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Last Updated: Monday, 27 October, 2003, 17:55 GMT
Tougher asylum laws proposed
Asylum remains a controversial issue in the UK
Asylum seekers arriving in the UK without travel documents could be prosecuted under government plans unveiled on Monday.

Immigration officials say most asylum seekers arrive without documentation and some destroy their passports en route to conceal their nationalities.

The plan is one of the measures set out in a consultation paper.

Others include restricting asylum seekers whose applications are rejected to a single appeal, and a new crackdown on unqualified legal advisers who "abuse" the system.

The proposals for a new asylum bill, expected to form part of the Queen's Speech next month, follow the Home Office's biggest asylum amnesty.

On Friday, it announced 15,000 asylum seekers and their families - an estimated 50,000 refugees - could live and work in Britain indefinitely because it has taken so long for their cases to go through the courts.

They were soft on asylum on Friday and needed to seem tough on Monday to balance things out
Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Mark Oaten

The appeal system has already been reformed once since those cases began more than three years ago.

But during his Labour Party conference speech in Bournemouth last month, Prime Minister Tony Blair said the current "ludicrously complicated" system still allowed for too much "judicial interference".

Announcing the new proposals on Monday, Home Secretary David Blunkett said: "We must now speed up the appeals process.

"Too often unscrupulous and unqualified legal advisers are encouraging claimants to lodge appeal after appeal with no prospect of success, all at taxpayers' expense."

Appeal changes

As well as the single tier of appeal, the asylum regulator will get new powers to take action against legal advisers who give advice on how to "defraud" the system.

Under the current system, asylum seekers can appeal to an adjudicator and then, with permission, to the Immigration Appeals Tribunal. The courts can also be a final option.

David Blunkett
David Blunkett says he is not anti-immigration
The proposed changes would mean there would only be one appeals tribunal and the government also wants to restrict access to the higher courts.

Those plans are likely to provoke challenges from asylum help groups and sceptics are asking how ministers will prevent the plans leading to more rather than fewer judicial reviews.

Other proposals include:

  • Making airlines on certain routes copy passengers' passports before they depart

  • Deporting more quickly those who have already claimed asylum in safe third countries

  • Ending benefits of families who are able but unwilling to return home when their asylum claim fails

  • Making it a criminal offence to advertise or offer immigration advice without proper qualifications

  • Giving the asylum regulator the right to enter solicitors' offices and order documents to be handed over when they are handling a complaints.

Mr Blunkett said most asylum seekers claimed not to have travel documents, despite needing them to board a plane in the first place.

"The fact is, many destroy them en route because traffickers tell them it's their best chance of staying in the UK - by making fraudulent claims and making it difficult to remove them if their claims fail," he said.

Panic?

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Mark Oaten said the new proposals had "the feel of the Home Office panicking".

"They were soft on asylum on Friday and needed to seem tough on Monday to balance things out," he said.

Conservative shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin said only the details would show whether the measures would work.

"I'm not optimistic that the present system can be created by adding layer after layer of legislation," said Mr Letwin.

The Tories want the current system scrapped completely and replaced with processing asylum claims overseas.

Winter fears

Sir Andrew Green, chairman of Migrationwatch UK, told BBC News Online: "These are tentative steps in the right direction, several of which we have advocated."

Maeve Sherlock, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said the measures ignored the main cause of asylum system delays - poor initial decisions at the Home Office.

Tackling unqualified legal advisers was welcome, she said, but cutting the amount of time quality advisers had with clients risked creating more appeals.

Ms Sherlock said prosecuting those without travel documents was "penalising the victims rather than targeting the criminal traffickers."




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Daniel Sandford
"Immigration officers say three quarters of all people claiming asylum at Heathrow say they have no documentation"



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