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Tuesday, June 15, 1999 Published at 21:01 GMT 22:01 UK

UK Politics

Labour avoids asylum rebellion

The proposed asylum changes have caused widescale protest

Labour has fought off a major backbench rebellion over its controversial measures on asylum seekers.

Neil Gerrard and Jack Straw discuss the Asylum and Immigration Bill
Home Secretary Jack Straw averted the expected revolt by offering rebels concessions on the Asylum and Immigration Bill.

But despite Mr Straw's moves, a few Labour MPs will still refuse to back the government when the bill is put to a vote on Wednesday.

The government was keen to avoid another setback just days after losing out to the Conservatives in the European elections.

Cash and vouchers

MPs had been concerned by the government's plans to pay asylum seekers' benefits in vouchers with just £1 a day being given out in cash.

[ image: Neil Gerrard MP: Remains disgruntled]
Neil Gerrard MP: Remains disgruntled
The home secretary informed MPs last week the government had decided to increase the percentage of benefits paid in cash so it would total £10 a week.

His other main concession to the rebels was to bring forward the fast-tracking of family cases by 12 months so it will start in April 2001.

Opposition to the bill grew during the Kosovo conflict, when the UK was also criticised by other countries for failing to accept its fair share of ethnic Albanian refugees.

Important concessions

Chair of the all-party backbench group on refugees Neil Gerrard said the concessions offered by Mr Straw had lead to the collapse of the rebellion in which over 40 Labour MPs were expected to vote against their own party.

[ image: The Kosovo refugee crisis heightened opposition to the reforms]
The Kosovo refugee crisis heightened opposition to the reforms
Mr Gerrard said: "There was a general view that while people were not entirely happy, there have been concessions, unlike over welfare reform, and we should recognise that and not discourage the government from adopting such an attitude."

But Mr Gerrard said he and some colleagues would be voting against the bill on its third reading on Wednesday.

The bill has also attracted opposition from outside Parliament.

Poverty line

More than a 100 pressure groups made their displeasure with the measures known when they handed in a petition against the bill to Downing Street.

[ image: The changes could slash the cost of the asylum system by a third]
The changes could slash the cost of the asylum system by a third
A spokeswoman for the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, said: "The proposed food voucher scheme is dehumanising while the policy of 'no choice' dispersal of asylum seekers around the country is likely to cause widespread misery."

They also say it will deny child refugees the protection of the Children Act, ghettoise asylum seekers, while also forcing them to live below the poverty line.

Mr Straw's reforms are intended to stop economic migrants who abuse the asylum system.

It is estimated they will make £150m savings from the £500m annual cost of the asylum process.

Illegal immigrants

Mr Straw said the immigration service was working increasingly efficiently.

[ image: Jack Straw says claimants will be treated fairly]
Jack Straw says claimants will be treated fairly
"What I have promised, as far as family cases are concerned, is that we will get them through the system within two months from April 2000 - when we introduce this new asylum support system."

Currently, the Home Office says 20,000 asylum-seekers are living illegally in the UK. The Immigration Service Union suggests the real figure may be more than three times higher.

In May, 67 Labour MPs defied the party whip over welfare reform when Social Security Secretary Alistair Darling refused to back down on proposals to bring in means-testing on disability benefits.

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