Howard 'toeing EU line' by combating asylum seekers

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Home Affairs Correspondent

Michael Howard was last night embroiled in a fresh controversy over his plans to clamp down on asylum seekers after documents revealed that the Euro-sceptic Home Secretary had already secretly agreed them with other European ministers.

News that Mr Howard is actually implementing a harmonised European immigration and asylum policy will greatly embarrass the Home Secretary, who only last month boasted to his party conference: "Our immigration policy will be decided here in Britain. And not in Brussels. We will never surrender control of our frontiers."

In fact, the two key proposals in the forthcoming Immigration and Asylum Bill to be included in next week's Queen's Speech were agreed behind closed doors in Europe - one as long ago as 1992. Documents seen by the Independent show that even the advice recently given to Conservative MPs on how to deal with any criticism of the policy was based on guidelines from the EU, issued by the president's office.

Although the resolutions are not legally binding on member states, governments are obliged to "strive to bring their national legislation into line by January 1996". That is exactly what Mr Howard is doing.

Last night, there was anger on Mr Howard's own back benches that the Government was "on the one hand professing to belong to a Europe of nation states, while on the other engaging in secret integration". Richard Shepherd, MP for Aldridge-Brownhills, said: "It is a scandal that issues as fundamental as immigration and asylum should be being decided in such an undemocratic and secret fashion".

Senior Home Office sources rejected claims that Mr Howard was merely adopting European policy. "These resolutions were agreed to on the basis they did not conflict with developing proposals for stemming the flow of illegal immigration into Britain," the source said. "The resolutions are not legally binding and the Government has successfully prevented immigration decision-making at a European level."

But Jack Straw, shadow Home Secretary, accused Mr Howard of "flying the Union Jack while following the European stars". "It is a nice irony that a Euro-sceptic Home Secretary is having his own asylum policy driven by a 'fortress Europe' group in Brussels.

"These revelations follow the British government's acquiescence to a common visa list which will impose visitors' visas on up to 30 Commonwealth countries for which they are not required at the moment".

The first of the two key proposals of the new Bill is the drawing up of a so called "white list" of countries, deemed to be "safe" and therefore unlikely to produce real refugees. It was, in fact, first adopted by EU home affairs ministers at a meeting in London in 1992.

The second - the abolition of full appeal rights to those refugees arriving via a safe third country, for example France - appears in an EU resolution, adopted by Mr Howard in Luxembourg in June, four months before his party conference speech.

In the face of widespread opposition from employers organisations and welfare groups, the Government is apparently rethinking its proposed third plank - to fine employers who hire illegal immigrants.

Richard Dunstan, refugee officer for Amnesty International, said: "Michael Howard appears to be trying to have his cake and eat it. On the one hand he played to the Euro-sceptic gallery at the Conservative party conference by pledging that EU policy will be determined here in Britain. But on the other hand he is set to introduce legislation that is derived entirely from EU documents drawn up by a secretive cabal of EU officials."

He said the process was producing common EU asylum policy based on the lowest common denominator. "It falls short of international standards, lacks essential safeguards and will therefore undermine the international community's system for protecting refugees."