Text of a Mr Blair's speech follows.
Concern over asylum and immigration is not about racism. It is about fairness.
People want to know that the rules and systems we have in place are fair; fair to hard working taxpayers who deserve to know that others are playing by the rules; fair to those who genuinely need asylum and who use the correct channels; fair to those legitimate migrants who make such a major contribution to our economy.
People also want to know that those they elect to government get it. That we are listening. We do get it. We are listening.
It is precisely because we have been working hard at it, that over the past few years asylum claims have fallen in Britain faster than anywhere else in Europe. But we know we have to tighten the asylum system further.
I also understand concern over immigration controls. We will put in place strict controls that work. They will be part of our first legislative programme if we are re-elected on May 5. These controls will include the type of points system used in Australia for example to help ensure our economy gets the skills we need.
But I never want this to be an issue that divides our country that sets communities against each other. We are a tolerant, decent nation. That tolerance should not be abused. But neither should it be turned on its head.
It is the duty of government to deal with the issues of both asylum and immigration. But they should not be exploited by a politics that in desperation seeks refuge in them.
There is a position around which this country can unify:
-that we continue to root out abuse of the asylum system, but give a place to genuine refugees;
-that we ensure immigration controls are effective so that the many who come, rightly and necessarily, for our economy, to work, study or visit here can do so; but that those who stay illegally are removed;
-but that we never use these issues as a political weapon, an instrument of division and discord.
We deal with it, but with care, responsibly and recognising that in our nation today our diversity is a source of strength not weakness, a reflection of a modern country striving to be at ease with the modern world.
Let me also make clear my objection to the Tory campaign on this issue.
Their campaign is based on the statement that it isn't racist to talk about immigration. I know of no senior politician who has ever said it was. So why do they put it like that? Why do they say we 'pussy foot' around on this issue when they know perfectly well we have been legislating on it, from 1998 onwards,tightening the system, often in the face of their opposition.
It is an attempt deliberately to exploit people's fears, to suggest that for reasons of political correctness, those in power don't dare deal with the issue, so that the public is left with the impression that they are being silenced in their concerns, that we are blindly ignoring them or telling them that to raise the issue is racist, when actually the opposite is true.
The Tory party have gone from being a One Nation party to being a one-issue party.
Afraid to talk about the economy, embarrassed by the sheer ineptitude of their economic plan, unable to defend their unfair and elitist NHS and schools policies, unable to explain how they would finance the extra police they are promising, they are left with this one-issue campaign, on asylum and immigration.
Worse, since it is the issue they are pushing so hard at local constituency level, street by street, you might at least expect them to have a coherent policy on it.
Instead, as I shall show, their policy on asylum is a joke, an incoherent babble, while their policy for a quota on immigration is utterly meaningless unless they tell us roughly what it should be and how it is to be calculated.
It is an approach to policy-making that Labour would have looked askance at in 1983 let alone any election since.
So why is this issue so easy to exploit? Because it is hard to tackle. Britain is not alone in facing it. Every EU nation is facing it. So is America. So are all the major economies of the world.
It is part of a changing modern world. As the Tories know perfectly well, the solutions are complex, the systems hard to administer.
That's why on asylum and immigration I have been out to see for myself what has been happening. Talking to a huge range of people involved at every level of the system.
From the immigration officers checking passports at Heathrow, to the staff who fingerprint asylum seekers at Croydon, to the team who track down illegal immigrants in North London, to those responsible for redocumenting failed asylum seekers and actually loading them to flights home. I've lost count of the meetings I have chaired on this issue, and the number of people in the system I have met.
I listened to these people and what I heard was people working tirelessly to make our country and borders secure but too often frustrated by a system that hampered them when it should have been helping them. It was from them that I heard about the problem of asylum seekers destroying their identity documents to prevent removal. So we've legislated to make it an offence to enter the UK without a valid passport, without a reasonable excuse. The power is being well used and is making a real difference. And now we are rolling out by biometric visas to deal with the problem at source. It was from them that I heard about asylum applicants playing the system through an over complex appeal system. So we've introduced a single tier of appeal, we've the limited the scope of legal aid and we've weeded out cowboy immigration advisers.
It was from the front line that I heard the courts aren't taking illegal working seriously so in our manifesto we are committed to bring in fixed penalty fines of£2000 on employers for each illegal employee we find.
But the progress we have made, the progress that we will continue to make doesn't come from grand rhetoric, it doesn't come from clever sounding wheezes. The progress we have made comes from being clear about what matters. It comes from clarity about the real nature and scale of the problem. It comes from listening to those who we ask to keep our borders secure and giving them the right rules and the right tools to do the job.
It comes from policy derived from the facts.
These are the facts.
Asylum application numbers did rise after 1997, as they did in much of the rest of the EU, due to external pressures, but we have legislated to address the situation and the numbers have fallen rapidly. Asylum applications have fallen from over 8,000 a month at the peak in the autumn of 2002 to just over 2,000. The next set of statistics will show that monthly applications are back to their lowest level since March 1997 and have fallen twice as fast as in the rest of Europe.
Asylum applications are being dealt with far quicker than ten years ago. More than four in five asylum decisions are now made within two months. And far more of those whose claims are rejected are being removed - 12,430 removals in 2004, as against 4,820 in 1996.
Now the facts on immigration.
More people are entering the UK than was the case ten years ago to work or study. But that's precisely what one would want and expect with a strong and growing economy and world class universities successful in attracting record numbers of international students, and helping to drive our knowledge-based economy.
Foreign students alone contribute£5 billion to the UK economy, including a growing proportion of the funding for our universities. With unemployment half the rate it is in France or Germany and 600,000 vacancies, there are plenty of jobs that need doing.
But what Michael Howard doesn't point out is that net migration - the number of people entering the country, minus the number leaving - has actually been falling in recent years and in 2003 was the lowest it's been since 1998.
Nor does he like to admit that in international terms we are not a high immigration country. Even today we have lower levels of foreign-born nationals as a proportion of our total population than France or Germany and half the foreign born workforce proportion of the United States.
On illegal immigration, no-one of course knows precisely how many people are here illegally. Michael Howard himself admitted as much when he said in 1995: 'There are no official estimates of the number of illegal immigrants into the United Kingdom. By its very nature, illegal immigration is difficult to measure and any estimates would be highly speculative'.
So those are the facts. On asylum, there are continuing issues to be addressed to make the asylum system more efficient and effective - and on immigration, we have nothing to fear from legal immigration and the issue is whether we are attracting as many of the highest value immigrants as we can, and what more we can do to crack down on illegal immigration.
Let me now turn to the position we inherited from Michael Howard as Home Secretary in 1997 and give the facts there too.
Under Michael Howard, asylum applications rose - by 13% if you compare his last 12 months as Home Secretary with his first.
The backlog of asylum applications rose - and had reached 60,000, six times current levels, by the end of 1996.
The time taken to deal with applications rose and had reached an average of 20 months for initial decisions by April 1997.
And the number of failed applicants removed from the country was minimal. As I said a moment ago, it was only 4,820 in 1996, which was one removal for every 6.6 refusals of applications.
Step by step we've been working to deal with this legacy.
We have doubled the number of immigration officers - from 2,400 in 1997 to 4,800 today. It is this doubling of capacity which has, for example, enabled us to double the rate at which we return failed asylum seekers: there is now one removal for every 3.3 refused applications, which though not nearly good enough is twice as good as the one removal for every 6.6 which we inherited.
We have changed asylum procedures and laws so that, for example, those trying to claim asylum from countries which are manifestly safe, like Slovakia, Bulgaria or Jamaica, can now only appeal against a refusal once they have left the UK.
We have introduced stricter border controls and invested millions in strengthening Channel Tunnel security and installing x-ray equipment to scan every lorry going through Calais and automatic fines for drivers trying to bring in clandestines.
Over 500 UK immigration officers are working in Northern France and Belgium to stop undocumented passengers getting on ferries or trains to the UK.
Airline Liaison Officers are now located at key airports around the world stopping passengers boarding where there is high risk of abuse. Last year alone 33,000 individuals intending to come here were denied boarding at airports as a result of checks by these liaison officers.
We have tightened the rules on benefits so that they only go to those who claim asylum as soon as possible after arriving in the UK, and introduced much tougher controls on legal aid so that it is restricted to legitimate advisers - to weed out the cowboys who were preying on vulnerable migrants.
We've overhauled the appeals system and the new offence of destroying documents has led, with other initiatives, to a fall of over 50% in undocumented arrivals at ports of entry.
We also negotiated successfully with the French government to close the Sangatte refugee camp, which was a major source of unfounded asylum applicants to Britain. And under David Blunkett, we sought to integrate successful asylum applicants better and more swiftly into British society with new language and citizenship requirements.
On illegal immigration, the doubling of the number of immigration officers has enabled us to crack down on illegal working in a wholly more systematic fashion that in the past. Last year the Immigration Service carried out 1,600 operations against illegal working, a 360% increase on the year before. There has also been systematic action against addresses purporting to be education establishments for overseas students: more than 1,200 suspect colleges have been investigated, of which more than 300 have been closed as a result.
You would have expected, given their rhetoric in this election, that Mr Howard and the Conservatives would have supported these changes - sheepishly, given their poor record, but supported them nonetheless.
Yet far from being supportive, the Tories have often done their best to block our proposals, seeking opportunistically to cause us the maximum short-term difficulties in getting our legislation through Parliament into law. While they talk tough today their voting record tells quite a different story.
They tried to stop us fining lorry drivers caught smuggling illegal immigrants into the country - by voting against our£2,000 civil penalties for hauliers in 1999 .
They voted to restore benefits to asylum seekers in 1999 and argued against our proposals to remove support from families whose claimed were rejected and who had exhausted the appeals system but still refused to go home.
They even voted to allow child abductors, thieves and bomb hoaxers to remain as refugees when the Government wanted to exclude anyone sentenced to prison for two or more years from lodging an asylum claim in 2002.
Even as recently as last year they were voting against simplifying the complex appeals system and in fact tried to lengthen the process. They also forced us to abandon our ID Cards legislation just before this election.
So much for the Tory record, both in government before 1997 and in opposition since then.
Meanwhile, we have got on - without alarmist rhetoric - with improving the system and dealing with problems one by one. Our manifesto sets out, in detail, how we will build on the changes and improvements already made.
On both asylum and immigration, there have to be systems which are fair, workable and secure.
People feel it's unfair if they have to work hard, but see others getting benefits or help they're not entitled to.
So we will go on building strong controls to protect our borders; improving systems for tracking and returning illegal immigrants and individuals whose asylum claims are turned down; and ensuring that those who use the health or education services, and claim benefits, are entitled to them.
Today we are announcing an extra 600 immigration officers, in addition to the 2,400 extra recruited since 1997. They will be targeted in particular on removals and enforcement operations in respect of failed asylum applicants and illegal immigrants.
In strengthening controls, we will use technology to help us.
That's why we propose to introduce identity cards - to use the technology of tomorrow, biometric cards with retina scans and fingerprints to ensure that we better identify and control who's in the country legally and who's not; that people are who they say they are, and those who have the right to use public services get those rights and those who don't, can't.
If elected for a third term we will reintroduce the ID Cards Bill as soon as parliamentary time allows and challenge the Conservatives to support us this time round, having opportunistically blocked the passage of the Bill before the election.
On asylum, we want fast-track processing and removal of as many unfounded applicants as possible with more detention and the use of electronic tagging where there is a risk of asylum applicants disappearing. We have set a target of removals exceeding applications for the first time ever.
To speed up removal of those who lose or destroy their documents before claiming, we will introduce finger-printing of all visa applicants before they travel to the UK to prevent people concealing their identity after entry and we will ask airlines to copy documents before people board on more high risk routes.
On migration, we will bring in a points system so that people who want to settle here are the people we need to build the strong economy and services for Britain's future.
We will introduce targeted financial bonds for specific categories of migrants were there is evidence of abuse to guarantee that they go home when they are supposed to go home - while avoiding the burdens on business of the Tories' blanket scheme.
We will phase out low skill migration schemes in the light of the migrant workforce now available to employers from the new EU states in Central and Eastern Europe.
We will bring in fixed penalty fines of up to£2,000 for each illegal employee taken on by unscrupulous employers.
For those planning to stay longer, we will restrict the right of settlement to skilled workers like doctors, engineers, nurses or teachers and will introduce English language tests for those hoping to settle permanently.
And we will end so called chain migration with no immediate or automatic right for relatives to bring in their own dependents.
These are practical and sensible proposals to root our abuse - but to maintain the migration that helps underpin our economy and our prosperity.
What about the Tory policies - stripping away all the rhetoric and looking at the specific policies they are proposing?
Today we publish an analysis of why the specific Tory proposals simply don't add up.
Mr Howard says he will introduce a quota on both immigrants and asylum seekers. But he won't give numbers, though we were promised months ago that there would be numbers for these quotas in their manifesto. Nor will he say the basis on which either of these quotas will be calculated.
All these are vital issues. He says that quotas are at the heart of his policy. But he won't give even a ball-park estimate of what the quotas would be - because, as he knows, he would immediately open a Pandora's Box of questions and concerns about those numbers.
The next Michael Howard immigration policy, given a special launch, was to bring in 24 hour controls at all ports. That policy disintegrated in less than 24 hours, when it became clear that there are 650 ports of entry and airports in the UK and they couldn't even afford - let alone practically introduce - 24 hour coverage in even a small fraction of this number.
Another key policy is to withdraw from The Geneva Convention on Refugees. But what would this unilateral treaty withdrawal mean? It would mean Britain standing alone, unable to work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to identify and manage within the rules those people who have a genuine claim to asylum and those who don't.
Then we come to the flagship Tory asylum policy: the fantasy island to process asylum claims quickly and cheaply without the applicants needing to stay in the UK while this is done. It is two years now since this unnamed offshore island or country was announced - and he still can't say where it would be. 80% of asylum-seekers in Britain now claim in-country, i.e. not at a port but at an in-land centre. Is he seriously saying there is some other country that is going to offer to take these people and process their claims for us. His Home Affairs spokesman admitted yesterday they had made zero progress on finding anywhere. And Mr Howard's earlier claims of 5 countries that already had such centres was another fantasy, denounced by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.
There is a simple reason why he can't say which country would process UK asylum seekers. There isn't one. Furthermore all the estimates of the costs of such centres - based on Australian experience in using centres located on islands close to Australia to deal with a small proportion of their claimants - suggest a far higher unit cost than our system - when the Tories claim that it would save money.
But the most extraordinary Tory policy of all is the claim by Michael Howard that he could achieve all of the above while at the same time halving the amount that the government spends on the Immigration Service as part of the James Review which was dreamed up as an exercise to make tax cuts and spending increases add up.
Just consider what his claim that he could save£897.6 million a year means. This is more than the combined budget the Immigration Service spends on all of its border control staff, on running detention camps for illegal immigrants and on the in-country enforcement operations to track down illegal workers and failed asylum seekers.
So Mr Howard's policies aren't going anywhere. They aren't practical. And they aren't costed.
And if the Tory plans won't work and aren't funded, what will happen? Confusion at best; chaos at worst - and in either event, a loss of national and international confidence in the effectiveness of our asylum and immigration policies.
So it's chaos from Michael Howard or proper, workable controls from Labour.
The contribution of migrants to Britain
In all this talk about quotas and caps, many will understandably think there is a new uncertainty, even hostility, to the position of migrants and their families in Britain.
I think most people know the huge contribution that immigrants have made to our country.
Not just historically - the million and a half Irish migrants to this country in the 19th century; the 120,000 Jewish people who came here before the First World War, largely fleeing persecution in Russia and eastern Europe; the 160,000 Poles who settled here after the Second World War, soon followed by large numbers of Italians and then workers from the West Indies and South Asia and more recently significant migration from other European countries within the EU.
All these migrants are part of the rich fabric of our nation, every bit as British and valued as any other member of our society.
We also see the positive contribution of contemporary migrants all about us today. In the health service, a million people employed, nearly a third of them first or second generation immigrants. In 2003 one-third of all work permits issued were for health service workers. In financial services - a sector which now employs 300,000 and brings billions of pounds into our economy - migrants play a key role in some of the most skilled jobs in the world.
We will not turn our back on these or other migrants contributing so much to our economy and our society. Without them, London would not be the financial capital of Europe. Without them, how would the NHS actually work?
And when people are fleeing persecution, from Rwanda, Kosovo, Zimbabwe, British people extend their generosity.
I don't underestimate the essential generosity of British people.
When the Tsunami disaster hit South East Asia. Who gave the most? The British people.
So let no-one say British people aren't decent. Aren't generous.
But those same people, working hard, sometimes struggling, sometimes feeling alone in that struggle to get by, they need to know that their worries are being recognised.
And it's our duty as politicians not to exploit those worries, those anxieties, but deliver workable solutions to ease genuine concerns.
So we will are dealing appropriately with the issues in asylum and immigration. What we won't ever do is play politics with them, or use them to undo the fantastic work that has been done - and is being done - to improve race and community relations in Britain.
And alongside the tackling of abuse, we will continue to make the case for the benefits that immigrants bring to our economy and our society.
So the next time you see a Tory poster, or the next time you hear a Tory spokesman squirm when he is asked where the Tory fantasy offshore processing centre is actually going to be, remember words are easy, change is tough;
frightening the people is easy, fighting the problem is tough. Not ignoring the issue and not exploiting the issue, but dealing with the issue - that is our duty, that is our pledge.'