Asylum Bill 'could stop child benefit for immigrants'

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The Independent Online

Chief Political Correspondent

Child benefit could be denied to thousands of immigrants under the new laws to stop abuses of the British welfare system, Labour's shadow Home Secretary, Jack Straw, warned last night.

The savings on child benefit will amount to pounds 10m a year under the Immigration and Asylum Bill, published yesterday, but Labour said it would go further than intended and hit all immigrants.

The Government admitted it was wide ranging but insisted that it was only intended to stop abuses. It could force the Government to amend the Bill to tighten up its effects.

The Bill also tries to tackle illegal immigrants who gain employment but the Government admits that it could cost business pounds 11.5m a year on extra checks.

Attacking the measure on child benefit as "gratuitous", Mr Straw said it underlined the need for a special committee stage for the Bill, which the Government has refused.

He said Clause 10 of the Bill gives the Government "the power to remove child benefit from anyone classified as an immigrant which can include people who have indefinite leave to remain, the right to vote and the duty to pay tax".

One Government source said: "As drafted the clause allows us to proscribe all immigrants to be excluded from child benefit. The intention is only to exclude those admitted to the UK who said they will have no recourse to public funds."

The Home Office took legal advice before introducing the legislation which would normally be the responsibility of the Department of Social Security. Clause 10 is designed to stop overstayers, or Commonwealth citizens allowed extended leave, to claim child benefit. It will clamp down on up to 10,000 immigrants.

Many have lived in Britain by leave for years, but have not been given status to claim benefit, and on entry signed forms saying they would not make such claims.

Ministers privately confirmed that they were unsure about the legal scope of the Bill but insisted that it was not the intention to catch all immigrants. The issue is certain to become a battleground for the controversial Bill, which is due for a Second Reading on 12 December,

It has already led to accusations of using the "race card" and angry protests, including paint-throwing at the Chairman of the Conservative Party, Brian Mawhinney.

Tim Kirkhope, the Home Office minister responsible for immigration, defended the Bill and said it would put Labour on the spot over whether it supported abuse of child benefit claims by immigrants. "This is an extremely important measure and I hope we shall get a move on with it because at the present time, we are under enormous pressure when faced with the numbers of asylum seekers coming to Britain," said Mr Kirkhope.

The Bill, the cornerstone of the Queen's Speech, is aimed at reducing delays and bogus applications for asylum, giving the Home Secretary the power by order to designate countries where there is in general no serious risk of persecution. Applications for asylum from such countries will be rejected. Appeals will be speeded up. It will remove the right to claim housing benefit, and make it an offence for employers to take on illegal immigrants. Business leaders have protested at the costs of policing the measure, estimated at pounds 11.5m a year.