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Monday, 24 June, 2002, 16:51 GMT 17:51 UK
Blair defends Seville agreement
Kurdish asylum seekers in Italy
Asylum topped the EU agenda at Seville
Prime Minister Tony Blair has tried to counter claims that he suffered an embarrassing defeat over asylum plans at the EU summit in Seville.

In a statement to MPs on Monday afternoon, Mr Blair said measures to return failed asylum seekers to countries outside Europe did not go as far as the UK and most EU states had wanted.

The direction of policy is clear, it is the pace we need to quicken

Tony Blair

But the "compromise" agreed was a "substantial step forward", said Mr Blair, and was a vindication of his policy of constructive engagement in Europe.

Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith argued the prime minister had lost the argument and been left behind by other leaders.

"You've been isolated on your own asylum proposals, bounced into accepting EU border patrols and failed again to get Common Agricultural Policy reform on the agenda," he said.

Mr Duncan Smith accused Mr Blair of standing by "impotently" as Nato's future was yet again drawn into question.

Forcing co-operation

Such claims were rejected by the prime minister, who accused the Tories of "standing next to the exit sign" in Europe.

"The direction of policy is clear, it is the pace we need to quicken but that is a far cry from where the agenda of reform stood five years ago," Mr Blair continued.

The UK's plans had aimed to hit in the pocket those countries deemed not to do enough to stop people smuggling.

Tony Blair in Seville
Tony Blair says true refugees will not be 'shut out'
A minority of European leaders had opposed that idea because they thought it went against the EU's aid principles, he said.

But migration would be central to new agreements with non-EU countries.

And the EU had now reserved the right to act against countries that did not co-operate on immigration, Mr Blair continued.

Asylum bill

The Seville deal means common European standards for dealing with asylum applications are due by the end of the year.

Joint work on securing borders should also be introduced.

Mr Blair said the idea of a European border police had been under consideration for months but the UK had a veto on the issue.
The fire at the Yarl's Wood accommodation centre earlier this year
The Yarl's Wood fire stoked concern over asylum centres

The idea of police at Dover being replaced by European officers was wrong, he insisted.

Progress had been made on making future summits more open and streamlined, as well on preparing the way towards EU enlargement in 2004, added Mr Blair.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said work first needed to be done on reforming farms policy before enlargement could go ahead.

Mr Kennedy argued the language at Seville on immigration was a lot more "balanced and tolerant" than that used by the government in the run-up to the summit - something he welcomed.

Mr Blair's statement comes as the Government's controversial Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill returns to the House of Lords.

The UK's domestic measures, in the asylum bill, are said by a committee of MPs and peers to violate a host of human rights laws.

Opposition peers will not vote down the proposals on Monday as by convention the House of Lords gives the bill an unopposed second reading.

The fire at the Yarl's Wood accommodation centre earlier this year
The Yarl's Wood fire stoked concern over asylum centres

Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Lord Dholakia welcomed some of the plans but said those were outweighed by reforms undermining protection against human rights abuses.

"Britain can gain far more from managing immigration on the basis of opportunity and fairness than from knee-jerk, bad law," added Lord Dholakia.

Plans to build new large-scale accommodation centres, often in rural areas, have already met fierce opposition from the Lib Dems and local residents.

The Conservatives too are focusing their criticism on those new centres.

Violence fears

"It is absolutely ludicrous that asylum seekers should have to spend six months in accommodation centres," said a Tory spokesman.

"We think the whole process could be done in six weeks."

Former Home Secretary Ken Clarke last week warned that asylum seekers housed in rural centres would turn violent because of the boredom.

There has been much concern too over plans to educate the children of asylum seekers in the centres, rather than in local schools.

The Home Office has rejected comparisons with apartheid in South Africa and argues the children will be properly treated.

On Tuesday, Home Secretary David Blunkett will have talks in London with his French counterpart about the Sangatte refugee camp, which the UK wants closed.


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