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Programme highlights Friday, 18 May, 2001, 16:15 GMT 17:15 UK
Tories drag asylum back onto agenda
Tory leader William Hague
Hague spoke under the banner: 'Safe Haven not a soft touch'
Asylum and immigration are seen by the Conservatives as a strong election card and by Labour as one of the Tories' potential weaknesses - the same contradiction probably exists in the minds of many voters, too.

On Friday, William Hague, with his Home Affairs spokesman, Anne Widdecombe, travelled to Dover - a gateway, in Tory eyes, for large numbers of people to enter the country without any real justification - to push their most significant policy idea.

Tory home affairs spokeswoman Ann Widdecombe
Ann Widdecombe says Tory asylum policies will save the country money
The Conservatives wants the much wider use of immediate detention of all newly arrived people applying for asylum, until - eventually - no more than 5 or 6,000 would be awaiting adjudication at any one time. Those people whose claims are refused would be removed quickly.

In outlining his proposals, including ideas about logistics, Mr Hague failed to put a figure on the number of detention centres required and the likely cost:

  • action to speed up the time taken to reach decisions on applications;
  • greater pressure would be applied on Britain's European partners to fulfil their obligations in dealing with asylum seekers en route to Britain, and
  • properly enforced penalties for businesses illegally employing people.

William Hague's tone in Dover was noticeably less vivid than some contributions to recent 'race rows' by members of his party - most notoriously John Townend's reference to a mongrel race.

Such interventions have damaged the parties' ability to speak about immigration, as has the use by many in his party - and in Labour - of words like 'bogus' to characterise unsuccessful applicants.

This language led Charles Kennedy to decry the Tory plans as combining the instincts of Alf Garnett with the electoral appeal of Michael Foot.

Criticism

Labour argues that they are on top of the backlog: from a peak of 103,000 the number of applications has fallen by almost a half. Furthermore 3000 more immigration officers have been appointed with another 1000 to follow.

Barbara Roache, for Labour, described the Tory plans as unworkable, possibly illegal, and hugely expensive. She also suggested that Tory tax cuts would mean less immigration staff able to deal with the matter.

But Labour and the Tories seem in agreement in saying that Britain would always be a haven for 'genuine' refugees, while making it increasingly difficult for migrants to get into, and settle in Britain.

Joining critics including the UNHCR, Margaret Lally of the Refugee Council urged caution. She said that processing applications more quickly could result in mistakes, and locking up those seeking asylum would be illegal under the Geneva Convention.

The World at One asked Anne Widdecombe how they believed that creating new detention centres would actually save money.

She said the government had let the asylum system descend into chaos and the Tories would continue to speak out about "the abuse of the asylum system".

"If we can get the system sorted out and get the sort of deterrent effect that we did get in 1996, it will cost us less."

The Tories would opt for converting existing buildings for the secure centres under the Private Finance Initiative, she explained, instead of constructing new buildings.

"If you use the PFI, you don't have to have a huge initial outlay, and if you then have the deterrent effect, you have huge net savings," she insisted.

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Tory home affairs spokeswoman Ann Widdecombe
"This scheme produces net savings of quite an order"
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