Howard seeks 'substantial cut' in numbers coming to UK but denies playing race card

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Michael Howard denied playing the race card yesterday as he outlined Tory plans for a "substantial reduction" in the number of immigrants coming into Britain - currently about 150,000 a year.

Michael Howard denied playing the race card yesterday as he outlined Tory plans for a "substantial reduction" in the number of immigrants coming into Britain - currently about 150,000 a year.

Mr Howard, whose grandmother died in a Nazi concentration camp and who is the son of Romanian refugees, faced questions about whether his own family would have been allowed to enter Britain under the policy he put at the heart of his party's general election campaign.

He insisted his planned quota of asylum-seekers could allow in more than the 8,000 refugees who entered last year because the Tories would approve only genuine applications. Although he put no figure on the proposed annual limit on immigration, it is expected to include a quota of between 8,000 and 20,000 asylum-seekers.

Mr Howard dismissed as "a disgraceful allegation" the suggestion he was playing the race card. "This is not to do with race," he said. "This is about having an honest and open debate. Since Tony Blair came to office, immigration has doubled without any debate, consultation or discussion."

He said: "We will offer sanctuary to more genuine refugees than obtain sanctuary in this country today. My family and others who have faced persecution would have a better chance of coming into our country under our proposals than at present."

In a speech in London, Mr Howard said applications for asylum would not be processed in this country but claimants would be held in centres abroad. He argued that handling claims in Britain fuelled the illegal and inhumane trade in people smuggling. There would be an Australian-style points system of work permits to give priority to the skills Britain needed.

A Tory government would pull out of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, which would allow the Home Secretary to order the immediate removal of people making "unfounded" claims. The Tories would "enter reservations" about the parts of the European Convention on Human Rights that would stop them implementing their policy. The party also pledged to install "24-hour security" at ports and to tighten the immigration rules to stop "sham marriages."

Mr Howard conceded that Britain had benefited enormously from immigration but said five million immigrants were expected to enter the country in the next 30 years - the equivalent of five times the population of Birmingham. He said: "Firm but fair immigration controls are essential for good community relations, national security and the effective management of public services."

The Tory announcement provoked a flurry of criticism and a blunt warning from the European Commission that the policy could be illegal under EU law. A spokesman for Franco Frattini, the commissioner responsible for immigration, said giving the Home Secretary the discretion not to hear cases would contravene EU rules and could lead to the British Government being taken to the European Court of Justice.

Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, said the Tory policy gave "space to people who will be saying 'nudge, nudge, wink, wink, we know what Michael Howard is saying'". He added: "This isn't about other Europeans. It is about keeping out people who are of a different colour or different culture."

Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil rights group Liberty, called the Tory proposals "obscene". She said: "Quotas are for cod fishing, not humanitarian protection."

Habib Rahman, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said: "The political parties continue to focus on abuse of the asylum system at the expense of stressing the human rights protection it affords. We believe that such a focus helps to create an unwarranted fear of immigration in the UK."

Steve Richards, page 31