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Leading article: Certainly firm, but this punitive asylum policy is far from fair

YESTERDAY'S PLANS for asylum and immigration were an unwelcome reminder of New Labour's authoritarian tendencies. Thousands of asylum- seekers are to be given leave to remain, but the good news ends there. Payments in kind, rather than cash benefits, are to be introduced, the application procedure is to be speeded up, and those who carry illegal immigrants into Britain are to face heavier punishments. At the heart of the proposed Bill is a fundamental illusion - that Britain can pull up some imaginary drawbridge, and behave as if the world has gone away.

The Government's ideas are being presented to Middle England as "getting tough" with unwelcome gatecrashers, who are flocking to Britain to take advantage of welfare hand-outs. This is simply not true. Those found not to be genuine asylum-seekers had their right to cash help cut off by the Conservatives. Moreover, asylum-seekers often find themselves housed in the dirtiest and most crowded parts of London's bed-and-breakfast underworld, as local authorities struggle to cope with their sheer numbers. This is no over-generous gravy train.

Britain is not a "soft touch". Does anyone really believe that Michael Howard and his fellow Tory grandstanders would have left any loophole unplugged, if they could have gained voter approval with another raft of restrictive measures at Conservative Party Conference? Other nations have taken far more than their fair share of refugees, especially from the former Yugoslavia; Germany and the Scandinavian nations have a particularly honourable record. Britain is still struggling to catch up.

There is a problem with asylum. The previous administration left the Immigration Service badly organised, poorly funded and demoralised. The ensuing backlog of 52,000 cases has been exacerbated because of the worsening situation in many parts of eastern Europe in particular. The most recent case has been Kosovars seeking asylum from Serb aggression; other groups pleading persecution have included Romanian and Czech Gypsies. In this situation, accelerating the asylum process by cutting down the number of appeals is probably justified; but stopping welfare payments even to perfectly legal asylum applicants will do nothing to reduce the numbers of those wanting to enter the country.

The numbers seeking asylum in Britain may be growing, but they are growing all over the world, boosted by widely available air travel. Even so, refugees are mostly taken in by neighbouring countries who are just as poor. The governments of Uganda, Burundi and Zaire, who took in millions of fleeing Rwandans, would probably not sympathise with a British plea that we are taking too many refugees.

There is also a problem with immigrants remaining in Britain after their application for asylum has been turned down; in 1997, 26,000 "disappeared" in this way. But, as the numbers wanting to come to Britain continue to mount, how will replacing cash benefits with food packages and payments in kind solve this problem? It is more likely to cause more such "disappearances". The Government seems to believe that it will save money with this Bill, but the more likely outcome is that it will have to spend more on immigration officers, and waste more police time hunting those who have already been refused entry.

This is why the Chief Executive of the Refugee Council, Nick Hardwick, is right when he calls the Bill a "mishmash" - firm but not fair or fast. Tinkering with the system will not make the real world go away. On the contrary, it could leave us back where the Tories left off: punishing those who cannot defend themselves, harming race relations in this country, playing to the lowest common denominator of public opinion, and refusing to spend the money that is needed to care properly for those who seek sanctuary within our borders.