Straw gives more asylum cash for local authorities

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The Independent Online

Jack Straw sought to calm the storm over the Government's handling of the rise in asylum- seekers yesterday, announcing more support for localauthorities.

The Home Secretary said Kent would be the first council that would no longer have to meet the cost of asylumseekers who make their claim to stay once inside the county. Mr Straw said that from next Monday, the Government would pay for the council's bill through the National Asylum Support Service and the extra help could eventually cover other strained areas.

The service currently deals with all new applicants who claim asylum at their port of entry. Mr Straw said the scheme, launched last week, would be extended to cover asylum-seekers who claim asylum once in the county. "The effect of this is that no asylum- seeker making a claim for asylum in Kent on or after that date will be eligible for support from Kent County Council or Medway Council. Kent has taken in more than its share of asylum-seekers," he said.

"This will, I hope, bring considerable relief to the local authorities in Kent. This is the first stage of the role out of the support scheme to all in-country applicants." Mr Straw insisted that the Home Office was refunding "everything" claimed in costs relating to the support system operated in Kent, which does not include unaccompanied minors. Mr Straw's announcement renewed the dispute over the right of MPs to speak freely on asylum-seekers.

The argument follows comments in the Tory manifesto for May's local government elections which stated that Britain was becoming "a soft touch for the organised asylum racketeers who are flooding our country with bogus asylum seekers". Ann Widdecombe, Conservative spokeswoman for home affairs, claimed during angry exchanges that "unbelievable and unprecedented levels" of asylum-seekers refused permission to stay were remaining in this country since the Government came to power.

But Mr Straw said the 1996 Immigration and Asylum Act, introduced under the last Tory government, was to blame for the "very considerable pressure" from asylum applications, borne "admirably" by district and county councils in Kent and London. The Home Secretary urged Miss Widdecombe to explain why she supported plans to continue the payment of cash social security benefits to all new portasylum-seekers, which would cost the taxpayer £500m a year.

The Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, Simon Hughes, argued that many local authorities were still owed a large amount of the cost of asylum seekers. "We need to approach these difficult issues with temperate language, but above all with an accurate statement of the facts and the figures," he said.

Mr Straw said there was "discussion and disagreement" between Kent and the Department of Health over a £700,000 shortfall in respect of unaccompanied minors. "We accept that, where reasonable costs are incurred by local authorities, they should be met by central government." Hundreds of caseworkers had been recruited. In March, 9,000 asylum decisions were made by the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, up from 1,000 towards the end of last year.

Gwyn Prosser, Labour MP for Dover, said it was "politics at its lowest" for county councillors to attach the cost of keeping asylum-seekers to increases in council tax.