Lords defeat ministers over asylum appeals limit

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Peers have thrown out government plans to impose a five-day limit on the right of asylum-seekers to appeal to the High Court.

Liberal Democrat, Conservative and crossbench peers yesterday defeated the Government by 143 votes to 94 during the detailed report stage debate on the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants etc) Bill. They said the plans were unfair and the limit should be extended to 10 days to give lawyers sufficient time to prepare their cases.

Peers approved a compromise to allow asylum-seekers' appeals to the High Court after a threatened revolt by Lord Irvine, the former lord chancellor, and senior judges against proposals to deny them such appeals. Ministers agreed to allow applications for leave to appeal to the High Court if applicants believed the special tribunal set up to hear asylum appeals was wrong in law.

But yesterday the Liberal Democrat frontbencher Lord Goodhart said that a five-day limit on appeals was "utterly impractical". He told the House of Lords: "The Government has said its objective is to have a procedure that is swift but fair. We agree with that objective. Unfortunately the proposals, while plainly swift, are blatantly unfair.

"The Government says it is confident that the appellant will have sufficient time because the grounds for appeal will already have been covered in the argument before the asylum and immigration tribunal. The idea that the judgment of the tribunal is so predictable that it is possible to, in effect, draft a notice of appeal in advance, is utterly unrealistic."

Lord Filkin, a minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs, insisted that the Government wanted to ensure "that the abuse in the system is stamped out". He added: "There is strong support for that position, I believe, not just among the more extreme elements of the popular press, but among those who hold dear the traditions of this society and its responsibilities to consider applicants for asylum."

A spokesman for the Department of Constitutional Affairs said ministers were considering whether to attempt to overturn the defeat when the Bill returns to the Commons later this year. He said: "We think five days strikes the correct balance between being efficient but fair."

Des Browne, the Immigration minister, said yesterday: "This is stunning hypocrisy from the Tories. We expect nothing less from the Lib Dems, who are used to looking both ways at the same time. But for the Tories to block speeding up the system after all they have said about the need to reach speedy decisions and tackle abuse is breathtaking."

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