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Wednesday, 25 April, 2001, 13:45 GMT 14:45 UK
Tories renew asylum attacks
Shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe
Miss Widdecombe is critical of the government's record
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

Shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe is back on the warpath over the government's record on immigration and asylum.

In a characteristically robust statement, she has accused Labour of turning Britain into a "soft touch" for asylum seekers.

And she has again signalled that the issue is going to be at the centre of the Conservative's general election campaign.


The government have sent out the consistent message that Britain is a soft touch

Ann Widdecombe
Her attack came as Home Secretary Jack Straw unveiled the government's latest plans to tackle the growing problem of illegal immigration.

He insisted the government was getting on top of the issue and that the latest figures proved other European countries had a far bigger problem than the UK.

Government rattled

But it appears the government has been seriously rattled by the attacks on its record on immigration and believe this is an issue that will play against it during the election campaign.

Many believe the racism row which recently gripped Westminster was deliberately used by Labour in an attempt to blunt Tory attacks on asylum and immigration.

Home Secretary Jack Straw
Mr Straw has pledged further action
The suggestion is that ministers hoped they could confuse the issues of racism and immigration and, as a result, neutralise Tory attacks.

Downing Street has vigorously denied such claims, insisting the opposition has every right to raise the issue of immigration.

But ministers, led by Mr Straw, have also suggested that there is a faction on the right which is only too happy to use the immigration issue to whip up racist sentiments.

But if anyone thought the tactic would stop the Tories raising the issue then Miss Widdecombe's remarks will have disappointed them.

'Soft touch'

She has insisted she is not about to be silenced by what she clearly views as a calculated stunt.

She told BBC News: "The government have sent out the consistent message that Britain is a soft touch.

"It is not a race issue, it has never been a race issue and that is why I'm determined that we are going to discuss this."

Conservative leader William Hague
Mr Hague has been accused of racism
Immigration has always been one of the most sensitive of political issues and ever since Enoch Powell's infamous "rivers of blood" speech 33 years ago, the Tories have been particularly eager to reject any suggestion its policies are motivated by racism.

Tories 'haunted'

But the issue continues to haunt them and only last month was again whipped up by retiring MP John Townend who suggested immigrants were responsible for rising crime and undermining Britain's Anglo-Saxon society.

Tory leader William Hague was also accused of racism and xenophobia after his spring conference speech in which he claimed another Labour government would turn Britain into a foreign land.

And the most recent row has surrounded the Commission for Racial Equalities' so-called anti-racist pledge which senior Tories including Michael Portillo refused to sign.

It now seems certain that the whole issue of immigration and asylum will become a key part of the general election battle and many fear it will become increasingly difficult to address the problem without raising racist sentiments.

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See also:

25 Apr 01 | UK Politics
UK 'winning' asylum battle
25 Apr 01 | UK Politics
Calls for common asylum policy
25 Apr 01 | UK
The asylum seekers debate
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