Britain would introduce an Australian-style points-based immigration system if it voted to leave the European Union, the Out campaign said on Wednesday, ratcheting up the pressure on a key issue ahead of the June 23 referendum.
Two polls released on Tuesday showed Britons favouring a vote to leave the bloc after official figures published last week put net migration at the second highest level on record last year.
In a joint statement, senior members of the Leave campaign including former London Mayor Boris Johnson and Justice Minister Michael Gove said if successful at the referendum, they would introduce a system based on job and language skills by 2020.
“Migration brings many benefits to Britain – culturally, socially and economically,” they said. “We want Britain to continue to benefit from migration. But if we are to welcome more people to Britain then the public must be reassured that we have control over who comes here.
“Our membership of the EU means we don’t have control.”
Prime Minister David Cameron, who supports Britain staying in the EU, has come under fire during the campaign for failing to deliver a promise to keep net migration to the “tens of thousands”.
The figures released last week put net migration at 330,000 in 2015. Of those, a net 184,000 came from the EU, which mandates freedom of movement.
Britons will vote on June 23 on whether to remain in the 28-member EU, a choice with far-reaching consequences for many aspects of British life and far beyond. Immigration is one of the key battlegrounds in what is becoming an increasingly bitter battle.
Supporters of EU membership have in return complained that the Out campaign has failed to offer any concrete proposals as to what life would look like if Britain left the bloc.
Setting out its plans, the Leave campaign said there would be no change for Irish citizens, who can live and work in Britain, while those EU citizens already lawfully resident in Britain could remain and be granted indefinite leave.
But by the next general election in 2020, the Out campaign said it would have created an Australian-style points-based system where EU citizens would be treated like any other and admitted on the basis of their suitability for a job.
“To gain the right to work, economic migrants will have to be suitable for the job in question,” they said. “For relevant jobs, we will be able to ensure that all those who come have the ability to speak good English.”
The Remain campaign said in response that any move to take Britain out of the EU single market would damage the economy.
“Australia, who have a points based immigration system, have twice as many migrants per head as the UK,” said Will Straw of Britain Stronger In Europe.
“Economic experts are agreed that leaving the Single Market would lead to recession – costing jobs and raising prices.”