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Wednesday, October 20, 1999 Published at 21:23 GMT 22:23 UK

UK Politics

Lords defeat for asylum vouchers

Ministers say the bill will deter bogus asylum seekers

The government has suffered a defeat in the House of Lords on its controversial Immigration and Asylum Bill.

Conservative and Liberal Democrats peers united to back an amendment to delay plans to largely replace cash benefits for asylum seekers with vouchers for food and other essentials.

The defeat is being seen as a serious setback by the Home Secretary Jack Straw.

[ image: Campaigners say the bill will hit genuine asylum seekers as well]
Campaigners say the bill will hit genuine asylum seekers as well
The Home Office fears it could frustrate the entire plan to disperse asylum seekers around the country and speed up the system for handing applications for asylum.

The amendment, proposed by the Bishop of Southwark, would halt the introduction of the voucher system until the government meets its target of cutting waiting times for asylum appeals to six months.

It was backed by 161 votes to 116 in the latest setback to befall the bill.

Earlier this year, ministers were forced to grant concessions to stave off a major backbench revolt in the Commons.

They agreed to increase the proportion of benefits to be paid in cash and to reduce that to be provided in vouchers.

1990s backlog

Mr Straw has insisted that the measures in the bill will deter bogus asylum applications by those not really threatened by persecution in their homelands.

Refugee groups have condemned the bill, saying it will penalise genuine asylum seekers as well as bogus ones.

They also point to the fact that at present there is a backlog on asylum appeals dating back to the early 1990s.

But under the government's own targets nobody should wait more than six months when they appeal after being refused asylum.

'Delay straightforward and just'

The Bishop of Southwark said his amendment, introduced at the report stage of the bill, would "restore benefits for an interim period until the government's targets are met. It keeps matters straightforward and just".

He said it would not be right for asylum seekers to suffer hardship for years on a care package only designed for a few months.

The bishop said the government did not want, rightly, to be seen a "soft touch" but neither should it be seen as "harsh or unjust" to those genuinely seeking sanctuary.

The Attorney-General, Lord Williams of Mostyn, said while peers had "legitimate motives" he claimed their fears were "misplaced".

'Programme undermined'

Labour's Lord Warner, a former adviser to Mr Straw, also said peers were "fretting about nothing" over the issue.

The government had "listened to the complaints" and enhanced the levels of support, particularly for those with children, he said.

A Home Office spokesman said the defeat would undermine the entire programme for trying to disperse asylum seekers away from Kent and London to other parts of the country.

The indications are that the government will be determined to try to reverse the defeat when the Immigration and Asylum Bill returns to the House of Commons.

[ image: Jack Straw: Condemned Tory 'wrecking tactics']
Jack Straw: Condemned Tory 'wrecking tactics'
But the defeat does present difficulties for the government because it effectively only has about three weeks left in the current parliamentary session to reverse the Lords' defeat.

Mr Straw accused the Tories of using "wrecking tactics" which exposed their "hollow rhetoric on asylum and immigration".

In a statement, he said: "The effect of this amendment would be significantly to add to costs and delays - and frustrate the much-needed reforms we are making to overhaul the shambolic asylum system we inherited.

"The restoration and extension of social security cash benefits would act as a continuing incentive for abusive asylum seekers and play into the hands of the organised racketeers who exploit this trade in human misery."

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