak about it and address it.’
In the most provocative passage, the Prime Minister said Labour must take responsibility for the rise of the BNP, the English Defence League and other far-Right organisations.
‘On the one hand, there were Labour ministers who closed down discussion, giving the impression that concerns about immigration were somehow racist,’ he will say.
‘On the other, there were ministers hell-bent on burnishing their hard-line credentials by talking tough, but doing nothing to bring the numbers down.
‘This approach had damaging consequences in terms of controlling immigration but also in terms of public debate.
‘It created the space for extremist parties to flourish, as they could tell people that mainstream politicians weren’t listening to their concerns or doing anything about them.’
The Prime Minister pointed out that around 75 per cent of the 2.5million jobs created since 1997 have gone to foreign-born workers.
‘The real issue is this: migrants are filling gaps in the labour market left wide open by a welfare system that for years has paid British people not to work.’
‘That’s where the blame lies–at the door of our woeful welfare system, and the last government who comprehensively failed to reform it. We will never control immigration properly unless we tackle welfare dependency.’
Overall, he insisted, the Government’s measures will bring net migrant numbers back down to the levels of the 1990s.
That would mean around 50,000 immigrants a year being allowed to settle in Britain, a fall of three-quarters on the numbers seen under Labour.
‘Yes, Britain will always be open to the best and brightest from around the world and those fleeing persecution,’ he pledged.
‘But with us, our borders will be under control and immigration will be at levels our country can manage. No ifs, no buts. That’s a promise we made to the British people. And it’s a promise we are keeping.’
Jonathan Ellis from the Refugee Council claimed Mr Cameron’s demand for migrants settling here to speak English were ‘completely contradicted’ by the coalition’s cuts to funding for English language classes.
‘We know from our experience how important it is for refugees and asylum seekers to be able to develop their English, yet many refugees, asylum seekers and migrants will be unable to afford to learn English lessons as a result of the cuts, further isolating many people from mainstream society,’ he said.