Cap on non-EU migrant workers splits Government

Immigration policies are under scrutiny as legal case challenges coalition over asylum agency's closure

The Government is expected to impose a temporary limit tomorrow on the number of migrant workers from outside the EU allowed into the UK, ahead of a planned permanent cap. The move comes days before asylum-seekers are due to bring an unprecedented legal case against the Government, claiming it forced Britain's largest network of refugee lawyers into administration by starving it of cash.

Home Secretary Theresa May will limit the number of workers to 24,100 – down about 5 per cent – between now and April 2011. Pressure groups campaigning for greater controls on immigration have welcomed the motion as "a good start". But some ministers are believed to oppose the move, while think-tanks and trade groups claim it would bar talented foreign workers from the UK labour market.

Tory London Mayor Boris Johnson last night also urged the Government to rethink. "A crude cap could be very detrimental to the free movement of the talented, creative and enterprising people who have enabled London to be such a dominant global force," a spokesman for Mr Johnson said.

Meanwhile, the Government's immigration policy will be called into question by a High Court test case which is to be brought on Wednesday. Two families and a child will seek leave for a judicial review on behalf of some 10,000 people who have been left stranded by the collapse of Refugee and Migrant Justice (RMJ).

The organisation, which employs about 330 people working on asylum claims, trafficking and immigration cases, went into administration 10 days ago after the Legal Services Commission (LSC) terminated its contract. Without lawyers to fight their cases, all of RMJ's former clients now face the prospect of being deported.

Lawyers bringing this week's test case will demand assurance from the Home Secretary that nobody will be deported until new lawyers are appointed. They will also call on the Government to cover the costs of transferring the cases or continue funding RMJ.

The Children's Commissioner, Maggie Atkinson, will provide evidence. "I was very concerned to learn that hundreds of children in the asylum system would be unrepresented," she said. "Our aim in intervening is to ensure that these children – who are in the asylum system – are properly safeguarded and that adequate arrangements are put in place to ensure their continued legal representation."

Changes to the legal aid system meant that RMJ waited up to two years to receive payments on cases. Despite a high-profile campaign which saw everyone from senior politicians to legal experts and the Archbishop of Canterbury pleading with the Government to intervene, the charity went into administration.

Mark Scott. a solicitor from Bhatt Murphy, representing RMJ's clients, said: "Many people could now be returned to a place where they fear for their safety without having the opportunity to have their arguments heard. There's been no contingency planning by the LSC and the Secretary of State for Justice as to what would happen to these clients."

Alison Harvey, the general secretary of the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association, whose organisation will be intervening in the case, says the current legal aid system "puts those who do legal aid work in this field, and thus their clients, at risk".

Earlier this month, Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to Mrs May and Justice Secretary Ken Clarke to express his fears about the charity's collapse. "Lives will be put at risk and there are likely to be many more miscarriages of justice," he said.

The test case highlights the likely impact of proposed £335m cuts to the £2bn legal aid budget, which critics say could deny many vulnerable people access to justice.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "The highest priority must be the clients of Refugee and Migrant Justice. The Legal Services Commission is working closely with the administrator, the Tribunals Service and others to ensure that urgent arrangements are made so that clients continue to receive a good-quality service. It is important that asylum-seekers have fair access to legal advice.

"We fully appreciate the value that organisations bring in providing this service to particularly vulnerable clients. The LSC worked closely with RMJ for the past few years, for precisely this reason, and as a result they have received substantial support to help them transfer to the current payment system." He refused to comment on the judicial review.

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