Wednesday, June 16, 1999 Published at 08:57 GMT 09:57 UK
Head to head: Immigration and Asylum Bill
The Refugee Council goes head to head against Jack Straw
The Immigration and Asylum Bill: inhumane or an attempt to make the system fairer for genuine refugees while deterring bogus asylum seekers?
The Bill has been at the centre of bitter controversy between the government and refugee and human and children' s rights groups.
It has threatened to provoke the worst Labour rebellion since the government came to power.
The main planks of the Bill involve the removal of benefits from asylum seekers and their replacement by a cashless system.
The government says asylum seekers will be housed in furnished accommodation and will have their food paid for by vouchers.
Home Secretary Jack Straw last week proposed changes to the Bill to deter a backbench revolt.
This included a pledge that asylum seekers would get some cash as well as food vouchers so they can pay for public transport and emergencies.
Mr Straw also promised to speed up the asylum system to ensure families' cases were heard within two months by next April.
But refugee groups and some Labour MPs are not satisfied.
Here Jack Straw sets out the arguments in favour of the Bill while the Refugee Council voices its opposition.
"What we have done with the Bill is to open the consultation process about the Bill. It is the first time a major Bill of this kind has been submitted to a special standing committee of the House of Commons which has acted as a select committee and taken evidence.
"With the vouchers, we have sought to achieve a proper balance between being fair to genuine asylum seekers while puttings off abusive asylum seekers.
"Under our arrangements, these people will get cash and vouchers will be cashable in more than one store.
"[In reference to the case of an Iraqi Kurd who arrived in Kent] There is a need for a national system. Currently, regions like Kent are hard-pressed because there are so many asylum seekers there because of Dover.
"Asylum seekers who arrive in Kent tend to be transferred to London boroughs which take up to 50% of asylum seekers across the country and cannot cope.
"Because of this pressure, we are introducing a national system.
"We have put a huge amount of work into turning around the immigration and asylum department in Croydon where there has been a big backlog of cases [leading to delays in cases being processed].
"In the last two weeks of May, 900 cases a week were being processed, 160% higher than the level being processed before the problems last December.
"I believe we can hit our target for the vast majority of asylum seekers by April 2001 of giving an initial decision within two months and an appeal decision within four months.
"We have promised as far as possible to get family cases down to two months from April 2000 when the new asylum support system is introduced.
"In the very unlikely event that this is not done, we will not put them into the new system until we do."
[Interviewed on BBC Radio Four's Today programme]
The Refugee Council
"In this new scheme, asylum seekers and their families would receive only 70% of income support, paid almost entirely in vouchers.
"The Bill removes all benefit rights from asylum seekers and their families regardless of their need or vulnerability.
"It also takes away local authorities' obligations towards asylum seekers under sections of the National Assistance, Housing, Health Services and Children Act.
"In this way, the Bill takes asylum seekers outside the minimum standards of social support normally provided in this country without obliging the Home Secretary to meet those minimum standards.
"Furthermore, it is an extremely costly and inefficient way of supporting asylum seekers. The government itself accepts that it will be more costly per person to run and more cumbersome to administer.
"Kent Social Services said in its evidence to the Special Standing Committee that the cost of the voucher system was 'the difference between 4p and 14p in the pound'.
"This means that the voucher system is three and a half times more expensive than benefits. Added to this is the cost of setting up a unit in the Home Office, teh Asylum Support Directorate, with approximately 300 staff who will be responsible for running the new system.
"This type of system has been tried in other countries like Switzerland, found to be administratively cumbersome and abandoned.
"The British government supports a voucher system because it considers that payment of cash benefits is an incentive for economic migrants to make unfounded asylum applications in the UK.
"The government believes that the drop in asylum applications during 1996 was a consequence of the removal of benefits for in-country applicants.
"However, there is little evidence linking the drop in asylum applications, which began three months before benefits were withdrawn, with the removal of benefits.
"The fact that 1995 saw the second largest number of asylum applications ever recorded in the UK made it highly likely that the figure would drop in 1996, regardless of changes to benefit legislation.
Furthermore, since the 1996 Act came into force, applications have risen fairly steadily and there has been little change in the ratio of port to in-country applications.
"This strongly indicates that a cashless system in not a major disincentive to those making asylum applications in the UK.
"Moreover, the voucher system could never be appropriate for families with children because, regardless of whether the system turns out to be 'short-term' or not, asylum-seeking children will have immediate needs which cannot be met on 70% of income support.
"And all available evidence shows that there is no likelihood whatsoever of the goverment's targets for speeding up asylum decisions being fulfilled.
"The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents people working in the Immigration and Nationality Department, describes the targets as 'wholly unrealistic' and the government seems to have tacitly admitted this.
"At the end of last year, the average decision time on an initial asylum application was 17 months and the backlog has increased rapidly since this time.
"The Refugee Council believes all asylum-seeking families with children should be put in the benefits system, the package to single adults should not be lower than 85% of income support, the new support system should not come into place until there is proof the average time to make decisions on cases has been reduced to six months and the cash element of the support package should be equal at least ot the allowance given to people in residential homes.
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