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The BBC's Robin Oakley
"Everybody wants to help genuine asylum seekers"
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Monday, 10 April, 2000, 11:42 GMT 12:42 UK
Parties defend asylum comments

The Tories view of immigration was criticised by UNHCR
Conservatives and Labour have defended themselves after the Liberal Democrats reported the parties to the race relations watchdog over their handling of the asylum seekers debate.

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes has referred both parties to the Commission for Racial Equality, saying that they had broken an agreement not to politicise the issue.

Mr Hughes' move comes after the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) criticised the Tories' local elections manifesto for claiming that racketeers are "flooding our country with bogus asylum-seekers".

Reacting to the row, the prime minister's official spokesman, Alastair Campbell, said that all public figures had to mind their language on race issues.

Labour has made this country a 'soft touch' for the organised asylum racketeers who are flooding our country with bogus asylum seekers

Conservative local elections manifesto
Denying the move was a political gimmick, Mr Hughes branded the Tory manifesto misleading, saying that Home Office figures showed that at most only 50% of those applying for asylum were allowed to remain in the UK.

He also refuted claims that asylum seekers cost the average tax payer 160 per year, saying that the latest official figures showed that they cost 21 per tax payer in the 1999-2000 year.

Turning to Mr Straw, Mr Hughes accused the home secretary of having suggested that he would put sending asylum seekers home ahead of international obligations after the Stansted Afghani hostage crisis.

"Again the phrase is often used, whether they be beggars or others, that a lot of these people are criminals or are bogus," said Mr Hughes.

"We must not use those words, we must judge each individual on their merits and each individual separately."

'Selective and inaccurate'

But Mr Straw accused Mr Hughes use of his Commons comments was "selective and inaccurate". The home secretary has already sought to stress that his comments in February would not prejudice any asylum case.

Subject to compliance with all legal requirements, I would wish to see removed from this country all those on the plane as soon as reasonably practicable

Jack Straw, 10 February, on the Stansted hostages

"What we have sought to do here is to be both firm and fair and to meet properly our obligations under the 1951 refugee convention," he said.

"But those who have an unfounded claim are dealt with quickly and returned."

Later, Mr Campbell said the prime minister would never play the race card.

"The prime minister's view is that you do have to be very, very careful about the language you use," he said.

"What we would say to Simon Hughes is that there is a genuine problem that we have to deal with.

"If you take Kosovo out of the equation, then on the latest evidence around 70% to 80% of asylum seekers' cases are not genuine."

Defending the Tories, Miss Widdecombe said the manifesto was "reflecting the gravity of the situation".

"We have a very serious problem in which the asylum system is out of control and everybody can see it is out of control," she said.

"It would be a deeply irresponsible politician who denied that it was out of control."

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06 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Government defends asylum delays
14 Feb 00 | UK Politics
Pressure on Straw over asylum seekers
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