A welcome change of heart from Mr Straw

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The Independent Online

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, has depressingly often seemed ready to pander to his (and his opponents') worst instincts. He has allowed Tory xenophobes to set the agenda. Refugees have, by default, come to be perceived as a problem, not the potential asset that a more courageous politician would acknowledge them to be.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, has depressingly often seemed ready to pander to his (and his opponents') worst instincts. He has allowed Tory xenophobes to set the agenda. Refugees have, by default, come to be perceived as a problem, not the potential asset that a more courageous politician would acknowledge them to be.

Ann Widdecombe, his opposite number on the Conservative benches, has made it horrifically clear that her party is ready to use asylum and immigration as election issues, exploiting and inflaming popular fears. That is depressing enough. But it is still more depressing that Mr Straw has seemed ready to play by the same rules.

All the more reason, then, to welcome the latest proposals for better integration of refugees, of which The Independent reveals the details today. It is not the first piece of good news in recent months. Home Office minister Barbara Roche spoke of relaxing immigration controls, and of the benefits that economic migrants can bring. Now, Mr Straw and his colleagues are seeking to make life (a little) easier for those who are permitted to stay.

The process of dispersing refugees across Britain that began earlier this year was well-intentioned: the concentration of new arrivals in small areas, combined with inflammatory statements by politicians and media, had aggravated the problems of racism. In practice, however, the dispersal has been riddled with problems, not least because of the Government's failure to foot the bills incurred by local authorities.

Above all, it makes no sense for refugees to be allowed to stay, only to find themselves isolated by language difficulties and lack of educational opportunities. The need for social back-up will be addressed. That can pay dividends for refugees and, by extension, for British society as a whole.

As a recent Reader's Digest survey vividly demonstrated, popular (mis)perceptions remain a key element in racist attitudes. Thus, two thirds of Britons think there are "too many" immigrants, and "too much" is done to help them: but they wildly overestimate the numbers (on average, the public estimates the figure to be 20 per cent, four times the real number), and believe that refugees receive three times as much financial support as they really do.

The Government declaration that those who stay here should be "full and equal citizens" sounds self-evident. But it is a crucial point, if refugees are no longer to be perceived as a burden. If these latest proposals can do anything to make integration easier, they will play a valuable role.

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