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Home Secretary Jack Straw
BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST INTERVIEW WITH JACK STRAW, HOME SECRETARY APRIL 29TH, 2001

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: And now it's our pleasure to welcome the Home Secretary who's in Blackburn this morning, Jack Straw is there, having tucked into a quick Chicken Tikka Masala for breakfast and top of the morning Jack.

JACK STRAW: Good morning, yeah I had two slices of British bakery's toast actually.

DAVID FROST: Oh very good, much, much better for an election rather than¿tell me something, can we just go over for a minute on the subject of asylum, the figure for last year is quoted as, people applying 78,040, how many of those were accepted and how many were rejected?

JACK STRAW: Well not all of those cases for last year have been dealt with but we are speeding up the number of cases dealt with on average about 25 per cent of people who apply for asylum are granted asylum or what's called exceptional leave to remain and the remainder are not. I mean that's, but it varies very much David according to which country they come from and the mix of applicants can vary very considerably. I mean for example over the last year we've managed to, considerably to reduce the numbers coming in who are mainly, almost all unfounded from Eastern Europe and they've dropped by about a half. On the other hand the numbers coming in from countries like Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Iran and Somalia where everybody knows there have been civil wars, disruption and a great difficulty in returning people, those numbers from many of those countries have gone up.

DAVID FROST: So if we take, say a figure of 80,000 and admitting that some of the, the exact 12 months as you said may not all be in yet, but if roughly the average acceptance rate is 25 per cent and that only 9,000 people were actually removed means that a massive number of people disappear into the community?

JACK STRAW: No with great, great respect this is something which a number of commentators, not you of course, are, or one or two in other political parties are trying to get going, it's not the case. What is the case is that we have doubled the number of people who are removed as a result directly of enforcement action by the immigration service. A very large number of people who are refused asylum leave of their own accord and along with, as far as I know, every other Western democracy in the world, records of who actually leave the country are not systematically kept because they can't be, because so many millions do so. In addition to that quite a number of people have appeals in the pipeline, but what we have done over the last four years is, against the shambles that we inherited from the Conservatives, where they were literally cutting the number of staff involved in asylum applications whilst the applications were rising, what we've done is invested very significantly in the system, we have, as a result of that, hit the target of 130,000 applicants initially decided over the last year, which is three times up on the previous year, we're expanding the amount of detention space and for example we introduced the civil penalty which is the fine on hauliers who bring in clandestines which is the single most important change that has been made in terms of control. One, the one big change that the Conservatives opposed although they don't often tell you that.

DAVID FROST: And what about, there's a figure, the figures are higher than people realise though, aren't they, because take the 78,000 figure, that's not the total is it, as I read the papers this week, that's the head of the household or whatever and it could be standing for two, three, or four people?

JACK STRAW: No, no, well we publish figures with dependants as well as without dependants and the, the figure with dependants is just above 90,000. What however is very, very important for people to appreciate is that this really is a Europe-wide problem, it is quite untrue when the Conservatives trying to play on people's fears to exploit the issue but not to deal with it, talk about Britain being a "soft touch" if we were a soft touch why is it that we remain by head of population, by the size of the country, right in the middle of the league table, ninth, and we see countries like Ireland for example taking 70 per cent per head of population more asylum seekers than we do, countries like Belgium and the Netherlands, Sweden taking very significantly more. We also see whilst our numbers have been flat in the last year, numbers rising significant in countries like France and the other thing that has to be remembered is that in the Southern European countries which border the Mediterranean they have hundreds of thousands of people who for whom no official records exist on top of all the asylum seekers.

DAVID FROST: But you mentioned detention space there, it sounds as though that's a euphemism for moving in the direction of Anne Widdecombe's detention centres?

JACK STRAW: Well detention space is the same thing. No I mean there is a diametrical difference between the position which we have adopted and the unbelievable position which the Conservatives have adopted. You have got to have some more detention space and we're seeking to increase the numbers to about two and half thousand places in order better to remove people and to ensure that those who are pretty plainly unfounded when they first come in can be detained and then returned. What the Conservatives are saying is two things which as often is the case are diametrically opposed, on the one hand nationally they're saying they'll "lock up all asylum seekers" sounds very simple, straightforward, but apart from being inhumane, impractical, against a large number of international agreements that we and other countries have signed, it would take years and years and years and cost at least £3 billion to do and it would require say, 60, detention centres. However that's nationally, locally when we have proposed one detention centre, one additional detention centre, a place called Aldington in Kent, what's the Conservative Party doing about that? They're opposing it because it's in their backyard, all the local Conservatives opposing this detention centre, the Conservative Member of Parliament Damien Green is opposing this detention centre, Anne Widdecombe is sitting on the fence over the detention centre, can't say yes or can't say no about whether she wants this in the backyard of one of her neighbouring constituencies. It is absolutely disreputable, the position which they're taking, on the one hand seeking, as I say, to exploit people's fears about the issue, on the other hand where we are making sensible measures or taking sensible measures to seek better to control it then they've actually opposed those plans as they have done with the civil penalty, as they are doing with the plans for extra detention space.

DAVID FROST: And on May Day, we were just hearing about May Day, Jack, there from Ken Livingstone who was hopeful that sufficiently strong measures were being taken to deal with the potential thuggery and so on. Are you confident this morning without being complacent of course?

JACK STRAW: Well I'm confident that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and the other police services in London, the City Police and the British Transport Police, are doing everything that they can to ensure that this demonstration is properly policed and they have all the resources which they need for that. But as Ken was saying the difference between this kind of demonstration and for example the kind of demonstrations which I took part in when I was a youngster and so did Ken, is that when we were taking part in demonstrations we were demonstrating for a cause and one of the things we realised and we kept to absolutely was that if you wanted to persuade people of your cause then you didn't go into violence which was wrong in any event. These people will be destroying their cause just as they wreck property and cause injury and violence to police officers and civilians alike. It is an anarchist demonstration so it's very, very difficult potentially to police but I have confidence in the Metropolitan Police Service as to what happens, we'll have to wait and see.

DAVID FROST: A last question on the subject of fox hunting, Nick Brown said this week to the Daily Telegraph that he expects a future Labour government to force a fox hunting bill through using the Parliament Act if necessary, is that your plan on hunting?

JACK STRAW: Well we'll have to wait and see is the answer to that on hunting David. It's an interesting issue, it's always been a matter for free votes, as you know, my own particular position has been a minority one inside the Labour Party which is in favour of the so-called middle way option of better regulation at one of the options which was flagged up by the report of Lord Burns. As to the use of the Parliament Act, well this Bill is still before the House of Lords at the moment so it would be premature to discuss that.

DAVID FROST: Jack Straw thank you very much indeed.

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