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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 September, 2003, 18:18 GMT 19:18 UK
Blair's asylum stance 'chilling'
Asylum seekers return to Kosovo
Blair wants failed asylum seekers to lose recourse to the courts
Refugee groups have expressed alarm at a tougher stance on asylum signalled by Tony Blair in his speech to the Labour party conference.

The prime minister told the conference changing the law was the only way to control immigration.

Specifically, he said he wanted to slash the appeals process and restrict access to legal aid.

"We should cut back the ludicrously complicated appeal process, we should derail the gravy train of legal aid, fast-track those from democratic countries, and remove those who fail in their claims without further judicial interference," he said.

The government recently finished consulting on plans to cut the hours of legal aid to which an asylum seeker is entitled to four hours for initial advice, and five to prepare an appeal.

Susie Renshaw, of campaign group Refugee Action, said she was "very worried" about Mr Blair's suggestions, particularly concerning legal aid.

It's very difficult if you've been raped or you've seen your family killed to talk to your solicitor about it in the allotted time
Refugee Action

"Some claims can be processed very quickly if you have a good solicitor, or if you come from a country where human rights abuses are well documented and your claim is relatively easy to process," she said.

"But if you have a complicated story it can take a lot longer.

"It's very difficult if you've been raped or you've seen your family killed to talk to your solicitor about it in the allotted time.

"And if psychiatric reports or medical reports are needed, that will take a lot longer."

There had been cases of unscrupulous solicitors wasting time, she said, but the planned changes would make it more likely that the good solicitors would leave the system entirely.

And too many asylum refusals would lead to many more judicial reviews which would simply cost the taxpayer more money, she said.

In his speech, Tony Blair said he wanted to:
"Cut back the ludicrously complicated appeal process"
"Derail the gravy train of legal aid"
"Fast-track those from democratic countries"
"Remove those who fail in their claims without further judicial interference"

Keith Best, of the Immigration Advisory Service, said Mr Blair's speech was "chilling" - especially the phrase about "judicial interference".

"It's an assault on justice and the rule of law," he said.

The idea of restricting legal aid to just a few hours was unworkable and unfair, Mr Best said.

"It will not work, I give it 12 months before the whole thing implodes," he said.

Solicitors would not be able to prepare a case properly, ethical lawyers would pull out of the system entirely and many people would be denied effective representation, he said.

"It's the most direct way to deny justice and an assault on the rule of law, it's absolutely appalling."

The chief executive of the Refugee Council, Maeve Sherlock, stressed the importance of a fair judicial system for asylum seekers.

'Defence against racism'

"An effective asylum system requires a robust judicial framework that provides strong legal safeguards.

"The current high level of successful appeals - over one in five - demonstrates how necessary this is," she said.

Mr Blair said the UK should "always be open to refugees", and Britons should be "proud" of the part immigration had played in their country.

"But economic migrants should come in through a proper immigration process," he said.

"Changing the law on asylum is the only fair way of helping the genuinely persecuted, and it's the best defence against racism gaining ground.

"We have cut asylum applications by a half. But we must go further."

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