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Wednesday, 24 April, 2002, 21:37 GMT 22:37 UK
Blunkett plays down 'swamping' remark
Would-be migrants at Sangatte camp in France bidding to enter UK
Blunkett wants to crack down on illegal immigrants
Home Secretary David Blunkett has tried to play down his choice of the word "swamping" when describing the effect of asylum seekers on local schools.

Appearing in the House of Commons for a debate on the government's Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill, he said his choice of words came about because of a letter from a local GP's surgery.


Children will be educated on the site... but importantly not swamping the local school

David Blunkett
Home Secretary

Earlier Mr Blunkett argued that a failed asylum system and the friction caused by it within communities acted as a "firelighter" for the BNP and others.

He said children of asylum seekers would be taught in accommodation centres to prevent them "swamping" local schools.

Downing Street was later clearly unhappy about the use of such emotive language.

The prime minister's official spokesman said "we should not elevate a word used in a particular context to the overall situation" before adding that Mr Blunkett had been reflecting terminology used locally.

But in the Commons, Mr Blunkett said that a GP's surgery said that enormous strain were being put on their resources because of asylum seekers.

He gave the example of using an interpreter which often made appointments take double the normal time.

"Now that is what I meant with the word that I used this morning which was 'swamped'.

"I could have used an equivalent word such as 'overburdened' - I think people would've objected to the idea of a burden. I could have used the word 'overwhelmed'."

He added that he chose his words "simply to indicate that there is a major problem for some schools and some GP practices in some limited parts of our country".

'Open and sensible gateway'

The home secretary was outlining the measures during the second reading debate for the Bill which says fairness and speed were key to making an asylum process which was perceived to be fair.

Jean-Marie Le Pen
Le Pen's success has left many politicians in shock
His comments come in the wake of the shock success of the far-right National Front in the first round of France's presidential election contest.

Politicians of all parties in the UK have acknowledged they have a role to play in preventing the success of extremists in Britain.

But Labour left-winger Diane Abbott said she feared that much of the government's rhetoric around nationality and asylum had "played to the National Front agenda".

She told the BBC's World at One programme: "I thought that David [Blunkett's] use of the word swamping was unfortunate - we are talking about children not sewage."

Citizenship

Defending the Bill, Mr Blunkett said: "It is precisely to avoid people remaining foreigners that I want to ensure that they learn the language, that they know something about our system, that they can be active and welcome citizens.

"Once they are through the appeals process and they have been granted the right to remain, they will immediately be supported much better than they are now in terms of integration into the community," said Mr Blunkett.

"Whilst they're going through the process, the children will be educated on the site, which will be open, people will be able to come and go, but importantly not swamping the local school."

Mr Blunkett said he would like to see a "sensible agreement" with France in relation to asylum seekers who use the Channel Tunnel and ferries to travel to the UK.

Shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin agreed that the asylum system was in chaos.

He said it was being used by "large numbers of people" to get round immigration rules.

Retina screening

But he said he would not have been "happy" using Mr Blunkett's "swamping" terminology.

Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes said Mr Blunkett's choice of words was "at least unfortunate".

The fair distribution of housing, good public services and policing would do more to prevent support for extremists than the measures proposed by Mr Blunkett.

MPs are due to discuss a plan to force employers to disclose information about foreign employees. Failure to do so could lead to up to three months in prison.

The Bill also includes measures to strengthen border controls, including the introduction of retina screening at airports.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Andrew Marr
"David Blunkett's tough new bill is meant to calm public fears"
Home Secretary David Bunkett
"I have got no problem with more people from abroad living here"
Shadow Home Secretary Oliver Letwin
"The system for asylum is currently in chaos"
See also:

07 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Immigration shake-up unveiled
24 Apr 02 | UK Politics
Le Pen policies 'repellent' - Blair
24 Apr 02 | UK Politics
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