Straw takes emergency powers over refugees

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The Independent Online
JACK STRAW, the Home Secretary, announced emergency measures last night that will give him the power to force local authorities to accept fixed quotas of asylum-seekers.

The controversial measures will allow Mr Straw to inform every local authority in England and Wales of the number of asylum-seekers which it may be required to accommodate.

The announcement prompted the Local Government Association (LGA) to warn the Home Office that proposals to base the quotas on the population of each local authority would be "fraught with difficulties".

The LGA said the emergency powers were unnecessary because councils were already co-operating with a voluntary system to house asylum-seekers around the country.

The announcement comes amid a deepening row over the system for processing the rising numbers of asylum-seekers.

The Home Secretary held emergency talks yesterday with immigration officials who predicted that the system was on the point of collapse, with a record 68,000 asylum applications expected this year.

Mr Straw clashed with Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary, who accused him of failing to accept responsibility for a situation which had worsened since Labour took office.

The emergency powers are designed to relieve the pressure on local authorities in London and those close to the Channel ports by establishing thresholds on the numbers of asylum-seekers they can be expected to take.

Tensions have been rising in several Kent towns. Earlier this month, residents and refugees were involved in clashes in Dover which left 15 people injured, 11 with knife wounds.

Sir Jeremy Beecham, the chairman of the LGA, wrote to all 400 councils in England and Wales last week asking them to help to find places for some of the 5,500 asylum-seekers based on the Kent coast.

Last night Mike Boyle, who is supervising the LGA programme, said councils had already offered accommodation for 1,000 asylum-seekers. He said the LGA supported the idea of dispersal but was concerned by plans in a draft Home Office paper to base the new asylum-seeker thresholds assigned to each council on the size of the local population.

"If you happen to be a London authority which has already met its threshold, what do you do with the next asylum-seeker who knocks on the door? Do you send him to the nearest authority which has not reached its threshold, or to any authority which has not reached its threshold?" asked Mr Boyle.

He said that some councils - particularly those in monocultural areas - would never reach their population-based quotas and "nor would it be appropriate for them to do so".

The Government should concentrate on establishing a more sophisticated system of "clustering" asylum-seekers, encouraging them to build contacts with local communities so that they did not simply head back to London as soon as they were granted asylum, he said.

The emergency measures will come into place in November, after a consultation period, and will remain until next April, when arrangements for dispersing asylum-seekers outlined in the Immigration and Asylum Bill will come into effect. Provision for the implementation of such emergency powers was included in the Bill but yesterday's announcement came as Mr Straw was under great pressure from the Opposition over claims that Britain was a "soft touch" for asylum-seekers.

Mr Straw yesterday admitted the immigration system was facing "very serious pressures" but insisted he was only trying to sort out the "shambles" left over from the Conservatives' time in power.

He said 600 extra staff were being recruited and an extra pounds 120m was being ploughed into the service over three years.

But the Immigration Service Union claimed yesterday that the service's headquarters in Croydon had "effectively collapsed" and that the number of cases being dealt with had fallen from 3,000 a month to 800 a month.

The Refugee Council warned last night that the political row over immigration risked inflaming tensions still further. Rachel Rees, a spokeswoman for the council, said: "What is deeply worrying is first, the daily knee-jerk reactions by the Government which vilify asylum-seekers; and second, that politicians continue to pour petrol on the debate when their responsibility is to take the heat out of it."

Straw defends gypsy comments, page 4

Leading article, Review, page 3