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The BBC's Geeta Guru-Murthy reports
"The delay to dispersal will prove an embarrassment to the government"
 real 28k

Monday, 6 March, 2000, 18:03 GMT
Government defends asylum delays
asylum seekers
The plan was due to begin in April
The phasing in of new rules governing asylum seekers has been defended by the government.

The decision announced by Home Office Minister Barbara Roche in a parliamentary written answer on Monday means local authorities will still have to carry the cost of supporting some asylum seekers, despite their worries over cash.

But from 3 April applicants for asylum at ports of entry will "no longer receive social security, cash, or housing benefits".

But those seeking asylum 'in country' will still be the responsibility of local authorities in England and Wales.

'The sensible course'

Ms Roche said: "A phased implementation is the sensible course, drawing on the lessons from previous experience in implementing serious change.

"Bringing port applicants onto the scheme first will enable the National Asylum Support Service to deal with any teething difficulties before rolling out the scheme fully."

Under the new arrangements, which Ms Roche hopes will be fully up and running within six months, the government is supposed to take over the task of dispersing asylum seekers round the country, and relieve the pressure on Kent and the south east of England.

A further 10m is to be made available to local authorities charged with supporting asylum-seekers and Home Office officials have acknowledged that the scheme's implementation has proved difficult as sufficient accommodation has been hard to find.

None of these measures would be necessary if they got a grip on the asylum system

Ann Widdecombe, Shadow home secretary
An estimated 40,000-60,000 accommodation places a year are needed to house asylum seekers under the dispersal scheme, under which they will be offered places to live on a take-it or leave-it basis in clusters around the country.

By the end of March, local authorities will have offered around 4,000 places under a voluntary scheme set up to foreshadow the new arrangements organised by the National Asylum Support Service, according to the Local Government Association.

Kent County Council, currently supporting nearly 4,500 asylum seekers, put up its council tax last week citing the cost of support, while Hillingdon Council, which covers the area around Heathrow airport, is set to follow suit.

Speaking earlier on Monday shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe said she was not surprised by the delay.

'Get a grip'

She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We have known for some time that there was a shortfall between what they required in terms of housing and what was available and some of the areas they were moving people to didn't have the support services in place.

"None of these measures would be necessary if they got a grip on the asylum system and the number claiming, and they have only themselves to blame for the fact that the numbers applying have gone up from 29,000 when we were in power to 100,000 now."

Miss Widdecombe called for a special agency to be set up to oversee the removal from the UK of asylum-seekers whose applications are rejected.

'60,000 missing'

Elsewhere, the Times newspaper has reported that at least 60,000 asylum-seekers who have entered the UK in the past decade have "disappeared".

Quoting figures prepared by the Immigration Service Union, the newspaper reports its research officer John Tincey saying that most of these missing cases were thought to be living "clandestinely and working in the black economy".

Last week, Home Secretary Jack Straw turned down 27 applications for asylum from passengers from the hijacked Afghan airliner which landed at Stansted Airport near London last month.

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