Asylum care plan 'would force families to hide'

David Blunkett's controversial plans to put the children of rejected asylum-seekers into care could backfire by forcing refugee families underground, according to a report by MPs.

The Commons Home Affairs Select Committee criticised the Government for failing to say how many children would be affected by the proposal in the Asylum and Immigration Bill.

Under the plans, families who refuse a free flight home will lose their benefits and their children will be taken into local council care. The Government says it has to end the "absurd" situation where families which refuse to co-operate can receive up to £16,000 a year in benefits. But the MPs said the provision should be delayed until the Commons was convinced it would affect only a handful of children.

The committee said it was "very uneasy" about the plans, warning the measure may be an "incentive" for families to disappear while "leaving their children in the care of local authorities". It added: "It may have the effect of driving failed asylum-seekers underground and actually making it harder to remove them." The MPs also warned the proposal could prompt legal challenges over enforced separations.

The committee said the Government should concentrate on removing refugees whose claims have been rejected. It welcomed an increase in the numbers deported to about 1,500 a month, but added: "The rate of removal is still unacceptably low in proportion to the numbers eligible to be removed."

The MPs also raised concerns over plans to make it a criminal offence, with sentences of up to two years, to destroy a passport en route to Britain. An estimated three-quarters of asylum-seekers dispose of their travel papers, believing it will make it easier for them to win permission to stay. They said refugees should be given clearer warnings about the consequences of destroying papers and suggested surveillance should be used more widely to establish on which flights claimants arrive.

Although they supported the Government's plan to streamline the asylum appeals process from a three-tier to a single-tier system, the MPs said the "real flaws" were in the initial decision-making process. "The implementation of the new asylum appeals system should be contingent on a significant improvement in initial decision-making having been demonstrated," they said.

David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "It is unacceptable that asylum-seekers have a 90 per cent chance of remaining in this country. In Labour's six and a half years in power, they have turned the asylum system into a shambles. Last year more asylum-seekers came to Britain than any other country."

John Denham, a former Home Office minister who chairs the committee, rebuked the department for not providing enough information. "It has not been possible for us to scrutinise all the measures in the Bill. Nor was sufficient detail provided to enable concerned organisations to respond in detail."

It was "unsatisfactory" that the Bill had been introduced with "insufficient advance information", the report added.

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