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The BBC's Christine Stewart
"Immigration has been one of the most difficult areas for the government"
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Sunday, 31 December, 2000, 16:17 GMT
Heseltine stirs asylum row
A woman and baby are led away by police at Calais
The UK is trying to prevent illegal immigration
Senior Conservative politician Michael Heseltine has launched a strong attack against people who falsely claim asylum in Britain.

We have a serious problem with asylum seekers - many of whom are bogus

Michael Heseltine
The former Tory deputy prime minister alleged that British citizens were "going without" houses and medical treatment to "make way for people who've cheated immigration rules".

Labour described Mr Heseltine's comments as ill-informed and the Refugee Council said the remarks were "inflammatory and prejudiced".

The attack comes amid reports that the government's scheme to move asylum seekers around the UK is not working.

Dispersal policy 'failing'

Ministers want those claiming asylum to be housed across Britain to spread the burden that has fallen on councils in the capital and the south-east of England.

Michael Heseltine
Michael Heseltine: People want to be part of our prosperity
But local authorities have warned the dispersal policy is failing, with many opting to give up housing and benefits to avoid moving and others drifting back to the capital, The Observer reported.

Refugee groups say they would be isolated and vulnerable if they were separated from established communities in the south-east.

Mr Heseltine told BBC Radio 4's The World this Weekend: "The fact of the matter is we have... a serious problem with the lack of police, serious problems with immigration, with the asylum seekers - many of whom are bogus.

"Why on earth should British citizens go without the houses they want or take longer to get treatment they need in order to make way for people who have cheated the immigration rules?"

Economic migrants

He continued: "This is not a racial business - no one has a better record than I for standing for racial harmony.

"This is simply a question of dealing with people who claim to be running away from tyrannical regimes when actually what they want to do is become part of the prosperity of our particular society."

Home Office Minister Mike O'Brien said Mr Heseltine was "ill-informed."

"There is no suggestion at all that the asylum seeking or the asylum dispersal system is collapsing. On the contrary it is working reasonably well," he told the BBC.

Home Office Minister Mike O'Brien
Mike O'Brien: "We want to be fair"
"The government is seeking to be firmer, fairer, faster in the way in which it deals with asylum seekers.

"We want to be fair in assuring that those who are genuine asylum seekers, and there are many who are fleeing for their lives, are not sent back.

"The changes that we have brought about have led to a levelling off in applications for asylum and that's reasonably good news."

Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said the inevitable rise in economic migrants should not be allowed to affect genuine refugees.

'Fuel racial hostility'

"There are always going to be thousands of people claiming asylum and wanting to settle here.

"The challenge for Britain is to have an efficient, fair, humane and legal system for dealing with these applications."

Mr Heseltine's "inflammatory and prejudiced" remarks were factually flawed and would "fuel racial hostility", said Nick Hardwick, chief executive of the Refugee Council.

"It is simply not the case that asylum seekers are taking houses from existing British citizens.

"For the most part, they are put up in lodging houses and hotels, and not mainstream housing stock."

Many asylum seekers were opting to live without benefits rather than being forced onto sink estates where they were too frightened to step outside the front door, he added.

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