Morris galvanises unions to oppose voucher system

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Indy Politics

Bill Morris renewed his attack on the Government's race policies yesterday as leading black and Asian activists praised his decision to speak out on asylum and immigration.

Mr Morris won a standing ovation at the TUC's black workers conference as he called for a campaign to oppose Home Office plans to give refugees vouchers instead of cash for food and clothing.

The union leader's stance was welcomed by Labour MPs and council leaders, the Refugee Council, the Liberal Democrats and black rights groups across the country.

More than 400 delegates at the conference in Southport cheered Mr Morris, the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, as he made an impassioned speech explaining why he believed Jack Straw's policies had "given life to the racists".

The conference voted unanimously for the Government to scrap the voucher scheme and launch an appeal for toys for the children of refugees. Every single TUC affiliated branch is now set to be mobilised in what could be one of the movement's biggest confrontations with the party it funds.

Mr Morris called for the Government to meet its international obligations to respect human rights and stepped up his criticism of the "degrading and inhuman" voucher system. It brings you into sharp contrast with others. You stand in a supermarket queue, while others have money, you have a voucher. It is grotesque. Worse, the Government will subsidise Tesco's and Sainsbury's. That's not the redistribution I voted for," he said.

"Don't think that vouchers will not apply to you. This could be an experiment for the use of vouchers for the unemployed and those on state benefits, who may also get them. We are one step away from that.

"Let's have the toughest and biggest campaign this movement can put together to tell this Government the voucher system must go. The voucher scheme must be scrapped, lock, stock and barrel. That's the only answer."

The Society of Black Lawyers and the 1990 Trust, an equal rights group, joined the fight by accusing the main political parties of creating "a climate of racism and xenophobia" by their approach to the asylum issue.

The use of "emotive and sensationalist language" about asylum seekers would inevitably lead to an increase in racial violence and intolerance, the organisations said.

Economic migration was an inevitable consequence of the West's failure to deal with Third World debt, they said. "Western governments cannot maintain the First World economy at the expense of perpetuating Third World poverty and then complain about the consequences of their own greed."

Paul Daisley, the Labour leader of Brent Council, a London borough with one of the highest ethnic populations in the UK, welcomed Mr Morris's remarks. "One always has to be extremely careful with one's language," he said. "If one gets the language wrong and the mood wrong - and probably Bill's making this point - then what's an interesting remark over dinner becomes a violent event on the street.

"As a local authority which has to deal with a number of different peoples who came to the UK over many years, we are well placed to ensure language that is used to promote harmony in a borough where 50 per cent of the population is black or Asian."

Nick Hardwick, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said that the Government's plans to disperse refugees across the country would leave many people isolated in all-white communities. "What it will do is encourage racism because it stigmatises people. It does make them much more vulnerable to racism," he said.

Diane Abbott, the Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, said that she had told Tony Blair in a private meeting this week that she had complained about the direction and tone of Government policy.

"Bill speaks for a lot of us, and the things Bill is talking about have been raised with ministers and the Prime Minister in private and in public for quite some time," she told Radio 4's Today programme. "I told the Prime Minister in a private meeting this week that, as a child of economic migrants, I took personal exception to ministers constantly talking about bogus asylum-seekers and economic migrants as if they are some sort of parasite.

"Where the interests of good race relations clashes with the prejudices of middle England, middle England wins every time. New Labour takes the attitude to black people that it takes to our heartlands, that we've got nowhere else to go."

Bob Purkiss, the chairman the TUC's Race Committee, pointed out that just 52 out of the 3,000 senior civil servants in Whitehall were from black or Asian backgrounds. "The problem is that the whole country seems to have been whipped up into this. The Home Office needs to reflect on the finding that it is institutionally racist. It's not just a question of saying it, it's a question of doing something about it," he said.