Tony Blair accused William Hague of "stirring up" public concern over immigration last night after he called for all new asylum-seekers to be detained at reception centres until their cases had been resolved.
The Tory leader raised the stakes in the debate over asylum-seekers when he claimed the Government had "failed to get a grip" on the problem and that people from ethnic minorities were among the strongest advocates of firm action against abuse of the system.
Mr Hague insisted most applications for asylum were "bogus", a term ministers have stopped using after last week's criticism by Bill Morris, leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union. The Leader of the Opposition said the long-standing hospitality and generosity of the British people was being "systematically abused" by criminals who were trafficking in human beings.
Mr Hague said detaining new applicants would be a deterrent against bogus claims and prevent people "disappearing" into the community while cases were being decided. He said it would save taxpayers £600m a year, and pledged to set up a "removals agency" to make sure people ordered to leave Britain did so immediately.
The Tory leader's proposals, made to the Social Market Foundation think-tank last night,were trailed in advance in three newspapers which support a hardline stance on asylum; the The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and The Sun.
But Labour accused Mr Hague of recycling old policies in the run-up to May's local authority elections. On 30 March, The Independent revealed that "all asylum-seekers would be kept in custody until their cases are resolved under a hardline Conservative policy".
Downing Street said 18 new detention centres costing £2bn would be needed and called Mr Hague's speech "an opportunistic and cynical way of exploiting what everyone accepts is a difficult issue". Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, who plans greater use of detention for some applicants, said: "William Hague's speech is further confirmation that the Conservatives are more interested in exploiting the asylum issue than they are in dealing with it. It is a cruel deception from a deeply cynical party."
Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, warned that detaining applicants would break Britain's obligations under international law. He said: "The speech is designed to exploit this issue during an election campaign. It is not realistic policy, but irresponsible party politics."
Mr Hague said the Government had made Britain a "soft touch". He said: "The chaotic system is ineffective and unfair. The people losing the most are genuine refugees who are forced to wait for months and years in a queue along with thousands of bogus claimants."Reuse content