Sensible debate is not racism

Political Editor Graham Dines details the Conservative agenda on immigration and asylum, immediately dubbed by critics as "racist."EVERY year, the number of immigrants settling in Britain is equivalent to the population of Peterborough.

Political Editor Graham Dines details the Conservative agenda on immigration and asylum, immediately dubbed by critics as "racist."

EVERY year, the number of immigrants settling in Britain is equivalent to the population of Peterborough. Yesterday, Conservative leader Michael Howard - himself the son of a Jewish Romanian refugee from the Nazis - said it couldn't continue.

It's a sentiment which opinion polls indicate is supported by the majority of British people, which explains the muted response from senior Labour politicians.

But for his pains, Mr Howard was immediately accused of playing the race card for immigrant organisation, asylum seekers, and in the race relations industry.


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Immigration and asylum are difficult subjects for politicians to tackle. It's like walking on glass.

The essence of Michael Howard's pre-election policy launch yesterday was that Britain cannot successfully absorb many more Peterboroughs.

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He set out proposals to set an annual limit on immigration, with Australian-style work permits giving priority to those with skills the country needs, including a quota for asylum seekers with the UK continuing to "take our fair share of the world's refugees".

The Conservatives will go into the election campaign arguing that the scale of economic migration into Britain has become a problem that has to be tackled.

"There are literally millions of people in other countries who would like to come and live here. Britain cannot take them all.

Stressing that immigrants have contributed significantly to the economy and culture of Britain, he cautioned: "Any system of immigration must be properly controlled and limited.

"Tony Blair has presided over an unprecedented rise in immigration. Nearly 160,000 people now settle in Britain each year, equivalent to a city the size of Peterborough.

"Most people would agree that Britain has reached a turning point. They know that our communities cannot successfully absorb newcomers at today's pace.

"We need to change direction. We need a government that stops talking about this issue and acts.

"It's not racist, as some people claim, to talk about controlling immigration - far from it. It is plain common sense."

Mr Howard, who was in charge of immigration and asylum policy as a Tory Home Secretary in the 1990s and therefore, presumably, knows some of the problems, insisted the majority of people who claim asylum were not genuine refugees.

"They are simply using the asylum system as a means of getting round Britain's immigration controls. The system is inhumane. Genuine refugees can only claim asylum once they have made it to Britain."

David Davis, Shadow Home Secretary, said later that a Tory government would pull the UK out of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, which he described as an outdated "product of the Cold War''.

He argued that the Convention prevents a British government from taking immediate action to deport asylum seekers whose claims are unfounded.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil rights group Liberty, hit back: "Quotas are for cod fishing, not humanitarian protection. The Refugee Convention is one of the proudest legacies of World War Two - it is a little obscene to denigrate it as we approach Holocaust Memorial Day."

To Trevor Phillips, the Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality and a Labour Party activist in London, the Tory plans raised concerns that it is "about keeping out people who are of a different colour or different culture."

Although he did not believe the Tory leader's proposals were made "on the basis of race," the debate mustn't be orchestrated "in a way that allows people who want to turn this in to a race issue to do so."

Despite this criticism, surely there is a sensible, calm and grown-up debate to be had in this country by mainstream politicians on immigration and asylum.

While the vast majority of voters will not give house room to right-wing extremists who stoke up race hatred, the way forward is not helped either by the liberal left accusing those who dare question the Government's policy and its perceived failings of "racism."

REACTION FROM THE OTHER PARTIES:

Tony Blair: "Every wealthy country around the world faces the same problem. More people are coming in and out of the country for perfectly legitimate reasons, to work, to study and visit. I think there are abuses of the system, but the important thing is to deal with them sensibly.

"And the real problem with the Conservatives' proposals is that they are simply unworkable and if they end up cutting front-line immigration staff, that would actually make the problem worse."

Mark Oaten (Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman): "Unlike Labour and the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats will defend the principle of asylum. Immigration levels should be set according to our economic needs, not according to the latest newspaper headlines."

Roger Knapman (UKIP leader): "Conservatives voted in favour of expansion of the EU, which has given another 70 million people the right to live, work and claim benefits here. They want to add to that by accepting Turkey, which would grant the same rights to a further 80 million."

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