Straw wavers on quota size

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JACK STRAW yesterday accused the previous Tory government of orchestrating a "secret amnesty" for would-be refugees as he backtracked on plans to assign every local authority a fixed quota of asylum seekers. The Home Secretary said he would demand an explanation from his Tory shadow Ann Widdecombe about why 37,000 asylum seekers were given exceptional leave to remain in the early 1990s.

Mr Straw said: "I shall be writing to Ann Widdecombe asking her to confirm this and to say what criteria, if any, were applied." The Home Secretary, trying to deflect Opposition criticism that he was responsible for allowing Britain to be a "soft touch" for asylum seekers, said Miss Widdecombe was not responsible for the policy change at the time, but she "must have become aware of it" when she took office later.

But he was yesterday obliged to play down fears that local authorities could be forced - under emergency powers published on Monday - to house set quotas of asylum-seekers based on population size. He could not say whether the ratio was one in 500 local residents or one in 200, a figure later confirmed as being proposed.

Mr Straw insisted the figure was only a guideline "maximum". He said "other pressures", which were "palpably" in evidence in Kent, would always be taken into account.

The Local Government Association said: "We are pleased Jack Straw has decided to scrap the idea of population-based quotas, as the voluntary system councils have put in place already to accept asylum seekers will be sufficient."

Leading article; David Aaronovitvch, Review, page 3