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Thursday, 1 February, 2001, 18:06 GMT
Straw and Widdecombe clash on asylum
Asylum seekers
Labour's asylum seekers policy came under fire
Labour's record on asylum has again come under attack from the Conservatives who accused the government of "abject failure" in its efforts to improve the system which is facing increasing numbers of applicants.

Tory home affairs spokeswoman Ann Widdecombe said that the record levels of people seeking asylum in the UK was evidence of Labour's failure.

Even the most cursory scrutiny of this fantasy policy exposes its deceit

Jack Straw
But Home Secretary Jack Straw reacted angrily to her claims, branding Tory policy on immigration as "sinister".

He said the opposition were playing on fear and prejudice to win votes, and were not interested in helping refugees.

Ann Widdecombe
Widdecombe's policy was rejected as 'sinister'
Labour backbenchers likened the Conservative proposal to hold asylum seekers in "secure reception centres" to the introduction of concentration camps.

But Miss Widdecombe insisted that her plans would bring the number of asylum seekers down.

Top choice?

While the government had delivered the opposite of its promise of a fairer, faster and firmer system and made Britain the top European destination for refugees, she told MPs.

In an opposition led debate on the issue of asylum seekers, Miss Widdecombe was scathing about Labour's record.

Jack Straw
Straw came under fire
She said that recent reports had shown that the government had failed to remove people refused asylum, housed asylum seekers in unfit accommodation and had failed to fight appeals because vital paperwork had been lost.

Under the Tories, she argued, asylum seeker numbers had been falling but Labour had turned Britain into a "soft touch" which hurt genuine refugees.

"Our tough measures led to applications falling by 40% but under this government we've seen huge increases every year, which shows once and for all the complete and utter abject failure of this government's asylum policy," she said.

Eighth in the league

But Mr Straw said the UK only attracted half the number of asylum seekers per head of population entering Ireland.

Britain was, in fact, only eighth in the European table, he insisted.

And he rubbished Tory proposals, saying a detention scheme would need 50 centres, cost billions of pounds.

Furthermore it would lead to women, children and the elderly being locked up and was unworkable, he said.

The number of refugees was rising across Europe and EU-wide action was needed to find a solution.

Prejudice not principle?

He said: "The Conservative Party's approach is designed for one purpose only.

Not to deal with the issue but to exploit the issue in the hope that fear will encourage some people to vote for them.

"It has nothing to do with principle ... it has everything to do with prejudice."

Mr Straw added: "Even the most cursory scrutiny of this fantasy policy exposes its deceit."

Vouchers 'demeaning'

For the Liberal Democrats, Jackie Ballard denounced the government's "demeaning and ineffective" voucher system for asylum seekers.

"We must treat people who come to this country humanely and fairly," she said.

She said the government must focus on conflict resolution and EU wide policies to deal with the issue.

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See also:

31 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Ministers blamed for asylum claims surge
21 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Straw pledges asylum crackdown
31 Dec 00 | UK Politics
Heseltine stirs asylum row
19 Dec 00 | UK Politics
Asylum vouchers 'should be banned'
26 Aug 00 | UK Politics
Widdecombe chased by asylum protesters
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