Phil Woolas, shown here in a 2007 file picture, is going to restrict immigration, the minister said. ((Silvia Izquierdo/Associated Press))

Britain is going to restrict immigration to preserve jobs for its citizens, Immigration Minister Phil Woolas said in an interview published Saturday.

"If people are being made unemployed, the question of immigration becomes extremely thorny … It’s been too easy to get into this country in the past and it’s going to get harder," the Labour government minister told the Times of London.

Britain's unemployment rate rose sharply, to 5.7 per cent, in the last quarter.

Britain, which admits about 200,000 immigrants a year, adopted a tougher points-based immigration system in February. "Only those with skills the country needs can come," Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said at the time.

Woolas said the government should train British citizens for those jobs.

Government ministers had welcomed more immigration earlier this year. 

Smith said that "migrants benefit this country economically, contributing an estimated £6 billion [about $12.3 billion] to our national output, as well as socially and culturally."

And in June, Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform Stephen Timms, commenting on a report on migrants from Eastern Europe, said:  "These migrants have not taken jobs away from British workers and have not impacted on wages."

The opposition Conservatives have been pushing to cut immigration substantially below the 200,000 figure.

Labour MP and former minister Frank Field welcomed the policy change. "We shouldn't grow the population by immigration," he said.

Canada admits about 250,000 immigrants a year, and expects 240,000 to 265,000 in 2008, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Diane Finley said in October 2007.

It's not known if Finley will remain in the immigration portfolio when Prime Minister Stephen Harper's new cabinet is sworn in.

With files from the Associated Press