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Tuesday, February 9, 1999 Published at 13:44 GMT

UK Politics

Immigration bill for 'faster' system

The changes are expected to save £150m

Ministers have unveiled plans for sweeping reform of immigration and asylum procedures.

Political correspondent Carole Walker: "The entire system is grinding to a standstill"
The Asylum and Immigration Bill is intended to speed up the processing of applications at a time when the system is under great strain.

Home Office figures say 20,000 asylum-seekers are living illegally in the UK, but the Immigration Service Union believes the real figure is more than three times higher.

Crises such as the conflict in Kosovo have also contributed to a 50% rise in the number of people seeking asylum in the UK in the past 18 months.

The government has said it will fulfil its obligations to genuine refugees but wants a system which is "fair, firm and fast".

Six-month target

Home Secretary Jack Straw said a target would be set for an initial decision to be made on asylum-seekers within two months of their application.

If they were refused asylum they would then be allowed a single appeal to be completed within four months after that.

Mr Straw said the bill would also crackdown on those people who made money smuggling or aiding illegal immigrants.

"There are unscrupulous immigration advisers, get-rich quick solicitors and criminal gangs involved in this who abuse the right of appeal and so you have three, four or five appeals," he said.

"What we are aiming to do is by having a swifter system is to ensure that yes we still meet our international obligations to genuine asylum seekers but we bear down on the criminals."

[ image: Jack Straw: Ending multiple appeals]
Jack Straw: Ending multiple appeals
The bill will also set out plans to cut the backlog of about 52,000 cases, by giving around 30,000 applicants the right to remain.

There are also expected to be provisions to administer benefit - including vouchers and food - to asylum seekers centrally and to spread them around the country to avoid unfair burdens on local authorities in port areas.

The reforms follow a review of the asylum and immigration system announced when Labour came to power.

Mr Straw said that because the last Tory government had left the immigration procedures in such a mess it might be several years before the full effect of the improvements were felt.

However, the changes are expected to save £150m of the annual £500m costs of the system.

'Mish-mash' reforms

Refugee organisations have criticised plans to detain a larger number of asylum seekers who have lost their appeals and are being told to leave the country.

The chief executive of the Refugee Council, Nick Hardwick, said the proposals, the third shake-up in a decade, were a "mish-mash" of suggestions which risked plunging the system into even greater chaos.

He added: "The government promised to introduce an asylum system that was 'firm, fast and fair'. These proposals are certainly firm - but we see no evidence that they will be fair or fast."

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