Asylum benefit cuts inhumane

'Uncivilised' government withdrawal of welfare for refugees could lead to starvation, says Court of Appeal
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The Court of Appeal yesterday overturnedthe Government's withdrawal of welfare benefits from asylum seekers, condemning the move as"uncivilised" and "inhumane".

Lord Justice Simon Brownsaid that many refugees were being left so destitute that to his mind no civilised nation could tolerate it. The human rights issues at stake were so basic, he said, they harked back to a 200-year-old Poor Law court ruling that declared "poor foreigners" were entitled to state-relief "to save them from starving".

Claude Moraes, director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said: "We feel it was no exaggeration to say that the secretary of state, Peter Lilley, was attempting to starve asylum-seekers out of the country."This is the secondjudicial blow to Government policy in recent times. The first occurred when it tried to introduce a cheaper scheme to compensate victims of crime.

The court ruling that the denial of welfare to asylum-seekers made it "impossible" for refugees to live and pursue their claims in the UK, came days after a report revealed that hundreds in this country are now dependent upon food parcels, charity and emergency shelters. Many are sleeping on the streets. The report detailed the case of one Cameroon woman who had been relying upon food parcels from a refugee charity and who had lost her baby here in the eighth month of pregnancy..

The judgment, by a two to one majority, is a blow to Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Security, who now faces having to pay millions of pounds in back-benefits to 8,000 or so asylum-seekers refused housing, tax and income support.

The court ruled that Mr Lilley had overstepped his powers by introducing regulatory, rather than statutory, changes in February..

The ruling represents a setback to the Government's recent attempt to use a curtailed benefit system to deter a growing number of suspected bogus asylum-seekers from coming to the UK.

Refugee help groupsmaintain that the numbers of applications simply rises and falls in relation to changing conflicts around the world. But ministers have claimed that the recent drop - by nearly a half - in numbers seeking refugee status in the UK can be attributed to the denial of benefit.

Yesterday, despite the court ruling, Roger Evans, the social security minister said that the Government would press ahead with the benefit changes, designed to save pounds 200m. He maintained theywere necessaryto stop bogus claims for refugee status from economic migrants who simply wanted to take advantage of Britain's welfare state. More than 90 per cent of asylum applications were currently found to be false.

Ministers have two choices, now. They can appeal to the House of Lords or they can amend the Immigration and Asylum Bill now passing through Parliament to put the changes on a legal footing. But both courses have pitfalls.

Even if the Government wins withthe Law Lords, itmay well lose ultimately before human rights judges in Europe. And if it amends the current Bill, that could be seen to contradict 1993 asylum legislation.

But according to the Court of Appeal yesterday, any move to remove all state help, even through primary legislation, would amount to a "sorry state of affairs".

The court cited the other EU countries which are providing benefits in kind, such as hostels and meal vouchers.

Lord Justice Simon Brown said: "Parliament cannot have intended a significant number of asylum-seekers to be impaled on the horns of so intolerable a dilemma - the need to either abandon their claims to refugee status or, alternatively, to maintain them as best they can but in a state of utter destitution."

The verdict was hailed as a historic victory by campaigners for refugees who were seekingto challenge the regulations. through the courts.Observers have seen this latest attempt by the Government to save money by pushing through major changes without Parliamentary approval, as literally a way of starving the refugees out of the country.