updated 2/7/2005 3:51:41 PM ET 2005-02-07T20:51:41

The government Monday proposed tighter immigration controls and said only skilled workers who speak English would be allowed to settle in Britain permanently.

Home Secretary Charles Clarke said the government also would fingerprint all foreigners applying for visas to stop them from remaining in Britain once their permits expire.

The measures, which would not affect citizens of the European Union, are part of a Europe-wide drive to tackle illegal immigration — an issue particularly sensitive for Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government as it gears up for national elections expected in May.

“This country needs migration. Tourists, students and migrant workers make a vital contribution to the U.K. economy. But we need to ensure that we let in migrants with the skills and talents to benefit Britain, while stopping those trying to abuse our hospitality and place a burden on our society,” Clarke said.

Announcing a five-year plan for immigration and asylum to the House of Commons, Clarke said the government would introduce a points system — already in place in Australia and Canada — favoring those with sought-after skills, such as doctors and engineers.

Four-year clause would go
The government will limit the number of dependents who can join a migrant worker in Britain and scrap the automatic right to permanent residency for people who have lived in Britain for four years.

Under the proposals, only skilled workers who can support themselves financially can apply to stay permanently. They must have lived in Britain for five years and be able to speak and write in the English language.

The European Union justice and interior ministers hope to agree on common immigration and asylum rules by 2010. The EU policy is aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration and boosting the number of skilled immigrants.

The EU may end up creating common legal migration standards, including rules for rejecting asylum seekers, and introducing a U.S.-style green card system aimed at attracting sought after workers.

Neighboring nations busy, too
Governments across Europe are debating the issue. In France, Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin has proposed creating an immigration police force stop illegal immigrants from entering France.

A new immigration law took effect in Germany last month designed to encourage more highly qualified immigrants. Newcomers are obliged to take government-funded German-language and civics courses, or risk losing state benefits.

Denmark tightened its immigration laws in 2002 and raised the age threshold from 18 to 24 for immigrants to bring a spouse into the country.

Immigration and asylum is politically sensitive in Britain. Asylum applications rose to record levels in 2002, and Blair has fought hard to get control of the issue.

Conservative Party's promise
The government has introduced tighter border controls, worked with France to close a refugee camp used by asylum seekers as a staging post to enter Britain illegally and has speeded up the pace of processing and returning failed asylum seekers. It has cracked down on sham marriages and bogus universities offering fake courses.

But the opposition Conservative Party claims that problems continue unchecked and last month pledged to cap the number of immigrants if they are elected to power. The party also promised to pull Britain out of the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, which obliges countries to take in asylum seekers based on need, regardless of numbers.

The government’s five-year plan is seen as a bid to outmaneuver the Conservatives and appear tough on the issue.

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