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Monday, August 23, 1999 Published at 09:36 GMT 10:36 UK

UK Politics

Talks to speed up asylum system

Jack Straw: Labour is no "soft touch" on immigration

Home Secretary Jack Straw is to hold talks with immigration officials to speed up the system of processing applications from asylum seekers.

The BBC's Jane Peel: "Refugee groups say it is time for the Government to act"
The Immigration Service Union has warned that the system cannot cope under the pressure of record applications from people seeking asylum in the UK.

The union has also accused the government of failing to provide adequate resources to control the flow of refugees.

Mr Straw has rejected charges that the immigration system has broken down.

'Not overwhelmed'

The home secretary told the BBC: "The system is not being overwhelmed."

Mr Straw said he would be discussing interim measures to speed up the process until a new system was introduced by the Immigration and Asylum Bill, which is currently going through Parliament.

[ image: Ministers hope the new Asylum and Immigration Bill will help matters]
Ministers hope the new Asylum and Immigration Bill will help matters
The Home Office has published a consultation document to spread the burden of asylum seekers around the country.

It includes proposals to allow limits to be set on the number of asylum seekers each local authority may be required to accommodate, and to allow their transfer from overburdened local authorities.

The proposals will come into effect when the new bill becomes law, which is expected in the autumn.

Ministers have faced increasing criticism over immigration, in particular after violence between residents in Dover and asylum-seekers, as the town attempts to cope with an increase in the number of refugees.

Home Secretary Jack Straw: "The system is not being overwhelmed."
Mr Straw laid the blame for the situation with the last government, and said the Conservatives had left a "shambles".

The home secretary added he was not willing to see "the Conservatives suggest that the situation we have inherited is not their responsibility".

Rejecting charges of complacency from shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe, Mr Straw said she had been part of an administration that had "degraded" the immigration service by reducing staff numbers.

He said to meet the current problems an additional £120m would be spent on the immigration service over the next three years, and hundreds of new staff would be recruited.

But Mr Straw warned improvements would not be seen overnight.

Ann Widdecombe: "He cannot blame us for the increase in applications that has taken place under his policies"
Responding to Mr Straw's remarks Miss Widdecombe renewed her attack on the government's handling of the situation.

"He cannot blame us for the increase in applications that has taken place under his policies," she said.

"Two of years of their policies, two years of their decisions. When is he going to start taking responsibility for his decisions?" she asked.

'Waving people through'

Highlighting the situation faced by his members in Dover, union spokesman John Tincey told the BBC: "We think that, particularly with the violence that has been occurring in Dover, it is very important that public faith in immigration control and the effectiveness of the asylum system is restored."

[ image: Liverpool has offered a temporary home to some asylum-seekers]
Liverpool has offered a temporary home to some asylum-seekers
He said they predicted a 50% rise in the number of asylum applications this year and said the massive workload meant immigration officers were "effectively waving people through".

Mr Tincey said asylum applicants at Dover were now waiting up to four years before they had their first interview with Immigration Service officials.

He claimed the Home Office had only managed to speed up decisions on asylum applications by picking out "easy cases" such as Kosovo Albanians, who are largely being granted permission to stay.

Mr Tincey's remarks comes as Liverpool prepares to take about 40 asylum-seekers from the overcrowded port town of Dover.

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