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Friday, 4 May, 2001, 14:46 GMT 15:46 UK
Blair urges asylum law reform
Asylum seekers
Mr Blair said genuine refugees should get more help
Tony Blair says pressing for reform of the international asylum laws will be a priority if Labour wins the forthcoming general election.

Writing in the Times newspaper, Mr Blair said the 50-year-old United Nations Convention on Refugees needed to be modernised

The laws should ensure that those not entitled to asylum are dealt with swiftly, while genuine refugees get more help, he said.

But shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe said the prime minister's pledge was an attempt to divert attention away from the government's "miserable failure in dealing with the problem."


This must be a priority should we win the next election

Tony Blair
Mr Blair's intervention in the asylum issue is said to be aimed at countering Conservative claims that the government is "soft" on asylum.

It comes as speculation mounts that a 7 June general election is to be announced next week, after it emerged that Mr Blair had cancelled a planned trip abroad next Monday.

In Friday's article, Mr Blair says that economic migrants who seek to abuse the system will be processed and removed more quickly.

Race row

He also proposes a European Union-wide resettlement programme to ensure the responsibility for taking refugees is shared more equally.

Prime minister Tony Blair
Tony Blair: Wants to modernise laws

He promises improvements to the help given to genuine refugees.

But he warns: "It also means ensuring that those who are not entitled to benefit from the provisions of the 1951 Convention are dealt with swiftly, through quick decisions and an effective system for returns.

"This must be a priority should we win the next election."

Mr Blair argues that the government's asylum policy could be summed up as "asylum for those who qualify under the rules, fast action to deal with those who don't".

He said the Conservative row on race had made it hard to have a sensible debate on asylum.

"Our criticism of the Conservative opposition has not been about racism, but about opportunism," he says.

Ann Widdecombe
Ann Widdecombe: "Asylum will be a key election issue"
But the Liberal Democrats accused Mr Blair of being irresponsible.

MP Simon Hughes said: "Mr Blair's interest in the subject would have been more useful four years ago.

"A prime minister proposing far-reaching reform of a long-standing international convention on the eve of an election campaign is not the most responsible way of debating this important issue."

'Tragic error'

Nick Hardwick, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: "The Geneva Convention on Refugees has saved millions of lives worldwide.

"It would be a tragic error if it was weakened in any way because of an ill-informed British debate leading up to a general election."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Paul Rowley
"The issue of asylum is not regarded as one of Labour's strong cards"
The BBC's Bethan Rhys-Roberts
"This sensitive issue is likley to be a key theme in the forthcoming election campaign"

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04 May 01 | UK Politics
31 Jan 01 | UK Politics
01 Feb 01 | UK Politics
21 Nov 00 | UK Politics
09 Feb 01 | UK Politics
06 Feb 01 | UK Politics
01 May 01 | UK Politics
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