U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to reduce immigration and prepare new laws to punish illegal workers, step up deportations and tag foreign criminals.
The new Conservative-only government will cut the demand for skilled workers from abroad and force banks to take action on the accounts of migrants who are in Britain illegally, Cameron said Thursday in a speech at the Home Office in London. A new taskforce led by him will hold every part of government to account “on our relentless drive to properly control immigration.”
“The number of people coming to our country has been too high and is too high and needs to be brought down,” Cameron said. “This is a priority for the government and we’re going to fix it.”
Cameron spoke hours after new figures showed net immigration surged by 52 percent last year to 318,000, the biggest 12-monthly inflow in a decade, as arrivals from countries inside and outside the European Union rose. Five year ago, Cameron pledged to reduce the figure to below 100,000, a level last seen in 1997.
“Today’s figures show how far we have to go to reach our goal,” Cameron said. He blamed the failure to cut immigration on his former coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, saying they didn’t “share that ambition.”
Later Thursday, Cameron will travel to Riga, Latvia, for his first meeting with fellow EU leaders since winning a surprise parliamentary majority in the May 7 election. He’s pledged to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership before holding a referendum by the end of 2017 on whether to stay in the bloc.
With the U.K. unable to limit the free movement of workers from other EU states, immigration was a touchstone issue in the election. The anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party quadrupled its votes and Cameron says winning a better deal for Britain in areas such as migration is a condition for campaigning to stay in the EU.
The Riga talks will be “his first opportunity to have some discussions with partners about the way he wants to reform the European Union,” Cameron’s spokeswoman, Helen Bower, told reporters. “There will be some opportunities to have some discussions in the margins.”
Cameron is likely to seek conversations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, according to Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at King’s College London.
“The prospect of Britain leaving isn’t welcome to any of the member states,” Menon said. “The other member states will do what they can to help David Cameron, because it’s in all their interests for us to stay in. That being said, there is a slight sense of irritation and that ‘this is your problem.’”
Cameron has indicated he’d like to hold the referendum sooner than late 2017 if he can make progress in negotiations. Merkel’s coalition would prefer a vote next year, according to an official with knowledge of the chancellor’s thinking.
The prime minister said in November he wanted to restrict welfare payments to migrants from the EU as part of efforts to stem immigration from the 28-nation bloc.
Other measures proposed by Cameron Thursday include the creation of a new crime of illegal working that will allow the police to seize wages for such work, and tagging foreign criminals awaiting deportation. It will also become an offense for businesses and agencies to recruit abroad without advertising in Britain. Cameron said the country needs to find domestic talent to plug skills gaps in professions like teaching, nursing and engineering.
The legislation will be included in next week’s Queen’s Speech to Parliament, laying out Cameron’s program for government.
“As we improve the training of British workers, we should over time be able to lower the number of skilled workers that we have to bring in from elsewhere,” Cameron said. “As we embark on this massive skills drive, we’re going to ask the Migration Advisory Committee to advise on significantly reducing the level of economic migration from outside the EU.”