Immigrants' advisory service forced to close

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THE HOME OFFICE is ending its pounds 1.6m a year funding to the strife-ridden United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service, forcing its closure.

The move, coupled with drawing up plans for an alternative agency, is an embarrassing about-turn by the Government, which last year praised the service and wanted to expand its responsibilities.

Ministers then wanted to abolish immigrants' rights to free legal advice from independent solicitors and force them to go for help to the Home Office-funded UKIAS. But the proposal was opposed by leading churchmen, lawyers, welfare groups and members of the Lords, who, as well as being concerned at the denial of independent advice, were also anxious about allegations of incompetence, racial power struggles and discrimination within the UKIAS executive.

For its part, UKIAS, under pressure from its fellow immigration organisations, refused the Government's request to take over the legal aid work.

Yesterday, Charles Wardle, a Home Office minister, said it was the continued 'confusion, disorder and disarray' among the UKIAS executive that prompted his decision for a new organisation, not the legal aid issue.

But he declined to give a public undertaking that legal aid would not be abolished if the new organisation set up to replace the UKIAS - which provides advice and legal representation to about 2,000 immigrant families a month - agreed to take on the work.

Feuding within the UKIAS between the Asian-dominated executive and others reached a head last year, leading to the hiving off of UKIAS's refugee and asylum work.

The UKIAS announcement came the day after the European Court opened a loophole in British immigration law, when it declared some restrictions on the foreign spouses of British citizens were unlawful. The ruling meant that couples could avoid Britain's tighter restrictions on entry of foreign partners by living first in another European Comunity country before coming to Britain.

Mr Wardle said he was still considering the judgment, but border controls would ensure that 'bogus marriages' were picked up as they were at the moment.

Members of the UKIAS executive were called into the Home Office yesterday morning to be told their funding was to end. Mr Wardle said it had been given several months to 'put its house in order'. But reports of its last meeting were that it ended in utter chaos and had failed to come up with the wider respresentation sought by the Government. Ministers hope the new body will be able to take over the UKIAS's 80 advisory and support staff, which Mr Wardle said had continued to perform well despite the executive's problems. They also hope the UKIAS will make available its files and premises in London, Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Cardiff, Glasgow, and at Gatwick, Heathrow and the Harmondsworth immigration detention centre in west London.

An independent planning group chaired by Humfrey Malins, a solicitor and former MP, is to draw up proposals for the new unit, which the Government hopes will be operative by the end of the year.

Alistair Darling, Labour's immigration spokesman, said that few people would be surprised at the decision.

'It is imperative that the Government puts in place an alternative structure which will provide free and impartial advice to all those who seek to negotiate the complexities of immigration and nationality rules,' he said.

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