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Stephen Byers: Exploding the myths about asylum

From a speech on immigration and asylum policy, given by the former Labour minister to the Social Market Foundation

For the Labour Party, asylum and immigration policy is never going to be easy. On the one hand, we have the left's traditional support for those escaping persecution. A desire to see the end to discrimination and a wish to see people treated fairly and with dignity.

On the other, it is clearly the case that many of Labour's traditional supporters are those who fear immigration most. They are concerned that their schools and health services are under increased pressure; that their national identity is under threat, and that they have to pay for people who are exploiting the system.

We mustn't fall into the trap of saying these are worries which have been created by the right and if ignored will go away. That was the mistake made by a number of parties on the left elsewhere in Europe, who went on to pay a heavy price at the ballot box.

This does not mean giving in to right-wing populism. What it does mean is addressing the concerns people have. It will entail tackling and exploding the myths about asylum and immigration, and ensuring we have a system which is clearly fair.

There will be some who would rather avoid this issue. Within the Labour Party it would be the soft and easy option to say this is not a priority and that by raising it we are playing into the hands of the racists and the right wing.

But we cannot pretend there isn't an issue, when for many there clearly is. To deny the concerns of people would give the appearance of being out of touch or of simply not caring. To show we are aware of the worries people have, we need to say exactly what we want from our immigration policy and then construct a programme that will deliver and robustly enforce it.

The challenge is to combine humanitarian purposes with the economic and quality of life benefits that can come from immigration to those who presently live in the UK as well as those who wish to come here.