Asylum-seekers found begging with children face being deported under a new speeded-up procedure after mounting public concern at abuse of asylum laws, ministers said yesterday.
The Immigration minister, Barbara Roche, called such begging "vile" and said the Home Office was looking at the option of fast-tracking asylum applications of refugees who were arrested for begging, particularly when accompanied by children.
The announcement followed speculation that fast-tracking, with a first hearing in seven days plus a further three weeks to allow any appeal, would have a presumption that claimants convicted of begging would be denied asylum because they had committed a criminal offence. Ordinarily claims are processed in chronological order and, with a backlog of around 105,000 asylum applications, can take months.
A fast-track detention centre for asylum-seekers whose applications are suspected to be unfounded opens today in Oakington, Cambridgeshire.
Mrs Roche said: "I certainly think that begging in the streets is a real problem and there are very serious child protection issues ...
"The really important thing is that if Britain is to continue to honour its international obligations - which we want to - we can't have the situation where people are clearly abusing the situation and exploiting their children in this way."
Earlier this month, after hostile media reports of aggressive begging by Romanian women and children, Mrs Roche had claimed organised begging was not a government matter and it was up to the courts to deal with it.
Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary, proposed an even tougher policy, saying asylum-seekers who beg should be jailed and deported automatically. Otherwise, those arrested could simply disappear, she said.
The Refugee Council, a charity which supports refugees and asylum-seekers, accused politicians of a disproportionate reaction, although it said begging was unacceptable.
Nick Hardwick, chief executive of the council, said: "The reaction to the problem of Roma begging has been completely disproportionate and we are very concerned that all Roma and, indeed, all asylum-seekers are being unfairly labelled as part of this."
People who apply for asylum at their port of entry are currently entitled to benefits until their application is decided, whereas refugees who claim asylum later can approach local councils for assistance if they are destitute.
From next month the Home Office will take over a new system under which all support will be on the basis that claimants are destitute.
Allowances of £10 will be paid to every adult and child per week but further subsistence allowances, worth about £20 per week, will be in the form of vouchers to be redeemed at designated supermarkets.
Applicants are entitled to health care and schooling while claims are being processed.