Leading Article: A shameful saving of money

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The Independent Online
You do not have to be a woolly-minded liberal to be concerned about Peter Lilley's plans to withdraw welfare benefits from thousands of people seeking political asylum. The Social Security Secretary's own advisers are alarmed at the prospect. They say the changes will force many genuine refugees to "risk returning to their own country, possibly to imprisonment or worse".

Sir Thomas Boyd-Carpenter, the person who wrote these comments, is neither soft-headed nor soft-hearted. He was Deputy Chief of Defence Staff, is the son of a former Tory cabinet minister and brother of Baroness (Sarah) Hogg, the recently retired head of John Major's policy unit. He is chairman of Mr Lilley's Social Security Advisory Committee, which yesterday called for the proposals to be dropped.

Sir Thomas's report highlights the Government's admission that the changes mean subsistence benefits will be denied to a substantial number of genuine asylum seekers. "Among them," he says, "will be men, women and families with children who have been unable to bring money or possessions with them, some who are sick or disabled, and some who are victims of war, harsh imprisonment or torture." Sir Thomas concludes that it is unacceptable to put these people "at risk of destitution".

These are strong words. But Mr Lilley largely ignored them yesterday when he announced essentially cosmetic amendments to his original proposals. In future, welfare support will usually be unavailable to asylum-seekers who fail to make their application as soon as they arrive. Even those who fill in the forms on time will lose their entitlement if the Home Office turns down their application. They will have to maintain themselves (even though they cannot work) while they appeal.

Mr Lilley made two concessions. Those applicants currently being processed will continue to receive help, until they are turned down. And Mr Lilley will underwrite the extra costs to local authorities. So Tory Westminster and Wandsworth councils will presumably drop their embarrassing court challenge to the proposals.

But these alterations will do little for future asylum-seekers, many of them, according to Sir Thomas, among "the most vulnerable and defenceless in our society".

Mr Lilley's defence is that the majority of asylum applications are refused, so the taxpayer is being asked to subsidise bogus refugees. He reckons his measures will save pounds 200m, a figure that Sir Thomas says is an overestimate.

Whatever the amount, Mr Lilley is right to try to save money. But this is not the best way. The humane policy would be to reduce the huge backlog of asylum cases awaiting adjudication: typically it takes eight months to process an application and a further 10 months to hear an appeal. In 1994, 70 decisions were made on applications lodged at least seven years earlier.

Michael Howard has promised to hire more officials to process applications more quickly. They should be given a chance to deal with the backlog of more than 60,000 cases: even halving the waiting time could save millions of pounds. But people should not be driven into destitution while these officials do their job.

There is still time for Mr Lilley to think again. Whatever he might be saving, it is not worth the stain on Britain's reputation.