UN attacks cut in asylum aid

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The Independent Online

The Government is facing renewed criticism from the United Nations over its plans to remove social security payments for most asylum seekers.

Although a judicial review in the High Court today will challenge the planned new regulations, the London office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has privately told Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Security, that the law changes will cause "undue hardship". Central to the UNHCR's criticisms is that the UK will fail to honour its treaty obligations under the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child if the welfare withdrawal changes are made.

In today's judicial review the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants is challenging the legality of plans to withdraw benefits from around 70 per cent of asylum seekers. The changes may take pounds 200m off the annual welfare budget.

Immigrants who fail to make an application for asylum immediately on arrival will be no longer entitled to claim state support and those applicants rejected will be unable to claim benefits while their appeal is being heard.

As part of an internal UNHCR report delivered to the Social Security Advisory Committee, Mr Lilley was made aware of the concerns about children of asylum seekers. The report stated: "Children seeking to exercise their appeal rights, either as part of a family unit (accompanied) or in their own right if unaccompanied, will be adversely affected by the proposed changes. In this context UNHCR refers to the United Kingdom's express treaty obligations under the Convention of the Rights of the Child, 1989."

Philippe Lavachy, the UNHCR representative in London, said: "We see that at the end of the road the genuine refugee will pay the price, perhaps along with his wife and children."

At the end of 1994 the UN's Committee on the Rights of the Child heavily criticised the UK government and the way it was implementing the UN children's convention.

The UN report said that the principles of the convention "appear not to be reflected in legislation [in the UK] in areas such as health, education and social security".

Actual sanctions by the UN over failures to honour convention obligations are limited to a formal criticism and an order to appear before a UN panel in Geneva. Regardless, such a measure would be severely embarrassing to the UK government and limit its ability to criticise other countries' records on child rights without accusations of double standards.