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Monday, April 11, 2005

The race card

That Michael Howard has played the race card so early and invoked the spectre of immigration is no surprise. At the moment the Tories are prepared to jump on any popularist bandwagon if it attracts votes and gets people talking about them. Their problem however is twofold. Firstly, that this policy is unworkable, because the imposition of a strict quota may well lead to Britain being in breach of international treaty obligations as it turns away genuine victims of oppression. Secondly, that Howard's own record as Home Secretary does not stand up to scrutiny.

Furthermore, the careful language that Howard is using to try and come across as reasonable is not being reflected out in the Country. The Conservative candidate for the Vale of Glamorgan was on Radio Wales this morning and must have asserted that immigration was out-of-control half a dozen times in a two minute interview. As the Guardian points out, this is far from the truth:

Mr Howard's third charge was Mr Blair's failure to get a grip on asylum and "pussyfoot around" on immigration. This completely ignores the coercive controls that Labour has introduced, cutting asylum applications by two-thirds since October 2002, with 1,000 cases a day being denied entry by 2003.

On the Tory leader's own record the Guardian is equally as damning:

His first innuendo was that "for too many years immigration has been a no-go area for political debate". He must know this is an absurd assertion. Last year's asylum and immigration bill was the fifth in a decade to be debated at length in parliament. Few areas of social policy have received more debate. He went on to speak about the "chaos" in the present systems. There are many ways in which they could be improved, but compared to the system when he was in charge as home secretary (1992-97), asylum is transformed. Average asylum applications now take two months to complete instead of 20 months. The tens of thousands of applicants left in limbo by Mr Howard in his period prompted the UN high commissioner for refugees to describe the UK system as the worst in Europe.

And what is the real picture with regards to immigration in Britain?

Just two days before Mr Howard spoke, the UNHCR's representative in Britain, Anne Dawson-Shepherd, spoke of her agency's concern over "the crisis rhetoric" being used in the UK election "often fuelled by thinly disguised xenophobia and political opportunism". She went on: "The number of people claiming asylum in the UK has dropped 61% over the last two years, back to levels not seen since the early 1990s." She wrote a personal letter to all parliamentary candidates asking them to "show political leadership and social responsibility by working towards reversing the atmosphere of intolerance that has been fostered towards refugees and asylum seekers." She spoke of their vulnerability and need of help and support. A civilised appeal, brutally ignored by Mr Howard yesterday.

The most wounding attack on Michael Howard however comes not from the other parties or even from newspapers of the left-leaning intelligentsia, but from a former Tory immigration minister. Charles Wardle stood before a Labour press conference and said that "it almost defies belief that Mr Howard is standing before people and presenting this as a policy proposal. It is the most half baked, incoherent package imaginable. It shows he is utterly unsuited for the for the position of prime minister." He told reporters that Mr Howard's policies are "uncosted, unworkable and likely to make immigration and asylum problems worse not better."
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