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UK Home Secretary, Jack Straw
"I share the committee's concern"
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UN spokesman, Jose Diaz
"The perceived treatment of asylum-seekers remains a matter of great concern"
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Wednesday, 23 August, 2000, 09:19 GMT 10:19 UK
Row over UK 'racism'
Asylum-seeker in bedsit
Ministers are told to do more to help asylum-seekers
The United Nations says it is "deeply concerned" about race relations in the UK - but both the government and opposition have hit back, defending Britain's record on anti-racism.

The UN committee that monitors racial discrimination says ethnic minorities feel increasingly vulnerable to racist attacks and harassment in the UK.

It also says racism within the police force and other public bodies has led to serious shortcomings in the way racist incidents are investigated.

I believe we have a record on race relations which is better than most European countries and those in Northern America

Jack Straw
In a report, it urges the UK Government to do more to help protect asylum-seekers from racial harassment and to tackle high unemployment and school exclusion rates among ethnic minorities.

Home Office officials told the committee last week that Britain had some of the most extensive anti-racism legislation in Europe.

At a meeting in Geneva, the UN Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination praised government measures to increase penalties for racially motivated crimes.

It also said the action plan developed by the government following the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence was a step in the right direction.

'Confidence in police'

But Home Secretary Jack Straw insisted race relations in Britain were better than in most other European countries.

Britain was one of the only countries which, since 1960, had consistently met its obligations to report every two years to the UN on progress made in eliminating racism, he said.

Our country has a proud record on race relations and for providing a safe haven for those in genuine fear of persecution

Tory spokesman
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "One of the reasons we have a rising number of reports of racist attacks is not because the number of attacks is going up, but because there is increasing confidence in the police that when attacks of that kind are reported, action will be taken.

"I am the last person to be remotely complacent about race relations.

"I regard the improvement of race relations and the development of a society where there is a quality in terms of race as literally my first priority.

"We have worked very hard indeed to do that. We set up the Lawrence Inquiry, we have changed the law on racist attacks.

"Overall, I believe we have a record on race relations which is better than most European countries and those in Northern America."

Mr Straw criticised the the UN for releasing a press notice on its findings before giving the report to the government, saying the move was "grossly lacking in courtesy".

'System abuse'

Conservatives also hit back at the report, saying it was not the UN's job to lecture the UK on how to run its affairs.

"Our country has a proud record on race relations and for providing a safe haven for those in genuine fear of persecution," a Tory spokesman said.

"The main threat to that record is the systematic abuse of our asylum system by those who perceive Britain to be a soft touch."

Asylum-seekers entering the UK have often found themselves the target of violence from locals who believe refugees should not be housed in their towns.

'Long way to go'

Human rights group Liberty and the anti-racist body the 1990 Trust were among British organisations which made submissions to the committee.

Chitra Karve, of Liberty, said she hoped its final conclusions, to be released on Friday, would also deal with the issues of deaths in custody, treatment of asylum-seekers and access to legal services.

"While we have acknowledged that the government has taken steps to combat racism, the 28 organisations involved in this project all believe that there is a long way to go before there is equality of treatment for ethnic minorities in the UK," she said.

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14 Aug 00 | UK Politics
Government 'gives comfort' to racists
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