Home Office grants amnesty to 50,000 asylum-seekers

Up to 50,000 asylum-seekers were given permission to stay in Britain yesterday under a one-off amnesty for families before the introduction of rules designed to force failed applicants out of the country.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, said legislation would be introduced later this year giving ministers the power to stop benefit payments to failed asylum-seekers who refused to leave Britain voluntarily on a free flight home. Those with families could have their children taken into care.

Officials said the new measures, due to form part of an Asylum Bill this autumn, were needed to increase the take-up of the voluntary repatriation scheme. Mr Blunkett said the amnesty was a "one-off exercise" applying to families with children who sought asylum in the UK before October 2000.

Officials estimate that granting the 12,000 families who applied for asylum before that date leave to stay in Britain would save at least £180m in support costs.

Oliver Letwin, the shadow Home Secretary, welcomed the crackdown on failed asylum-seekers. But he warned: "It cannot be right, while the system still remains in total chaos, to send out a signal that 15,000 people who have failed to establish a claim will be allowed to remain indefinitely.

"This decision will make Britain a magnet for asylum-seekers who now know that even if their cases are rejected they could be allowed to stay. The British people will be appalled at this latest sign of the Government's abject failure to sort out the chaos in the asylum system."

¿ David Blunkett has admitted that he was wrong to condemn a documentary that uncovered racism among police officers.

The Home Secretary criticised the Panorama episode "The Secret Policeman" as a "stunt" but told the BBC yesterday that "it was a mistake on my part" to use that word.