LONDON Over three quarters of Britons want a reduction in immigration, according to a survey published on Tuesday, highlighting public concern about a subject being fiercely debated between the country's main political parties.
Immigration has become a key topic heading into a 2015 election, at which increased support for the anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP) could hamper Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative Party.
Seventy seven percent of people wanted to see a reduction in immigration, the survey on Britain's social attitudes showed, matching the previous high in the 30-year data series from 2008.
The survey also showed a hardening of sentiment against immigration, with 56 percent, the highest proportion in the history of the survey, wanting a big fall in the number of people coming to Britain rather than just a small reduction.
The issue has been brought into sharp relief by the lifting of restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian citizens' right to work in Britain on January 1 - something previous polls showed the public was worried about, and which members of Cameron's own party tried to prevent.
Polls show Conservative voters are increasingly turning to UKIP because they welcome the party's plan to end Britain's European Union membership and drastically cut immigration. UKIP does not have any elected representatives in parliament, but polls show it has around 17 percent of voters' support.
Last month, in an effort to stem the loss of voters and shore up support from his party, Cameron rushed in regulations to restrict EU migrants' access to Britain's welfare system.
He has also risked a falling out with the European Union by proposing tougher restrictions on migrants from poorer EU states into wealthy ones.
Labour, the main opposition party which currently leads in opinion polls, has criticised the government's immigration policies as "chaotic", and wants to clamp down on businesses using cheap, unskilled foreign workers.
The Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in Britain's coalition government, have opposed curbing immigration within the EU, saying it would damage the economy.
(Editing by Mike Collett-White)