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The BBC's Geeta Guru-Murthy
"The commission says the asylum system is under severe strain"
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Barbara Roche, Immigration Minister
If things aren't satisfactory then I will look into it"
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Thursday, 1 June, 2000, 09:40 GMT 10:40 UK
Refugee dispersal plans attacked
Refugee seated
The report says a backlog of cases must be reduced
The dispersal of asylum seekers across the UK could be seriously undermined unless urgent changes are made, according to the government's spending watchdog.

The Audit Commission fears that many asylum seekers sent to provincial areas could face distress as some local authorities lack the resources or expertise to cope with them.

To date, the needs of asylum seekers and refugees have not been addressed in a systematic way

Audit Commission

At the moment more than 85% of asylum seekers in the UK are concentrated in London and south-east England.

But ministers are keen to spread the responsibility and cost of caring for them across the country and say the Audit Commission's report has not taken into account new measures put in place in April.

The report, published on Thursday, says: "To date, the needs of asylum seekers and refugees have not been addressed in a systematic way."

It adds that "operational pressures, scant information and inadequate joint working" are all affecting the government's plans.

The report also warns that without effective support asylum seekers could be "locked in a cycle of exclusion and dependency".

The commission also highlighted evidence that doctor and local schools are unwilling to accept asylum seekers.

Lack of funds

The Local Government Association has welcomed the report and local authorities have consistently complained that the government is not providing them with sufficient funds to care for refugees dispersed to their areas.

The commission also says immigration officials must continue to reduce the backlog of asylum seekers waiting to hear if they can stay in the UK - there are currently almost 100,000 people awaiting a decision.

Responding to the report, Home Office Minister Barbara Roche said: "They did their field work before our new system came in place."

New measures in place

"What we have done is learned the lessons that we needed to learn and consulted with health and education authorities."

The minister said an " ad hoc, back-door, dispersal" system had now been replaced with a more "formal process".

But both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have attacked the government's record on asylum.

Tory spokesman David Lidington said: "The tragedy is that these problems were foreseen, indeed they were pointed out repeatedly to ministers last year."

Speaking for the Lib Dems, Simon Hughes said the government should heed the report.

"Local councils should be paid the full cost of looking after asylum seekers," he said.

Refugee Action, a group helping to prepare new dispersal areas for the influx of asylum seekers, is also concerned about the government's plans.

David Lidington
David Lidington said the problems had been foreseen

Its northern director, Dave Garratt, said: "They will be put in areas not used to multiculturalism, so that will lead to antagonism, they will not have health, legal or education services.

Ministers had planned to take on responsibility for supporting all new asylum seekers in April but problems in securing accommodation have forced them to reduce their proposed involvement.

They will be put in areas not used to multiculturalism

Refugee Action

Dick Williams of the Refugee Council said the report "reinforced" concerns about dispersal.

Rabbi Julia Neuberger, who heads a 1m project to assess immigrants' health needs, said: "Dispersal for asylum seekers is not working. Without proper planning dispersal is damaging the health of refugees."

The government has pledged an extra 10m to cover dispersal costs but local authorities spent 30m more caring for refugees than they managed to get back from government in 1999.

But the commission warned future funding may not cover short-term costs for parts of the UK unused to offering services such as translators.

The Association of London Government said the report highlighted the fact that metropolitan boroughs bore the brunt of the cost of housing and looking after asylum seekers.

Councillor Toby Harris, the association's chair, said: "The Audit Commission has highlighted the need for adequate support services if we are to succeed in dispersing asylum seekers and easing the pressures on the capital."

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See also:

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UK asylum centres 'to hold thousands'
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