Benefits ban `lawful'

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

The controversial decision to withdraw benefits from most asylum seekers was yesterday declared lawful by the High Court, but judges voiced concern over the adverse effects the move may have on genuine refugees.

Lord Justice Beldam and Mr Justice Buxton said they shared the views of the Government's independent social security advisers, who earlier this year had condemned the benefit changes. The Social Security Advisory Committee had agreed that there was a need to deter a growing number of bogus asylum seekers, but said a better way was to ensure more efficient asylum procedures "rather than making changes to the benefits system which would produce such drastic and unwelcome consequences".

The judges' remarks came as the Refugee Council announced that 400 asylum seekers were now homeless and penniless as a result of the benefit changes which came into effect on 5 February. The ruling is expected to affect about 30,000 asylum seekers a year.

But yesterday, in a case which could go all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, the judges rejected claims that Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, had acted irrationally or unlawfully when he introduced the changes.

In the case brought by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and "Miss B" - who fled Zaire after her husband was murdered and she was raped while held by security forces - the judges ruled the withdrawal of benefits could not be said to be the same as forcing the deportation or expulsion of asylum seekers or withdrawing appeal rights, in contravention of the United Nations Convention on Refugees.

However, they gave the JCWI and Miss B leave to appeal.