War in the Balkans: Legislation - Blair in climbdown over asylum Bill

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THE GOVERNMENT was last night preparing a climbdown over its Asylum Bill to defuse a rebellion by Labour MPs outraged that Kosovo refugees making their own way to a haven in Britain could be penalised under the new rules.

Jack Straw, Home Secretary, and Tony Blair maintained an uncompromising stance but in private the Government was preparing to amend the Bill during its Commons committee stage to buy off the threat of a damaging rebellion. The Prime Minister was expected to order a six-month delay in implementation of the Bill, which was expected to be law by autumn, after being warned by Clive Soley, chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), that the Government "was in trouble" over the measure.

The compromise would not satisfy Labour MPs opposed to the legislation in principle but Mr Soley told Mr Blair it could be enough to head off a full revolt. The climb-down will be presented as a move to ensure the social security system can cope with the national introduction of food vouchers for asylum-seekers when it becomes law. "The core issue is a delay until the Home Office are ready," said Mr Soley before the private meeting between officers of the PLP and Mr Blair at his private room in the Commons. Downing Street later confirmed Mr Blair was ready to amend the legislation. "As Jack Straw said, we will look carefully at any issues that are raised during the committee stage. That is part of prudent government ..." a spokesman said.

The spokesman made it clear the Government did not intend dropping the Bill, which some Labour MPs are demanding. Refugees from the Kosovo conflict officially brought to Britain by the UN High Commission for Refugees are to be given special leave to remain for 12 months and would not be affected by the legislation, but those who arrived in this country seeking refuge would be caught by the new rules, which seek to speed up a massive backlog of asylum applications but replace entitlement to social security benefits in cash with a system of free accommodation, heating and lighting, and food vouchers in addition to around pounds 22 a week in cash.

Labour protests were joined yesterday at Question Time by Paddy Ashdown, Liberal Democrat leader, who called the Bill "scandalous" and said asylum- seekers would be treated with a mixture of "delay, penury and injustice". Defending the Bill, Mr Blair admitted the backlog of asylum cases inherited from the Tories had grown under Labour. Neil Gerrard, MP for Walthamstow and chairman of the all-party parliamentary refugee group, said there was a growing number of Labour backbenchers who wanted the legislation to be changed or at least halted. "The arrival of Kosovar refugees has focused our attention on what the measures would mean to many asylum- seekers.

"There is widespread concern that the Government is guilty of double standards.

"There's a clear contrast with what the Government is doing to help refugees who have been brought over from Kosovo and asylum-seekers from equally war-torn places such as Sierra Leone under the proposals of this Bill. It's very clear that there are two systems at work."

Michael O'Brien, immigration minister, sought to address backbench concerns this week during the Bill's committee stage by hinting that it would be amended to introduce safeguards for asylum- seekers with small children.

Mr Gerrard added: "I cannot see how many backbenchers could support this Bill unless there are concessions for vulnerable asylum-seekers. This goes to the very heart of the Labour Party's principles."