Leading article: Stop tub-thumping, Mr Straw, and start helping the refugees

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The Independent Culture
JACK STRAW is a courageous politician, but his behaviour over the past few days has verged on the foolish. He needs to get an urgent grip on his own illiberal and populist urges, which may be damaging the Government's reputation more than he appreciates. No doubt it was irritating to find his August break overshadowed by Ann Widdecombe's use of the silly season for some shameless self-promotion by exploiting the real but hardly insuperable difficulties over asylum and immigration. But that is no excuse for behaving in such a demagogic and knee-jerk fashion inappropriate to the holder of one of the great offices of state.

While Mr Straw's "emergency" powers to impose refugee quotas on local authorities may have made gratifying headlines, it is far from clear that they will do much to ease the problem which has led to the luridly publicised tensions in Dover. The need for some dispersal is not disputed, but Mr Straw would do far better to build on the willingness of local authorities to bear a voluntary share of their responsibility for accommodating asylum seekers. That goodwill, which Mr Straw is now in some danger of forfeiting, will be essential when his deeply-flawed Asylum and Immigration Bill finally takes effect next April.

Partly this is a matter of style. Mr Straw is undoubtedly right that Miss Widdecombe's own party, while in office, bequeathed him an administrative shambles - especially by leaving the applications of 30,000 asylum seekers who had applied before 1995 on the shelf while officials processed claims from later arrivals. Nor is it wrong to point out that those who are purely economic migrants should not be clogging the queues of those deserving genuine asylum. But that is no excuse for descending to her low level by reducing the whole debate to a party political dog-fight to occupy the same reactionary, authoritarian and faintly xenophobic territory. This can only serve to increase the difficulties of integrating refugees.

But partly it is a matter of substance. As Nick Hardwick of the Refugee Council said yesterday, the real way of coping with pressure points caused by asylum seekers is to devote all the immigration service's resources to the task of processing applications much more speedily. Nothing is more likely to deter bogus asylum seekers than the knowledge that their applications will be processed quickly, rather than being delayed long enough for the applicants to maximise their chances of permanent, if illegal, residence. Mr Straw was at least right to point out on Monday that Britain is taking fewer refugees per head of population than 10 other European states. But he is doing little to ensure that we move up this particular league table. He must do a great deal more to generate calm and allow a complex global problem to be discussed rationally.

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