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The BBC's Mark Mardell
"This is his second speech on asylum in a week"
 real 28k

Ann Widdecombe
"I'm very angry when people take a sensible policy and say it's racist."
 real 28k

Wednesday, 19 April, 2000, 13:54 GMT 14:54 UK
Tories deny 'racism' jibe

Immigration has been put on the election agenda
Conservatives have defended their attempt to focus on asylum in the run up to next month's local elections, denying that the policy is racist.

Tories home affairs spokeswoman Ann Widdecombe denied that her party's approach to the issue was racist as a "profound insult".

She was speaking the day after Tory leader William Hague unveiled his plans to detain asylum seekers in reception centres rather than allow them to live in the community.

The issue of asylum seekers has become a key issue in the local elections on 4 May.

Ann Widdecombe: "A serious solution"
Miss Widdecombe said: "Like grown ups, we are trying to find a serious solution to a problem that is out of control."

She continued: "I'm very angry when people take a sensible policy which is aimed at deterring abusive claims and turn round and say that's racist when what we're actually trying to do is to make the asylum system work for the very people it was designed for."

On Tuesday, a spokesman for the prime minister said Mr Hague's plans for a shake-up of the asylum process were further evidence he was "stirring up" the issue.

And Home Secretary Jack Straw accused the Tories of being more interested in exploiting the issue than dealing with it.

But the Tories say if the government's plans to redistribute asylum seekers across the country go-ahead, then the issue will affect nearly every voter.

Both major parties have been accused of creating a debate on the issue that could give comfort to racists, after the Liberal Democrats reported Labour and the Tories to the Commission for Racial Equality.

Miss Widdecombe insisted that under the Conservatives' plans, the reception centres would not be run like prisons.

But the Refugee Council has criticised the proposals as "draconian and expensive".

Miss Widdecombe said the proposed camps would double the budget already spent on immigration costs.

"If you take what Oakington costs, which is the only reception centre of this sort we've got up and running, it cost 527 per week per person.

"But we expect the policy, of detention, plus speed, plus removal if your application fails, we expect all that to have a deterrent affect on the number of applications.

"That is the whole point of the policy."

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See also:

12 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Fresh row over asylum seekers
11 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Asylum cost under fire
10 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Parties defend asylum comments
10 Apr 00 | Europe
Europe toughens asylum policies
14 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Government defends race record
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