Farage drops immigration cap plans
Nigel Farage has promised to restore "sanity" to immigration policy with a five-year ban on unskilled workers coming to Britain - but dropped plans to cap annual inflow at 50,000.
The Ukip leader said he would start by leaving the European Union and refusing to sign up to any rules that guaranteed free movement of labour.
Instead there would be an Australian-style system that assessed applicants for skills, designed to bring net migration down to "normal" levels.
The announcement marks a shift from Ukip's previous position - confirmed by the party's immigration spokesman Steven Woolfe just last week - of a 50,000 cap.
But Mr Farage insisted there had been no "u-turn" and the policy had merely "evolved", accusing the media of being "obsessed" with caps.
He said the latest annual immigration figures of 298,000 - triple David Cameron's target of below 100,000 - proved no-one could get the system under control without exiting the EU.
"Last year, over 600,000 people settled in this country," Mr Farage told the audience of activists in central London.
"We as a party hold no prejudice against anyone on the grounds of their nationality, their religion or their race.
"But we are calling for a return to sanity. Britain needs to take back control of her borders, control of her immigration policy and let us turn what has become a negative in our society into a positive."
Ukip would abolish rules discriminating between EU and non-EU nationals, with those workers who qualified under the old system issued with visas valid for five years.
During that time, they would not be entitled to claim UK benefits and would be expected to take out health insurance. After five years they would be entitled to apply for permanent leave to remain, provided they had not broken the law.
There would be a moratorium on unskilled workers coming to Britain for the same period.
Mr Farage said the approach would return immigration to "normal" levels seen between 1950 and 2000, of between 20,000 and 50,000 a year.
"The fact is we cannot have a managed immigration policy and continue to be members of the European Union, where we have an open door to half a billion people," he said.
"What we want to do is to change our relationship with the European Union, take back control of our borders and put in place a positive immigration policy, one that the people of Britain would overwhelmingly support and by that I mean we want an Australian-style points system to decide who comes to live, work and settle in this country."
Mr Farage went on: "There are very good reasons why the people of this country are now deeply unhappy with that situation: the impact on schools, the current accident and emergency crisis we have seen this winter in our hospitals, the changes that have happened within our communities.
"And also just think on this: in what is already the most crowded country in Europe, the fact that we have to build one new dwelling every seven minutes just to cope with current rates of immigration.
"And above all, I think what's been felt by millions of ordinary, decent working families, is wage compression.
"An unlimited supply of unskilled labour that has made, for many people, the minimum wage in effect the maximum wage."
Mr Farage said "many big businesses had increased their profits by keeping wages artificially low" and it had been a "boon for the rich, because if you are very wealthy, open-door immigration means cheaper nannies, cheaper chauffeurs and cheaper gardeners".
"But the vast majority of British people want change," he said. "They want us to control not just the quantity but also, crucially, the quality of who comes into this country."
That meant "people that have got skills and trades that will benefit this nation" and "have not got a criminal record, people who have not got a life-threatening illness and people who, when they come, bring with them medical insurance and do not qualify for state benefits until they have been in the country for five years and contributed to the system".
Mr Farage said Ukip's policy would be "fairer" and "more ethical" by abolishing rules that favoured EU nationals over people from other countries.
Answering questions after his speech, Mr Farage admitted the move away from a cap had partly been prompted by "concern" about perceptions of Ukip.
"I don't want this party to be perceived as anything other than an open, inclusive political party, which without doubt it is," he said.
He insisted there had been "no softening" of Ukip's approach on immigration, and it was "firm but fair".
Asked whether immigration could reach the point where he was uncomfortable living in Britain, Mr Farage said: "I want to live in a country that is at ease with itself, where we speak the same language ... where our kids can play football with each other, and we all get on."
The leader said he thought London was "very close" to having a non-white majority.
"But I am hoping as the years go by that ever more of them will not just be voting, but standing for Ukip as candidates," he added.
Mr Woolfe also denied he had ever proposed a cap on net immigration.
"That was not necessarily a cap that we were looking at," he said. "We always said 'up to'."
He said Ukip would make it possible to count in and count out at the borders by having "one single queue for British citizens and one single queue for the rest of the world".
Chancellor George Osborne told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Nigel Farage seems to be making it up as he goes along ... one moment he is talking about a cap and then he ditches it live on air, which is a novel approach to policy-making."