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Wednesday, 25 April, 2001, 12:51 GMT 13:51 UK
UK 'winning' asylum battle
Table showing asylum figures
The UK Government says it is "getting on top of the problem" of asylum seekers, despite an increase in the number of cases.

New figures show that the number of applications for asylum rose by 5% last month but the backlog of applications waiting to be dealt with was down.

Home Secretary Jack Straw welcomed the figures as "very good news" but the Conservatives renewed accusations that the government was "soft" on immigration.


They [the government] have sent out the consistent message that Britain is a soft touch

Ann Widdecombe
The Home Office said there were 5,815 applications last month compared to 5,520 in February.

But the latest March figure is 13% below the number recorded in the same month last year.

Speaking at Heathrow Airport, where he saw a new fingerprinting system in operation aimed at combating multiple applications, Mr Straw said: "The figures show that we are now - having put in this big programme of reform and investment - getting on top of the problem."

He added: "The backlog of unmade decisions has dropped to its lowest level for 10 years with the backlog now 36,000 compared to over 100,000 15 months ago.

But shadow home secretary Anne Widdecombe said that a backlog of appeals was building up with only 3,000 of 11,000 new appeals being dealt with.

She said: "The picture is not healthy and won't be until we send out a determined message to those who are coming with patently false claims."

And she dismissed accusations that she was stoking the immigration debate just to gain votes: "Don't expect me to go around with a gag around my mouth during the election because I won't."

Clash

Ahead of the figures, Mr Straw and Miss Widdecombe clashed over the government's record on asylum.

Miss Widdecombe said Britain had become a "soft touch" on asylum under Labour and she derided the timing of Mr Straw's announcement.

Countries of origin
Afghanistan - 680
Somalia - 470
Iraq - 425
Sri Lanka - 410
Turkey - 355
Iran - 295
Romania - 285
Yugoslav republic - 210
China - 175
Pakistan - 175
Czech republic - 175
India - 165
Sierra Leone - 155
Zimbabwe - 145
Other nationalities - 1,575
"Isn't it extraordinary that it's happening a few weeks before a general election?" she told the BBC.

Miss Widdecombe said that applications for asylum in the UK had risen to record levels over the last four years.

"Having seen the reality of what's happening they are only now talking about measures which frankly have been called for for a long time."

Mr Straw said that he regretted Miss Widdecombe's language and argued that the suggestion that Britain was a soft touch was "simply not the case".

"If it were the case then what would have happened in the past four years since the change of government, if Britain had suddenly become a soft touch, then we would have shot from the middle of the [European] league tables per head of population for asylum applications to the very top."

European problem

"This is a European problem and it requires - as well as the firm action which we have been taking - it also requires a European solution."

Home Secretary Jack Straw
Jack Straw: Promise of tighter controls
Later on Wednesday, Mr Straw is due to explain plans to draw up a list of countries and groups from which asylum applications would be automatically refused.

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes said the issue was not the number of asylum applications but rather how a "rich country like Britain deals" with them.

"We must deal with all applications promptly and fairly, and treat all applicants with dignity and respect."

A Lords committee has concluded that European Union should agree a common policy on immigration to encourage migration to offset Europe's growing skills shortages.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Margaret Gilmore
"Some say Britain is a soft touch"
Shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe
"Once you are here... the chances of your being removed are little more than zero"

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25 Apr 01 | UK Politics
04 Feb 01 | Europe
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