Asylum-seekers' appeals backlog rises twentyfold

Home Office denies refugee status criteria have been tightened up
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Ministers are to review the appeals system for asylum-seekers and would-be immigrants after a huge rise in the number of outstanding cases.

Last night, the Home Office rejected allegations by Labour's spokesman on immigration and refugees that the criteria for accepting asylum-seekers had been tightened up. Under a 1951 UN convention, anyone with a "well-founded fear of persecution" was granted refugee status, a spokeswoman said.

Neither she nor the court service could explain why the number of outstanding appeals had gone up twentyfold since April 1994, from 1,069 to 20,388, while the numbers applying for asylum had fallen. Rules introduced this year under a new Asylum and Immigration Act have restricted benefits for asylum-seekers and have required employers to make checks on them.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, announced in a parliamentary answer that he and the Lord Chancellor would look at whether the system allowed adequate rights of appeal and whether it provided good value for money. They would also consider what impact immigrants' and asylum-seekers' rights of appeal had on the operation of immigration control, he said.

Doug Henderson, the Labour spokesman, said asylum-seekers often felt the system was unfair. There were 60,000 cases outstanding, and 20,000 were in the appeals system. "It is quite clear that there has been a tightening up by immigration officers on applications and has led to a greater number of appeals. The whole process is grinding slowly to a halt. It is the exact opposite of what the Government were trying to do with their new Immigration Act."

Parliamentary questions tabled by Mr Henderson revealed that the number of outstanding appeals had risen by almost 9,000 in 11 months, from 11,000. The budget of the Immigration Appellate Authority had gone up from pounds 6.9m in 1994-95 to pounds 9.9m in the current financial year.

Claude Moraes, director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said Home Office scepticism about asylum cases had affected the attitudes of adjudicators.

"There is a climate of disbelief and a culture of suspicion in the Home Office. We see it every day in our case work. Given that the review is by this Home Office and this Home Secretary we have got to be deeply apprehensive." Mr Moraes said Britain detained 11,000 people each year under its Immigration Act - more than any other European country. The cost of building new detention centres to contain them ran into tens of millions of pounds, he claimed.

A Home Office spokeswoman said the number of applications for asylum had fallen from 3,300 in January this year to 920 in June. After a High Court ruling temporarily reinstated benefits in June, 2,515 had applied in July, the spokeswoman said.