Hague is stirring up race issue, says Blair

Click to follow
Indy Politics

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."