Nigel Lawson
Lord Lawson has claimed the pro-EU campaign is based on "fear"Christopher Furlong - WPA Pool/Getty Images

No country can accept unlimited immigration but the "right kind" of migrants can benefit the British economy, according to Lord Nigel Lawson. The former Conservative chancellor, who refused to comment on Theresa May's speech on the issue, told IBTimes UK that he was most concerned about who is ultimately in charge of immigration policy.

"The right kind of immigrants can benefit the British economy enormously, but no country can accept indiscriminate, unlimited immigration. The question for me is: 'who is in charge of the decision – should it be the EU or should it be the British government?' I believe it should be the British government," the senior Eurosceptic said.

The remarks came as May said at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester that large amounts of immigration would make it "impossible" for social cohesion throughout the UK. "When immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it's impossible to build a cohesive society. It's difficult for schools and hospitals and core infrastructure like housing and transport to cope," the home secretary stated.

The top Tory, who is tipped as a future Conservative leader, also argued that immigration controls were needed and she restated David Cameron's promise to reduce net migration levels to "tens of thousands" of people. But the Tory administration has so far failed to meet the PM's pledge.

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) put net migration levels at 330,000 in the year ending March. The data shows that Cameron and May are more than three times off their target.

The ongoing refugee crisis, which has seen tens of thousands of people flee the Middle East for Europe, has also brought the issue to the public's attention. The subject is the top concern for the British electorate, according to a poll from Ipsos MORI. The survey, conducted between 4 and 17 September, saw immigration beat the NHS and the economy as a concern across all ages, social grades and party supporters.

EU referendum

The issue is expected to be key debating point in the forthcoming EU referendum, which Cameron has promised to hold by the end of 2017. The prime minister wants to reform the rules for EU migrants withdrawing benefits in the UK, but he is facing opposition from European leaders who want to maintain Brussels' commitment to its free movement of people principle.

Ukip, who campaigned on an anti-immigration platform during the general election, has backed Leave EU ahead of the referendum. The group is ran by Ukip donor Arron Banks and is vying with Lawson's Conservatives for Britain and associate Business for Britain to be nominated by the Electoral Commission as the official Leave campaign.

But Lawson, who is president of the Tory group, did not rule out Ukip leader Nigel Farage taking a leading role in the wider Eurosceptic campaign. "It's a free country and he can do his thing. We are working very closely with Business for Britain; we shall work more closely with Business for Britain and shall be doing our own thing. We may be broadening it out further, we shall see," he said.

As for where campaign will be won and lost, the Conservative peer warned that the pro-EU groups will use the politics of fear in a bid to keep Britain from breaking away from Brussels.

"I remember when we ignored Europe and we were totally committed to the Commonwealth and the former Empire and thought imperial preference was the only thing which enabled us to survive, that was a mistake and it's a similar mistake to feel Britain can't be a hugely successfully country – economically and in any other way – outside the EU," Lawson said.

"You only have to look at the eurozone economy which is underperforming, to put it politely, in a big way to see that all is not well there at all. The pro-EU campaign is all too likely to be based on a fear of the unknown because in most people's lifetime we have never been out of the EU."