David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, was accused of being underhand yesterday after he slipped through changes to the immigration rules to remove more asylum-seekers from Britain.
Refugee support groups claimed the new rules would lead to asylum-seekers being rounded up at their homes and put on planes out of Britain before they had the opportunity to contact their lawyers.
The Home Office introduced the changes, which are designed to prevent failed asylum-seekers from absconding, during the Christmas holidays. They are due to come into effect on Monday, the day before Parliament reconvenes.
Under the new rules, the Immigration Appellate Authority, which administers appeals against rulings on refugee applications, will have to notify the Home Office of its decisions before the asylum-seeker is told. In the past, both were notified at the same time.
Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on Home Affairs, said: "It's disgraceful of the Government to smuggle in such an order in the last 48 hours of Parliament's sitting before Christmas.
"The principle of an independent adjudicator is that they don't show favour to either side. This gives the Home Office advantages over the asylum-seeker. There will certainly be vigorous protests, questioning and opposition after Parliament gets back next week."
Immigration officials have complained in the past that refugees who were told that their final appeal had failed had simply absconded and lived as illegal immigrants.
But under the new regulations, the Home Office will arrange for the decision to be sent to the asylum-seeker "or served personally" to them.
Refugee support groups said immigration staff would turn up on the doorsteps of asylum-seekers and take them into immediate detention.
Alasdair Mackenzie, the co-ordinator of Asylum Aid, said asylum-seekers would probably be unable to have the decisions judicially reviewed.
"This represents an unjustifiable interference with people's legitimate rights of appeal," he said. "Mistakes are made all too often by appeals adjudicators and judicial review plays an important role in ensuring fairness and guarding against injustice."
Mr Mackenzie was also angry at the timing of the changes. "The measures were announced shortly before Christmas and come into force a week into the new year, having not figured at all in the consultation paper on appeals issued in the summer of 2001," he said. "The Government has sneaked this measure in without proper warning or any advance publicity."
Asylum support groups were also concerned that the Home Office is preparing for a "big push" in the return of failed applicants over coming months.
They are particularly fearful for supporters of the political opposition in Zimbabwe, who are frequently rejected in their applications for asylum in Britain.
Margaret Lally, the deputy chief executive of the Refugee Council, said she feared that asylum-seekers would be sent back to unsafe countries. "We are concerned that this change in the law could result in asylum-seekers being quickly removed from the country without the possibility of seeking legal advice," she said.
A spokeswoman for the Lord Chancellor's Department, which oversees the appeals authority, said asylum-seekers would still be allowed contact with their legal advisers. She said: "This [change] will enable the Home Office to deliver the appeal decision personally to failed asylum-seekers who are at risk of absconding and can be removed."
Immigration officials are under pressure to step up the number of removals of rejected applicants to meet a target set by Mr Blunkett of 30,000 removals a year by 2003.
Some officials fear, however, that asylum-seekers will now simply go into hiding at an earlier stage of the process.
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