Reform of benefits for asylum-seekers postponed

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The Independent Online
The Government was yesterday forced to postpone its plans to withdraw benefits from thousands of asylum-seekers from 8 January, promising instead a parliamentary debate on the changes before they take effect.

The debate is set to be fuelled, however, by a fiercely critical report from the Social Security Advisory Committee, the Government's independent advisory body on social security, which ministers must publish as they table the regulations.

The committee is understood to have warned Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Security, that those refused benefits while they appeal could end up destitute and on the streets.

Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, promised MPs a debate after strong protests that, because of the Christmas recess, the Government's original plan to lay the regulations on Monday would provide no opportunity for discussion before they took effect early next month.

That decision means the changes cannot take effect from 8 January, and, although the delay may only be a matter of a week or two, there is pressure on the Government for a more substantial breathing space.

Tony Newton, the Leader of the Commons, left the decision open, saying only that "we expect them to come into force next year" amid signs that Department of Environment ministers were pressing for a further delay, worried at the prospect of up to 13,000 asylum-seekers and their families potentially becoming homeless in early January, the busiest time of the year for existing shelters and hostels.

David Alton, the Liberal Democrat MP, who had complained that implementation without a debate would have been "a blatant abuse of Parliament" said the decision was "a useful victory but not the end of the war". These "appalling proposals" had still to be reversed, he said. The debate should await a report from the Commons Social Security Select Committee, which will not be ready until the New Year.

Chris Smith, Labour's social security spokesman, said Mr Lilley should use the breathing space "to think again".

The delay was welcomed by the Refugee Council, Amnesty International and Westminster City Council which on Monday called for deferral of the proposals, warning the Downing Street policy unit that many of the planned pounds 200m savings could evaporate as councils would still owe a duty of care to the children of asylum seekers' under the Children Act.