Peers vote to give asylum seekers three days grace

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The Government was defeated in the House of Lords yesterday when peers voted to give people arriving in the UK three days to claim political asylum.

A Labour amendment to allow three days' grace for claims for refugee status was passed by 158 votes to 155, an opposition majority of three.

But hereditary Conservative peers ensured that Government plans to deprive asylum seekers of welfare benefits while they appeal against refusal of refugee status squeaked through the House of Lords. The Government won the vote by just 13 votes, 153 to 140 after it inserted a last-minute clause in the Asylum Bill to reverse a decision of the Appeal Court against Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security.

Three bishops spoke against the Government's plans, as did Lord Donaldson, the former Master of the Rolls.

A Labour source estimated that between a half and two-thirds of Tory peers backing the Government were hereditary, strengthening Labour's argument for scrapping their right to vote.

The "three day" amendment, moved by Baroness Hollis, Labour's social security spokeswoman in the Lords, will make an important difference in practice to a number of difficult asylum cases, where new arrivals in the UK are too fearful or confused to make an application for refugee status at their port of entry.

Tory critics argue that the amendment will give immigration and asylum advisory groups to "coach" illegal immigrants after arrival and encourage them to make bogus asylum applications.

Earl Russell, social security spokesman for the Liberal Democrats in the Lords, said: "This is a very small but very welcome amendment. It does not make the Government's proposals acceptable. It cuts out one bar from the window of the prison cell. It does not make the denial of benefits acceptable."

Referring to the Appeal Court judgment, Lord Russell went on: "Lord Justice Simon Brown asked whether we were a civilised country and got the answer, 'Maybe'."

Lord MacIntosh, Labour's deputy leader in the Lords, said: "The Government are still wrong to withdraw benefits in this way, rather than speeding up decision-making processes, but this amendment will make a difference ... The statistics show that the person who applies after arrival is just as likely to be genuine as the person who applies at port of entry."

He also claimed that the Government's haste was producing poor legislation. The Government tabled three further amendments to its own clause.

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