Howard's asylum clampdown presses on

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Dismissing allegations of playing the race card, Michael Howard yesterday pressed ahead with controversial plans to deal with bogus asylum seekers and illegal immigrants.

In the face of widespread opposition the Home Secretary maintained: "Genuine refugees will benefit from reduced abuse of the asylum system."

And in an indication that he had overcome Cabinet opposition, yesterday's proposals included plans for criminal sanctions against employers who hire illegal immigrants.

The proposals will mean about two million people a year will have to prove their identities with a passport or birth certificate before they can gain work. The estimated cost to the country's 1.2 million employers is about pounds 13.5m to set up a monitoring scheme and pounds 11.5m a year to run.

Mr Howard also confirmed plans to introduce a so-called "white list" of countries regarded as safe and which are therefore unlikely to produce genuine asylum seekers.

Amnesty and other refugee organisations expect the list to include countries such as Albania, Bulgaria, the Ivory Coast, Poland, and Zimbabwe. But because there are so few applications from these countries, they expect the Government to soon add more countries where there is concern over human rights. These may include India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Zaire and Angola, some of which appear on other European Union countries' "white lists".

Mr Howard reassured MPs in a Commons statement yesterday, however, that Nigeria "is not and never has been" amongst the white list countries.

Questioned by Sir Trevor Skeet, Tory MP for Bedfordshire North and an officer of the British-Nigerian all-party group of MPs, over fears that genuine cases of asylum seekers would be affected, Mr Howard replied: "I have borne in mind ... the importance of doing nothing to imperil this country's honourable tradition of offering sanctuary to genuine refugees - that we should be a haven, not a honeypot."

Labour has said it plans to table a motion calling for the Bill to be studied by a special standing committee, forcing a vote after its second reading.

Jim Lester, Tory MP for Broxtowe and chairman of the Africa committee on the Refugee Council, demandedsome way of taking evidence to show "what we are seeking to do is fair, effective, and fulfils our international obligations?"

There were signs, however, that a wider Tory rebellion might be crumbling, as Conservative MPs complained that Jack Straw, Mr Howard's Labour shadow, had refused to accept that abuse of the asylum procedure was a problem.

Mr Straw said Labour accepted fraudulent asylum seekers must be "weeded out" but demanded "cool examination" by a special committee to take controversy out of the issue.

The Home Secretary maintains he has been forced to act because of a huge increase in the numbers of people claiming asylum, up from about 4,000 a year in the 1980s to about 40,000 this year. Mr Howard said that only 4 per cent of those are initially granted asylum and only 4 per cent of appeals aresuccessful. The outstanding number of asylum applicants is 75,000. "The scale of the problem is alarming," he said.

Refugee groups like Amnesty accept there are many false claims but say the figures are no where near as high as the Home Office suggests. It blames the Home Office for the backlog in processing cases and accuses it of failure to remove asylum seekers found to be bogus.