FECL 38 (October 1995):

SAVAGE CUTBACKS IN WELFARE BENEFITS FOR ASYLUM-SEEKERS

Savage cutbacks in the entitlement of asylum-seekers in Britain to welfare benefits were announced by Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, on 11 October. Due to come into effect on 8 January 1996, the measures represent the latest attempt of the (conservative) Tory government to reduce the number of asylum-seekers applying for refugee status in Britain.

 

From January of next year any asylum-seeker who fails to apply for asylum immediately upon arrival in Britain will be ineligible for welfare benefits for the duration of their application.

The only exception to this draconian measure will be nationals whose country of origin is deemed by the Home Secretary to have become the "subject of upheaval" subsequent to their arrival in Britain. In such cases an in-country application will not lead to disqualification from benefits.

 

No welfare benefits pending appeals procedures

All asylum-seekers, including those who lodge their application on arrival, are to be disqualified from receipt of welfare benefits for the duration of the appeals procedure after an initial rejection of their application. This measure will also come into effect in January of 1996.

The new proposals will operate retrospectively: anyone who lodges an in-country application after 11 October (the day of Mr Lilley's announcement) will be taken off benefits on 8 January (the date when the new measures will come into effect).

 

Starving asylum-seekers out of the country?

Refugee organisations have been quick to condemn the proposals. The Refugee Council said that they would "leave 40,000 asylum-seekers destitute", while the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants described the proposals as "scraping the barrel in an effort to starve some asylum-seekers out of the country".

 

Political, rather than economic objectives

The driving force behind the proposals is certainly not economic. The total amount of money saved by driving the majority of asylum-seekers off benefits (7 per cent of asylum applications in Britain are made in-country) will be £200 million per year - a drop in an ocean of the annual social security budget of £90 billion.

The proposals are a crude attempt to discourage victims of persecution from looking to Britain as their country of asylum, and to discourage them from pursuing appeals in the event of a first-instance rejection of their claim.

They will confront the majority of asylum-seekers in Britain with the "choice" of returning to the country where they have suffered persecution, or living in complete destitution for the duration of the asylum-application procedure (anything between six and eighteen months).

 

Press campaign prepared the ground for government action

The ground has been prepared for the Secretary of State's announcement by a run of press articles over the summer with the time-worn theme of "bogus asylum-seekers" and the alleged "explosion" in the number of persons seeking asylum in Britain.

Many of these articles also reported plans by the Home Secretary to introduce new legislation which would facilitate the rejection of asylum applications. The new legislation would introduce the concept of "safe countries of origin" and the abolition of oral hearings for "fast-track" appeals (where an application was deemed to be "manifestly unfounded").

Although there has so far been no formal announcement of plans to introduce these measures, it is clear that this new legislation will be included in the government's schedule of parliamentary business due to be announced on 15 November.

 

"Fast-track" legislation

Mr Lilley's proposal will not require primary legislation to be passed by the Houses of Parliament. Instead, all that is required is for a series of amendments to existing social security regulations to be approved by Parliament in a one-off vote. Hence the speed with which his announcement can be put into effect.

 

More applications - more rejections

Arguments advanced in support of the new measures do not stand up to scrutiny.

The number of asylum applications lodged in Britain in recent years has increased - but only by a relatively modest 10,000 since 1992. The 40,000 or so asylum applications now lodged in Britain annually pale into insignificance compared with the refugee populations of many Third World countries.

The rate of rejection of asylum applications has increased sharply over the same period. But this is less a reflection of the merits of the applications than it is a product of the government's crack-down on asylum-seekers, especially in the aftermath of the Asylum and Immigration (Appeals) Act of 1993.

 

When is a country "subject to upheaval"?

The supposed safeguard that in-country applications will not lead to benefit disentitlement when the Home Secretary deems a country to be "subject to upheaval" will also mean little or nothing in practice.

Given that rejection rates for asylum-seekers from countries such as Nigeria, Zaire, Algeria and Ghana (all of which are manifestly in a state of upheaval) are running at around the 99 per cent mark, it is difficult to envisage what cataclysmic event would have to occur before the Home Secretary deigned to recognise a country as being "subject to upheaval".

 

No prior legal advice for port applicants

Port applicants [asylum-seekers who lodge their application upon entry to the UK] will have the advantage of maintaining entitlement to benefits. But they will have the disadvantage of undergoing their initial asylum interview without having received any prior legal advice and in the absence of a legal representative, as well as possibly still being in a state of trauma. All of these factors reduce their chances of a successful asylum-application.

 

European harmonisation?

On one level the new measures are part of the general European-wide hostility towards asylum-seekers. On another level they represent a particularly British-Tory "solution" to the perceived "problem" of asylum-seekers.

Secretary of State Lilley belongs to the most anti-European faction of the Tories. As such, he is not overly concerned about the ongoing European-wide harmonisation in the sphere of asylum policies. Rather, he is primarily concerned simply about keeping as many asylum-seekers as possible out of Britain, especially given that most of them are black.

By depriving the majority of asylum-seekers of any entitlement to welfare benefits Mr Lilley clearly hopes to take a major step forward towards his vision of a refugee-free Britain.

 

Stan Crooke (Glasgow)

 

The author works for the Scottish Refugee Council, but has written the above article in a personal capacity. Contact: Stan Crooke, Scottish Refugee Council, Glasgow Office, 73 Robertson Street, Glasgow G2 8QD: Tel: +44/141 2218793, Fax: +44/141 2481835.