Wednesday, June 9, 1999 Published at 14:47 GMT 15:47 UK
Straw confirms asylum concessions
The immigration bill returns to Parliament next week
Home Secretary Jack Straw has announced concessions to prevent a major backbench revolt over reforms to the asylum and immigration system.
Backbench opposition centred on plans to discourage bogus asylum seekers by replacing benefits for basic needs with a voucher system and a small amount of cash.
The government has now offered to increase the proportion of benefit paid in cash.
Mr Straw received a generally favourable reaction when he outlined the changes to about 40 potential rebels on Tuesday and then to members of the Parliamentary Labour Party on Wednesday.
"I think the heat has gone out of this argument," he said.
But MP Neil Gerrard - who had predicted a rebellion on the scale of the recent revolt against disability benefit reform - warned it was impossible to achieve the aim of deterring fraudulent asylum applications without penalising the innocent.
Mr Gerrard, chairman of the all-party group on refugees, said: "Jack Straw's concessions don't alter the principle of the bill, but they do represent a significant move."
Blair: 'No climbdown'
On that occasion more than 60 MPs defied its plans to cut incapacity benefit for the disabled.
But Prime Minister Tony Blair denied the government had caved in to avoid another embarrassing display of defiance.
He defended the reforms, but said it had been right to take account of his MPs' reservations.
"Of course we have got to try to satisfy these concerns, because they're perfectly legitimate," he said.
"But what we are not prepared to do is give way at all on fundamental reforms of the asylum system, because the system at the moment is subject to massive abuse."
Increased cash payments
Labour MPs had complained that under the original provisions of the bill adult asylum seekers would have received just £7 a week in cash and child asylum seekers £3.50 - plus vouchers.
The overall level of support, including vouchers, would be retained at the same level as planned.
Mr Straw also announced that fast-tracking of family cases would be brought forward by 12 months from April 2001.
Under the fast-track system, cases would be dealt with on an initial basis within two months with a further four month limit for appeals.
The home secretary has also sought to calm other fears by amending the bill to ensure that child asylum seekers are protected by the Children Act and by enshrining a "presumption for bail" for detained asylum seekers.
However, he sought to tighten existing regulations to make it easier to return asylum seekers, who have no right to stay in the UK, to other European Union countries.
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