Right of Reply: Lord Bassam

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The Home Office minister replies to David Aaronovitch's accusation that in his remarks on the plight of asylum- seekers in Dover he was `excusing intolerance'

DAVID AARONOVITCH quotes me as saying that the situation on asylum- seekers is "intolerable". This has been taken to suggest that I find the presence of asylum-seekers in this country intolerable. This is not the case. The word "intolerable" has been used out of context. What I in fact said was: "We've got officials working in the source countries to ensure we don't end up with the problem we've been confronted with over the last few months, which we accept is intolerable".

What is intolerable is the current situation, which we inherited, whereby councils in London and the South-east alone have to accommodate and support large numbers of asylum-seekers. We are working to change the law so that councils across the country share the responsibility for caring for asylum- seekers. The Immigration and Asylum Bill now working its way through Parliament will enable us to accommodate these people more rationally in cluster areas, so that no single council bears a disproportionate burden.

The effect of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 is to place the obligation for supporting asylum-seekers who make their claims in-country, on the local authority social services departments to whom they make claims for support. Since the overwhelming majority of asylum-seekers seek support in London and the South-east it is those councils that are heavily overburdened.

What is also intolerable is the way that some people have sought to exploit the situation to promote racial intolerance and hatred. This we cannot tolerate, nor will we.

Our Government's goal is actively to seek practical solutions to very real human problems, often involving tragic individual circumstances.