Control of asylum advisers opposed escape control

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The Government last night refused to amend its Asylum Bill to take powers to control self-styled immigration advisers who, the Commons was told, frequently exploited their vulnerable clients.

Ann Widdecombe, Minister of State at the Home Office, acknowledged there was a problem over the advisers, who operate in immigrant communities, but said there was, as yet, no clear way forward.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats joined in supporting a statutory registration authority to ensure all advisers were qualified, while Nirj Deva, Tory MP for Brentford and Isleworth, proposed a Council for Licensed Immigration Advisers to oversee standards.

But Miss Widdecombe said the complexity of establishing such bodies might not be justified by the scale of the problem, which was not known. Mr Deva pointed out that was partly because those concerned had already been deported.

Discussions so far with the Law Society and the Immigration Law Practitioners Association has not indicated a clear way forward, she said during the report stage of the Asylum and Immigration Bill.

Jack Straw, Labour's home affairs spokesman, told Miss Widdecombe her comments were unsatisfactory. "If she spoke to any number of staff working in the immigration and nationality department, they would rapidly give her a sense of the scale of the problem."

He understood the Law Society and the ILPA, with whom the Government started discussions two years ago, backed the kind of scheme Labour proposed.

The aim was to "end the scandal of unscrupulous advisers" who made their living "manufacturing bogus claims for settlement in the country", Mr Straw said. Clients were sometimes being charged thousands of pounds to pursue "wholly unwarranted cases".

Eric Forth, Minister of State for Education, took a stand for free speech and refused to condemn students at Stirling University who, it was said, have invited Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to their campus.

Raising the issue at Question Time, Bill Walker, Tory MP for Tayside North, said that following the London bombings, the students' invitation was "at best insensitive, and at worst absolutely stupid".

But Mr Forth said he believed the tradition of free speech on campuses probably overrode any other concern. "I have always been one who has said that all students should be able and free to listen to all points of view - no matter how unpopular and unpalatable.

"Although I can well understand Mr Walker's concern,I think that, on balance, I would stand firmly on the principle of freedom of speech and the ability of students to make up their own minds on what they hear, rather than any suggestion of discouraging or, even worse, banning any individual point of view."

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