FEW will dispute the need to improve rules and procedures on immigration. The slow and chaotic processing of applications deters legitimate applicants but encourages spurious applicants.

It is an issue which will figure prominently in the forthcoming General Election, and therefore Michael Howard and the Conservatives are perfectly entitled to raise it.

However, the manner in which they have raised the issue is open to question. While we welcome Mr Howard's insistence that he is not "playing the race card", he risks encouraging extremists who are happy to do so.

There needs to be some perspective. Mr Howard must tread carefully to avoid confirming widely-expressed exaggerations and prejudices that all asylum seekers are bogus and that all immigrants are illegal.

Mr Howard must not pander to people's irrational and unfounded fears that our country is being overrun by immigrants.

Yes, there are abuses of the present system. But the fundamental human rights protection traditionally granted by our country must be preserved.

There is still a place in our country for the principle of affording shelter to those fleeing tyranny.

The notion of an annual quota system flies in the face of Britain's international obligations, of which we have been fiercely proud for decades.

Britain must surely avoid the situation where asylum and refugee applications are rejected simply because they were made at the wrong time of the year.

Mr Howard needs to be reminded that, under his own proposals, his family may not have been allowed to settle in Britain when they faced persecution in their own country.