Asylum clampdown sparks race-bias fears : the queen's speech

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The forthcoming Asylum and Immigration Bill will be one of the Government's most controversial pieces of new legislation and has already provoked accusations that it is playing the race card in the run-up to the general election.

One of the central planks of the Bill, whose main aim is to restrict the number of people claiming asylum, is the creation of a so called "white list" of countries, deemed to be "safe" and therefore unlikely to produce real refugees. Applications from the listed countries will be given a "fast-track" treatment.

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, yesterday attacked the Bill, saying: "Race and immigration should not be the plaything of party politics." He called on the Government to refer it to a special Commons standing committee that could scrutinise the legislation and test whether it is justified.

An indication of the sensitivity of the Bill was revealed by the Government's unwillingness to publish any details of the proposed legislation.

Last week, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, retreated from an earlier plan to include legislation to fine employers who hire illegal immigrants. He has now agreed to put the proposal out to consultation following opposition from employers' organisations, civil rights groups and the Department for Education and Employment, which feared it could result in companies being less ready to recruit ethnic minority staff. Meanwhile it is expected that the Bill will require employers to check the records of potential recruits, in an effort to stop illegal immigrants working, backed up by a "light, regulatory approach".

Another expected proposal is the abolition of full appeal rights to those refugees arriving via a safe third country, such as France.

Running alongside the Bill are measures announced by Peter Lilley, the Social Security Secretary, which will make it impossible to enter the country as a visitor, but then seek asylum to claim benefit, in a move designed to save up to pounds 200m a year.

However the key proposal in the Bill - the "white list" - is designed to accelerate and reduce the cost of processing asylum claims. Asylum applications from residents of those countries will be presumed to be unfounded and the burden of proof will be on the applicant. They will be dealt with under a fast-track appeals procedure, expected to last days rather than months.

Countries that are expected to appear on the list include Ghana, India, Pakistan, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland.

The Government believes the measures will act as a deterrent to people who are economic migrants.

The Home Office points to figures published in October that showed that in the 12 months to the end of June, there were 37,900 applications for asylum (excluding dependants) received in the UK, an increase of almost 50 per cent over the previous year.

However, while it is true that more people are applying for asylum, far fewer are being allowed entry. Of the 25,000 cases decided in the year to June this year, only 1,100 people were granted asylum - less than 5 per cent.

The Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 has already dramatically cut the number of refugees being allowed to stay in the UK from 20,000 in 1992 to 5,000 in 1994.

Claude Moraes, director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, described the asylum element of the Bill as "one of the most irresponsible playing of the race card in recent years". He said the drawing up of a "white list" of supposedly safe countries would result in the very real possibility of asylum seekers being sent home to face torture, persecution or even death.

Narendra Makanji, chairman of the Anti-Racist Alliance, added that unions and immigrant welfare groups would unite to defeat the Bill. "This Bill is undoubtedly a curtain-raiser for a Tory racist campaign in the run- up to the next election," he said.