Inside Parliament: Home Office unmoved by hunger strikers: Most asylum seekers have no fear of persecution, Wardle insists - London Tory demands action against senders of racial hate mail

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Indy Politics
A Home Office minister insisted yesterday that he would not be 'blackmailed' by asylum seekers going on hunger strike. With the protest that has beset detention centres appearing to crumble, the Under-Secretary of State, Charles Wardle, told MPs that anyone who thought refusing food would lead to their release was sadly mistaken.

'No one will alter the merits of their case by refusing meals. We cannot stop people from abusing their health in this fashion. But it will do no good whatsoever.'

Mr Wardle was replying to one of a series of short debates initiated by backbenchers before Parliament broke for the Easter recess. Along with the problem of asylum seekers, MPs also raised the fear among refugees from past decades of a resurgence of anti-semitism.

John Marshall, Conservative MP for Hendon South, spoke of a 'flood of hate mail' in north London. 'Many of my constituents were refugees from the Nazis. They fought for Britain in the last war and they see in the evening of their lives a chilling echo of the 1930s.'

Cemeteries had been daubed with anti-semitic slogans and Nazi emblems, and synagogues and schools had to have security staff to guard against thugs.

'It is surely a poison that in the last years of the 20th century places of worship should need to be protected?'

Mr Marshall's call for prosecutions was reinforced by Sir Ivan Lawrence, Tory chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, which is about to publish a report recommending tougher powers for the courts to deal with hate mail.

Sir Ivan said these points were among amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill to be debated after the recess. 'It is time for a positive effort to be made by the Commons to lessen the fear of racism amongst our ethnic minorities from whatever colour or creed.' Peter Lloyd, Minister of State at the Home Office, repeated objections to a specific offence of racial harassment or violence but said attention was being given to police powers to investigate anti-semitic literature. The problem was identifying the culprits.

Less than 5 per cent of today's asylum seekers meet the 1953 Geneva Convention criteria of having 'a well-founded fear of persecution', according to Mr Wardle. There are some 47,000 would-be refugees in Britain, of whom 645 are in detention, most having had their applications to stay rejected.

The number on hunger strike has fallen sharply, partly as a result of separating detainees, so breaking their collective resolve. The constant availability of food must also have been a temptation. The protest began on 11 March at Camps field House, near Oxford, and at its height involved 135 of the 200 inmates. But by yesterday morning only three were not eating at Campsfield and 25 elsewhere. Challenged by Diane Abbott, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, on whether he was willing 'to allow people to starve to death', the Home Office minister said: 'I will not be subjected to any blackmail by anyone who says 'I will put you under threat by endangering my own health'.'

Opening the debate, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North, said it was 'a scandal of the greatest proportion' that people seeking asylum should be imprisoned. 'We don't want to see any more hunger strikes or anyone else dying as a result of trying to escape oppression in other parts of the world.'

Another persistent campaigner, Max Madden, Labour MP for Bradford West, who visited Campsfield House last Tuesday, said it was 'quite disgraceful' that of the 180 detainees, 55 had been held for between three and 12 months.

Mr Wardle insisted that detention was not used 'at every whim' and the Government continued to honour its obligations to genuine refugees under the Geneva convention. But he said its ability to handle the hunger strike in a measured way had not been helped by the 'hysterical and at times aggressive behaviour of the rent-a-mob crowd' who frequently gathered outside Campsfield House.

'It has been a motley crowd of the Oxford Trades Union Council, the Socialist Workers Party, the Revolutionary Communist Party and others of that ilk, including, last Saturday, Mr Corbyn.'

MPs could hardly have gone on holiday without another dig at the Brussels Eurocrats. Kate Hoey, Labour MP for Vauxhall, obliged with a claim that the drive for harmonisation across the European Union was behind a proposal to move Britain's clocks on another hour and keep in step with Central European Time.

Appropriately loyal support was offered by Nick Raynsford, MP for Greenwich and its meridian, who pointed to geographical reality. 'We are not in the same longitude as the rest of Europe. We are on the western extremity and Greenwich Mean Time reflects that.'

With the Home Office responsible for time itself as well as 'doing time', it fell to Mr Lloyd to answer. He consoled MPs with the fact that whatever was decided, the use of Greenwich Mean Time for calculating world time zones was 'immutable'.

After setting the fears of farmers and postmen against the claim of the Road Research Laboratory that 140 lives a year could be saved by an extra hour of light in the evening, Mr Lloyd said the uncertainty needed to be ended. But it was a decision for the Commons. 'There is no pressure upon us from the community.' After the drama of the week it seemed scarcely believable.