Howard's asylum quotas attacked

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Michael Howard came under fire yesterday for publishing a personal statement placing immigration at the centre of the next general election.

Michael Howard came under fire yesterday for publishing a personal statement placing immigration at the centre of the next general election.

The Conservative leader was accused of basing his policy on "ill-informed propaganda" as he used a signed full-page newspaper advertisement to promote the party's proposals for annual quotas on refugees, migrant workers and family reunions.

Mr Howard will reinforce his message with a speech today promising 24-hour border patrols and pledging to renegotiate the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees.

Mr Howard's full-page advertisement in the Sunday Telegraph, warned: "There are literally millions of people in other countries who want to come and live here. Britain cannot take them all."

Mr Howard, whose father fled to south Wales from Romania in 1939, added: "Britain has reached a turning point. Our communities cannot absorb newcomers at today's pace."

His move was attacked as "desperation" by the Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, while immigration groups said his intervention was "dangerous and irresponsible". Mr Kennedy said: "I think that it's another indication really of the desperation within the Conservative Party as the general election looms large.

"They're not making progress and they are increasingly falling back on hardcore policies, perhaps in this case with a view to those who may have flirted with the United Kingdom Independence Party in days gone by. But this, at the end of the day, will not really address mainstream concerns of the moderate majority that make up the British public."

Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, criticised Mr Howard's "negative" campaign. He said: "It appears that Mr Howard has, against his better instincts and for purely political reasons, surrendered to the provisional wing of his party to base this campaign, not on measured and rational debate but on the ill-informed propaganda of some of the more demented anti-immigration groups.

Maeve Sherlock, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: "Having a quota for asylum applicants will mean turning our backs on people we know to be facing torture and oppression."

But Labour was more muted in its response, with ministers pledging to publish their own proposals for strengthening border controls within weeks.

Hazel Blears, a Home Office minister, said Labour accepted there were "legitimate concerns" over asylum and immigration. "Everybody agrees with controlled migration. That requires investment in both effective border controls and immigration systems, but last week the James review committed the Tories to cutting both," she said.

Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, told ITV's Dimbleby programme: "I think everybody accepts that the whole question of immigration and asylum is difficult, it shouldn't be treated like a party political football. If people have got sensible ideas then we ought to look at them, we ought to see what we can do to handle what is a difficult situation."

Conservatives insisted they were not "playing the race card" and argued that they were simply responding to public concerns. Mr Howard said: "Some people say this is racist. It's not. It's common sense."

In his speech today Mr Howard will outline details of the party's immigration plans, which include setting up an Australian-style points system for economic immigrants and negotiating to end asylum applications at Britain's borders.

Mr Howard wants to agree to take a fixed number of refugees from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, in effect exporting the process of asylum applications.