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The BBC's Shaun Curran
Reports on heated exchanges in parliament
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Wednesday, 12 April, 2000, 21:26 GMT 22:26 UK
Fresh row over asylum seekers
asylum seekers
The Tories say the number of asylum seekers has doubled
MPs have engaged in bitter exchanges during a Commons debate on asylum seekers as the Tories again attacked the government's policy on the issue.

Home Secretary Jack Straw accused the Conservatives of attempting to "stir up anxiety" over asylum seekers.

But the Tories countered by saying there was "real anger and resentment" at the government's immigration policy.

Jack Straw
Jack Straw: Accused Tories of "stirring up anxiety"

The party's home affairs spokesman David Lidington said the view was not motivated by "racism or xenophobia" but by a feeling that the UK's tradition of giving asylum to genuine refugees was being abused.

The row comes after the Liberal Democrats referred Labour and the Conservatives to the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) for using inflammatory language over the issue - although the CRE said the issue was outside their remit.

Mr Lidington said the number of people claiming asylum in the UK had more than doubled since Labour came to power, while the backlog had almost doubled in the same period.

He said people were "indignant when they see our system for handling asylum overwhelmed by bogus applications from people who are intent on evading our immigration controls".

But Mr Straw intervened to challenge Mr Lidington over the processing time for asylum applications.

'Unfair to genuine refugees'

He said: "If the Conservative government were getting on top of the problems why was the delay 20 months at the time of the general election when now it's down to 13 months?"

The truth is that the crisis over asylum policy is now arousing real anger and resentment among our constituents

David Lidington
But Mr Lidington said the home secretary could not take "any pride" in the backlog of applications increasing so much during his stewardship.

He said the government's policy was "unfair to genuine refugees and unfair to British taxpayers and local authorities who are bearing the costs of supporting claimants and their families".

He said the response of ministers was to blame the last Tory government or international crises beyond its control, such as Kosovo and Somalia.

Mr Lidington, standing in for shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe, who has a throat infection, said the use of detention should be increased and a specialist "removals agency" set up with powers of arrest and detention of asylum seekers with no right to stay in the UK.

Mr Straw said there were few issues which "excited more controversy" than the issue of asylum.

'Moral obligations'

He said he had drawn up new legislation to deal with the issue because the structures laid down by the previous Tory administration had been unable to "stand the test of time".

To use the issue of asylum to play the race card is a disreputable act of any party and those who are attempting to do it should stop doing it

Jack Straw

Mr Straw said: "These reforms will ensure that this country honours its moral and international obligations to those genuinely fleeing persecution but they will also ensure that we deal firmly with those who seek to use asylum as a means of evading normal immigration control."

He went on: "To use the issue of asylum to play the race card is a disreputable act of any party and those who are attempting to do it should stop doing it."

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes said it was "absolutely ridiculous" to suggest that the growth in the number of people seeking asylum in this country was anything to do with the actions of host countries.

Mr Hughes said the Tory leadership had behaved "disgracefully" and "deserved to be condemned" because they "don't just seek to pander to prejudice, they positively misrepresent facts in order to be able to do that".

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See also:

11 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Asylum cost under fire
10 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Parties defend asylum comments
06 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Government defends asylum delays
14 Feb 00 | UK Politics
Pressure on Straw over asylum seekers
10 Apr 00 | Europe
Europe toughens asylum policies
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