Letter: Howard panders to prejudice

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The Independent Online
Sir: In her article "Illegal immigration: where are the facts?" (19 July), Heather Mills is right to conclude that the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, is proposing headline-grabbing "solutions" for problems he is unable to prove exist. Unfortunately, this approach - in which filling the front pages of some newspapers with alarmist stories and dubious figures is more important then the facts - is wholly characteristic of Home Office policy-making on immigration and asylum issues, with unfortunate results for taxpayers.

The Home Office is currently spending as much as pounds 20m per year holding asylum-seekers and other would-be immigrants in detention centres and prisons while their cases are dealt with. Despite research by Amnesty International showing that many are wrongly and unnecessarily held, the number of detainees has more than doubled since 1993 - with an associated increase in costs. And yet ministers are unable to state what, if any, benefit has been achieved by this increased expenditure. Why? Because, according to officials, there has been no attempt to measure it. But this does not deter ministers from building more detention centres.

Similarly, the next stage of the Home Secretary's attempt to win votes by pandering to xenophobic fears and prejudices, a further erosion of the rights of asylum-seekers, will reportedly include a substantial extension of the scope of the truncated and supposedly accelerated procedure introduced for certain types of asylum cases in 1993. The ostensible aim of this "fast-track" procedure was to save time and money by screening out asylum cases that, in the view of the Home Office, do not merit full examination.

And yet our research demonstrates that this procedure simply doesn't work. Not only is it unduly prone to delay, but it is so unfair and impracticable that in the overwhelming majority of cases the Home Office is ultimately obliged to admit the applicant to the full procedure and start all over again. The planned extension of the scope of this "fast-track" procedure, therefore, can only result in even greater profligacy. But, again, such detail appears not to concern the Home Secretary.

Perhaps it is time that Mr Howard's cabinet colleagues asked him to provide some facts, rather than mere speculation.

Yours faithfully,

Richard Dunstan

Refugee Officer

Amnesty International

British Section

London, EC1

19 July