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Blair attacked for setting 'phoney target' in drive to cut asylum bill

Tony Blair was embroiled in a new spin row yesterday after he claimed the Government would cut the country's bill for dealing with asylum-seekers by December next year.

The Prime Minister forecast that numbers of refugees with unfounded asylum claims would drop during the next 12 months and that, as a result, spending on them would fall.

But neither Downing Street nor the Home Office were able to supply the benchmark spending figure against which his claim should be judged.

Interviewed on GMTV, Mr Blair said: "We have got new changes, new legislation we are going to introduce that will make it easier for us to remove people whose asylum claims have failed."

He added: "I do not want to make a prediction on this, but I think by this time next year we will be in even a better position than we are now and the amount of money that we are spending therefore on asylum is reducing."

The Home Office said figures relating to this year's asylum spending have not been published, apart from the £1.8bn annual budget of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, which also deals with legal migration. It also cited a two-year-old budget for asylum support, in 2001-02, of £450m, but admitted there was no comparable recent figure.

A spokesman for the Conservative Party accused Mr Blair of attempting to spin good headlines on asylum for Labour. "This looks like yet another phoney target designed to mask the Government's failure. It's hard to take the Prime Minister's promises seriously when his Government is responsible for the chaos in the first place," he said.

Mark Oaten, home affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: "Tony Blair's soundbite bears no relation to any budget or figures and the Home Office will be surprised by the Prime Minister's false target."

Downing Street said Mr Blair had been speaking generally about the progress in reducing numbers of asylum applications. "It follows that less money will be spent on asylum," said a spokesman.

During the television interview, Mr Blair hit back at claims that the Government was squandering money on asylum that could be more profitably spent on public services. He said: "It is important to realise that the amount we give to asylum-seekers is less than 1 per cent of what we spend on the health service every year. The idea that if you took all this money from asylum-seekers you would fund the health, education, the pensions - if only it were that simple."

The Prime Minister conceded that some recent government initiatives for tackling the abuse of the system had been controversial. But he defended recent legislation thathas been condemned as draconian by refugee groups.

"The changes we've made in the law have halved the number of asylum-seekers," he said. "We're withdrawing state benefits from people whose claims have failed, it's one of the reasons why it's very controversial, some of these changes, and we've got new legislation we're going to introduce, which will make it easier for us to remove people whose asylum claims have failed."