Page last updated at 10:54 GMT, Tuesday, 20 May 2008 11:54 UK

Failed asylum seekers' free NHS

Health Minister Edwina Hart
Edwina Hart quoted the parable of the Good Samaritan

Failed asylum seekers in Wales will now be given free health care - unlike their counterparts in England.

The Department of Health in England is taking legal action to restrict free access to the NHS to this group.

Health Minister Edwina Hart said her decision was the right one and that the mark of a civilised society was how it treated the sick and dying.

But the Conservatives said while the NHS should be open to emergency cases, they opposed "health tourism".

The Tax Payers' Alliance said the system was open to abuse but the Welsh Refugee Council (WRC) welcomed the move.

Previously, the Welsh assembly had passed regulations to introduce charging for secondary healthcare for refused asylum seekers.

The regulations, which meant charges for all forms of secondary care, except treatment provided in accident and emergency (A&E) departments, were passed in April 2004.

I'm simply looking at the human being at the end of the chain and saying if they've got severe health a civilised country we should give it
Health Minister Edwina Hart

The latest decision by Ms Hart comes amid turmoil about the policy in England, where a test case in front of the High Court last month has left the position of failed asylum seekers and their access to the NHS uncertain.

Until then, free health care was cut off for all failed asylum seekers in England and Wales.

The Department of Health in England is appealing against the ruling in a test case, which said there were some circumstances in which failed asylum seekers could get free access to NHS treatment.

Ms Hart told BBC Radio Wales it was up to the UK government how it monitored asylum seekers, but offering failed asylum seekers free NHS treatment and putting it on a legitimate footing was the "right thing to do".

She used the comparison of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

"No-one would want to see a pregnant woman turned away from hospital if they were having difficulty with the pregnancy and people are fundamentally decent and they will understand this argument," said the minister.

"I'm simply looking at the human being at the end of the chain and saying if they've got severe health problems and they require help and assistance, as a civilised country we should give it."

Conservative health spokesman Jonathan Morgan said the NHS should be there in emergency cases, and primary care should also be available "to a point where someone falls ill".

But he said Tories were "firmly against the policy of allowing 'health tourism' to flourish."

He added: "Those who are not supposed to be in this country should not be entitled to the benefits that citizenship of Great Britain affords, including elective treatment and surgery."

Anna Nicholl, of the Welsh Refugee Council, said: "This gives a clear message that all people in Wales should be treated with a basic level of humanity and will be applauded by the wide coalition of groups who have been campaigning for these changes."

The Archbishop of Wales Barry Morgan said he wholeheartedly supported the minister's view that Wales has a moral obligation to care for vulnerable people, regardless of their asylum status.

In Scotland, those who have applied for asylum or still within the asylum process are already entitled to free NHS treatment until they leave the country.

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