LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s anti-EU UK Independence Party promised on Wednesday to stop “mass immigration” if it has any influence in the next government, saying it thought less than 50,000 net immigrants a year was about the right figure.
Eyeing a possible breakthrough at a national election on May 7, UKIP hopes to tap into public frustration about rising immigration, now running at around 300,000 people net per year despite a promise by Prime Minister David Cameron to bring it down to the “tens of thousands.”
UKIP, with just two of 650 seats in the lower house of parliament but threatening Cameron’s chances of being re-elected by splitting the right-wing vote, last year said it wanted to cut work-related migration down to a net 50,000 people a year.
But, outlining the party’s immigration policy on Wednesday, UKIP leader Nigel Farage did not cite a specific cap, saying that Cameron’s broken pledge had “devalued” the concept.
“We want sensible, controlled numbers of people who come to this country, but people who have got skills and trades that will benefit this nation ... We don’t want mass immigration to continue on its current rate,” he told party supporters.
UKIP’s policy would hinge on its stated desire for Britain to leave the EU with its freedom of movement rules that give EU nationals the right to work anywhere in the bloc. Cameron has committed, if re-elected, to re-negotiating Britain’s ties with the EU and has vowed a membership referendum by the end of 2017.
Farage’s comments sparked accusations from some British media and his political rivals that he had performed a U-turn.
“We haven’t abolished the cap,” he said. “We have made it clear we think these are the ballpark figures, 20,000 to 50,000, but what we do want to do is talk about policy as opposed to caps.”
Uncontrolled migration from the EU had restrained wages in Britain and put pressure on housing and health care, he said.
Polls suggest UKIP will win just a handful of seats in May, but it hopes the closeness of the contest might force Cameron’s party to rely on it for support, handing it some influence.
Farage said UKIP wanted an Australian-style points system to govern who is approved for immigration. It would also create a “migration control commission” to oversee its policy, increase border agency staff and stop new unskilled workers coming to Britain for at least five years.
Cameron’s fizzled migration pledge has dented his Conservative Party’s credibility on the issue, a top voter concern. But the Conservatives said UKIP’s decision not to cap migration was a policy change which sowed confusion about its stance.
“Nigel Farage seems to be making it up as he goes along,” Conservative finance minister George Osborne told BBC radio. “One moment he’s talking about a cap and then he ditches it ... which is a novel approach to policy-making.”
Editing by Mark Heinrich