Major faces fight with Cabinet over Asylum Bill

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The Independent Online
COLIN BROWN and

DONALD MACINTYRE

The Prime Minister is expected to face Cabinet resistance to any move to defuse the fierce party controversy over the Asylum and Immigration Bill by referring it to the special standing committee sought by Tony Blair.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, is thought to be unimpressed by the case for reducing conflict over the Bill - which other ministers have freely said in private will help to put Labour on the defensive in the run-up to the election.

While Mr Howard is strongly convinced that the Bill is vital in the light of projections for an alarming future growth in bogus asylum seekers, ministers also believe Labour will suffer electoral damage if it opposes it in the Commons.

Mr Major said in his interview with the Independent yesterday that if Mr Blair had been serious about the proposal he should have suggested it privately before floating it during heated exchanges in the Commons on Wednesday. Both Mr Major and Mr Blair accused each other's party of playing the "race card".

But Mr Major also said he was considering "very carefully indeed" the proposal which would mean the Bill being referred to a special standing committee which could call expert witnesses - and in Mr Blair's words on Wednesday reach a "consensual view"

Government opponents of the proposal argue that such a procedure has no precedent since it is normally only applied to non-contentious legislation.

Mr Major said yesterday: "I am very concerned to make sure this does not become related to race. It is not concerned with race. There is no doubt there has been abuse of asylum. What I do not want is to give anyone the opportunity to turn a proper and necessary debate about asylum into a debate about race. I am considering how best to avoid that."

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