Asylum law challenge fails

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

The Government yesterday fought off an attempt to halt its four-day- old scheme to withdraw benefits from asylum seekers, until the legality of the controversial cuts is tested by the courts.

While fears grew that destitute refugees faced survival on the freezing streets as charity shelters were already filling up, Mr Justice Brooke ruled in the High Court that he had no powers to grant a stay or an injunction until the case can be heard - probably at the beginning of April.

Yesterday, adding to ministers' discomfort over the moves - which have been roundly condemned by the United Nations, church leaders, and refugee groups - two Conservative-controlled local councils joined in the legal challenge, brought by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI).

The flagship Westminster council, coupled with Hammersmith and Fulham, claims the withdrawal of benefit does not - as ministers claim - save money. It merely transfers the cost burden to council tax payers, because under children's and housing legislation, local authorities have a duty to give aid. The High Court was told yesterday that the cost to the two local authorities was running at pounds 100,000 a week, with lesser sums for other councils.

But the Government maintains the move - which stops payments to those who are appealing against a refusal for asylum and to those who do not apply for asylum the moment they arrive in the UK -- will save pounds 200m a year and is calculated to deter bogus applications.

Rejecting yesterday's application by the JCWI to "freeze" the regulations, the judge said the number of people who would be affected until there was a full hearing would be "comparatively small".

But earlier, Nicholas Blake QC, for the JCWI, said asylum seekers would end up enduring "extreme hardship", including "starvation and homelessness in the snow".

But Steven Kovats, for the Government, said the cost of a stay on the new regulations would run to millions of pounds, adding: "There are transitional provisions under the regulations which mean that very few refugees will be affected before this matter goes to a full [High Court] hearing."