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Monday, 7 October, 2002, 16:28 GMT 17:28 UK
Blunkett accused of asylum panic
Asylum seekers at Calais
Would-be asylum seekers are stopped en route to UK
Home Secretary David Blunkett has been accused of panic over his latest plans to make the UK less attractive to asylum seekers.

Opposition peers have reacted with fury to news that Mr Blunkett has unveiled new proposals as his flagship Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill enters its final parliamentary stages.

New measures
No support until presence explained
Less exceptional leave to stay
'White list' of safe countries
Under the changes, immigrants making asylum claims would be denied support unless they could explain how they entered the country and unless they made their claim at a port or airport.

Mr Blunkett also said fewer asylum seekers would be granted exceptional leave to remain in the country if their claim for refugee status was rejected.

The proposals are expected to be added to the Nationality Bill as it goes through its final stages in the House of Lords on Wednesday.

'Bulldozing'

That provoked anger as peers returned from their summer break.

Conservative frontbench spokeswoman Lady Anelay said the plans had all the hallmarks of panic.

Crossbench peer Lady Mar accused ministers of wanting to "bulldoze" the plans through the Lords.

David Blunkett, Home Secretary
Blunkett expects more criticism for the plans
There was criticism too from former Labour minister Lord Clinton-Davis, who argued the proposals should be left until the next session of Parliament.

The Liberal Democrats say introducing the plans at this late stage displays "uncoordinated" government.

Home Office Minister Lord Filkin tried to fend off the criticism.

The government was not treating the issue lightly, he said, but was reacting to events which emerged over the summer.

Defeating the far right

Mr Blunkett acknowledges the plans themselves will provoke criticism.

But he insists that establishing confidence in the asylum system is the only way to counter attempts by extreme right groups to capitalise on immigration issues.

Exceptional leave is now being granted in a quarter of cases, compared to 10% five years ago, and is believed to be a "pull factor" attracting economic migrants to the UK.

Primary school classroom
Charities want asylum seekers taught in mainstream schools
The 10 countries waiting to join the European Union - including the Czech Republic and Poland - will also be placed on a "white list" of safe states from which asylum claims are presumed to be unfounded.

Benefits will not be handed to asylum seekers unless they can show they are entitled to it in the same way UK citizens are.

At the same time, Mr Blunkett announced extensions to the means by which migrants can enter the country legally:

  • From April, the UK will start accepting refugees who claim asylum while still abroad through a scheme operated by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)

  • Two new quota-based schemes will be established to allow hotels, restaurants and food manufacturers to recruit seasonal labour from abroad.

Mr Blunkett told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the creation of a list of safe countries would send a "major signal" that the UK was taking a tough line on unjustified asylum claims.

"The message has got out that if you get here and you claim asylum, then we'll support you," he said.

"Well, that's absolutely crazy. We'd have to be absolutely mad to say 'come here, have a holiday and we'll pick the tab'."

Conservative response

The London office of the UNHCR welcomed parts of the new plans.

But among its concerns was the proposal to restrict exceptional leave to remain in the UK - something the UNHCR said was a "crucial safeguard" for many refugees.

Nick Hardwick, chairman of the Refugee Council, warned asylum seekers could be left "destitute" while the new benefits checks were carried out.

The "white list" also did not take account of abuse of some peoples in some eastern European countries, he said.

The Conservatives are promising to look "carefully and constructively" at the new plans, saying the "white list" of safe countries is something they had already proposed.

Penalty fears

But shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin said he had "severe concerns" that the new UNHCR scheme could mean the UK takes more than its fair share of refugees.

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes said managed migration schemes were overdue.

"But it would be quite wrong to penalise people who seek asylum late through fear or ignorance," added Mr Hughes.

Meanwhile, seven leading children's charities have joined forces against other parts of the bill, particularly trying to halt plans to exclude asylum children from mainstream schools.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Margaret Gilmore reports
"The number coming from Eastern Europe is up dramatically"
Home secretary David Blunkett
"We'd have to be mad to say come here, have a holiday, and we'll pick up the tab"
Shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin
"By and large this is a package which seems to be moving in the direction of Tory policy"

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17 Sep 02 | Politics
18 Sep 02 | Politics
30 Aug 02 | World at One
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