Letwin pledges to send asylum-seekers 'far, far away'

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A Tory government would slam the door on all asylum-seekers, automatically deporting them to a foreign island "far, far away" for processing, the shadow Home Secretary Oliver Letwin said yesterday.

The scheme, which would give Britain the hardest stance on refugees in the Western world, provoked ridicule and anger after Mr Letwin admitted he did not have the "slightest idea" where the island would be. The Government denounced it as laughable and refugee groups said it would be illegal and inhumane.

He said the plan would save £1.4bn a year from the asylum budget, which could be used to recruit 40,000 extra police over eight years. He also proposed that American-style local sheriffs could be elected by communities.

He won applause at the Tory conference in Blackpool when he pledged a Tory government would sort out the "shambles of Labour's asylum and immigration system". He said: "We will replace the present asylum system with quotas for genuine refugees and the offshore processing of all claims to deter all but genuine claims for protection from persecution."

Mr Letwin said refugees would be dispatched to a "far off-shore processing centre". Asked on BBC Radio 4's The World at One where it might be, he admitted: "I haven't the slightest idea yet."

Mr Letwin, who said the hardline Australian approach to refugees had been a strong influence on the policy, said the Tory proposals would result in a "vast immediate reduction" in asylum claims, now 4,500 a month. To ensure Britain continued to take a reasonable proportion of asylum-seekers, he would set a quota of 20,000 to be accepted each year.

A spokesman for David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, said: "If he becomes prime minister, he would have to live in the real world. These proposals are muddled and laughable."

Margaret Lally, the deputy chief executive of the Refugee Council, said they doubted whether the Tory plans would be legal or workable. "The idea of exiling those already fleeing their countries is inhumane and ridiculous. Limiting the number entitled to asylum in the UK may result in denial of sanctuary to those who need it."

Mr Letwin made clear that using an island off the UK coast for asylum-seekers, as suggested by an independent Tory commission, was off the agenda. That means the Tories may consider British territories such as the Turks and Caicos Islands, the Cayman Islands or St Helena, in the mid-Atlantic.

The Tories also propose a National Police Bureau as an umbrella group, reporting to the Home Secretary, and covering the National Crime Squad and National Criminal Intelligence and liaising with MI5.