Lilley rejects advice to halt Asylum Bill

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

The Government is to press ahead with controversial plans to withdraw benefits from thousands of asylum-seekers, despite warnings from its advisory body that the plans are "racially divisive" and should be dropped.

Ministers have headed off a threatened revolt by reprieving 13,000 would- be refugees who would have been immediately stripped of benefits. They have pledged extra cash to local authorities, which will have new responsibilities for asylum-seekers and their families.

Two Tory-led London boroughs had been planning an embarrassing challenge to the proposals in the High Court.

Yesterday, refugee groups accused Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Security, of performing a "cynical manoeuvre" to head off rebellion from within his own ranks. Claude Moraes, director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said there would be daily "destitution".

Jan Shaw, refugee officer for Amnesty International, said: "This malicious and mean Act will do nothing to end the hardship for asylum-seekers."

Under the revised plans, after 5 February new refugees will be denied any benefit unless they seek asylum the moment they enter the country. Those whose claim is refused will no longer qualify for benefits while they appeal.

In a withering report, the Social Security Advisory Committee said: "The reality of the proposals is that thousands of men, women and children will be left with no means of providing themselves with food or shelter. Many will have no option but to live on the streets of our major cities and ports.

"Health professionals have warned that, given the vulnerability of many asylum seekers due to their already precarious physical or mental health, some may die."

While accepting ministers' concerns about taxpayers having to pay to support bogus asylum seekers, the 14-strong committee, chaired by Sir Thomas Boyd-Carpenter, concluded: "We do not believe that it is acceptable that a solution should be sought by putting at risk of destitution many people who are genuinely seeking refuge in this country, amongst whom may besome of the most vulnerable and defenceless in our society."

In the Commons yesterday Mr Lilley insisted the new rules were "fair and necessary". He said that over 90 per cent of those claiming asylum were found to be bogus - and of the vast majority who appealed only 4 per cent were successful. "No responsible government could ignore this growing misuse of taxpayers' money," he said, claiming that the changes would save pounds 200m a year, discourage unfounded claims and speed up genuine cases.

The committee questioned the Government's figures, suggesting the new administrative costs, coupled with the new charges to local authorities, would erode those savings. Under the Children Act, councils will have to provide for refugee children and still have to house would-be refugees until new housing legislation comes into force next September.

In the Commons, Keith Bradley, for Labour, said the expected pounds 200m savings would be "offset by the appalling additional cost to local authorities of, for example, having to take children into care".

The Tory MP and former Cabinet minister Peter Brooke said he was worried that the cost of dealing with asylum-seekers could be passed on to local authorities. "Nothing could do more harm in terms of relations between the host community and asylum seekers if the cost is simply transferred to council taxpayers," he said.