LONDON Britain is considering introducing much tougher border controls and may oblige visitors from "high-risk" countries to hand over a returnable cash bond to deter them from overstaying their visas, its deputy prime minister said on Friday.
"We need an immigration system that is zero-tolerant towards abuse," Nick Clegg said in his toughest speech on the subject yet, talking of a "crisis of public confidence" in the immigration system.
Clegg said he had asked the home office or interior ministry to look at starting a pilot scheme for the cash bonds. A similar system is used by Australia.
He did not say which countries he regarded as "high-risk" or how much the bonds would be, but a government source said the sum would be variable and could be at least 1,000 pounds.
The issue of immigration is sensitive, not least because the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government says it is still anxious to attract foreign nationals to help it compete in what it calls "a global race" against surging economies like China and Brazil.
But opinion polls show many Britons want the current system tightened and are concerned about the expected arrival of thousands of Romanians and Bulgarians next year when European Union freedom of movement restrictions on those two countries are lifted.
The country's three main political parties are also under growing pressure from the increasingly popular UK Independence Party (UKIP) which talks tough on immigration and has spoken of Britain's inability to police its own borders.
UKIP wants Britain to leave the EU, in part so it can better control its borders, and came a surprise second in an election for a parliamentary seat this month, piling pressure on the government to respond.
Clegg, who is also the leader of the Liberal Democrat party, told an audience in London the government would increase the cash penalty for employers who hire illegal immigrants from 10,000 pounds per worker to a much higher unspecified figure, saying he personally favoured doubling it.
He also spoke of trying to move away from government-funded translation services for immigrants, saying it might be better to refer them onto English-language courses in time and to stop paying for translation if they failed to "stick with" courses.
Clegg backed away from a previous pledge, which has not been implemented, to give amnesties to illegal immigrants after ten years.
Vince Cable, the business minister, said he was concerned that skilled foreign nationals continue to be allowed to come and go freely in an interview on Thursday, signalling tensions within the coalition over the issue.
Prime Minister David Cameron is due to deliver a speech on immigration on Monday.
(Reporting by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Andrew Heavens)