An estimated 50,000 refugees could be allowed to stay in the UK indefinitely thanks to the home secretary's decision to offer a deal to 15,000 families.
failed asylum seekers who had exhausted the main appeals process but had not yet been deported.
The move came on the same day as a senior judge pinpointed the lack of an
'adequate, efficient decision-making procedure' as the main reason why the
courts were being flooded with an 'almost unmanageable' number of asylum
Mr Justice Maurice Kay, sitting at the High Court in London, criticised the home secretary and his officials for failing to fully follow guidelines
already laid down by the courts for processing such cases.
The Conservatives said the amnesty would make Britain a 'magnet' for asylum
seekers and criticised the government for making the announcement on the day Concorde made its farewell flight.
'We all know the government has buried bad news in the past - coinciding
today's news with the final Concorde fly-by is in this same lamentable
tradition,' said shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin.
Mr Blunkett said that going ahead with the amnesty had been a 'difficult
In what he described as a 'one-off exercise', the offer will apply to
families who sought asylum in the UK before 2 October 2000.
The Home Office is currently supporting 12,000 families who fall into that
category, with up to a further 3,000 supporting themselves by working
Moving all 12,000 claimants off asylum support will save £180m, plus additional savings in legal aid.
Once they have been granted leave to remain in the UK the families will be
eligible for m ainstream benefits.
At the High Court, Mr Justice Kay, who is in charge of the listing of asylum support legal challenges, said the home secretary was falling 'miles short' of achieving targets.
The judge said he also 'did not accept' assertions made on Mr Blunkett's
behalf that he had no power to provide emergency accommodation for destitute asylum seekers who were then forced to turn to the courts for assistance.
The robust criticism came as the judge set out guidelines for the future in
a bid to stem the flow of applications for judicial review by asylum seekers who say their human rights are being infringed because of new rules which allow them to be denied support if they make late claims.
The guidelines were drawn up after 18 judges who deal with asylum cases
expressed concern over the growing numbers of applicants.
The judge said: 'I am satisfied that the main reason why the vast majority
of applications are being made and are succeeding is that ... there is not
in place an adequate, efficient decision-making procedure for the processing of representations.'
Under the asylum deal announced today, people who have committed a criminal
offence or lodged multiple asylum applications will be excluded, as will
so-called 'asylum shoppers' who have previously made an asylum claim in
another European country.
Mr Blunkett said: 'Granting this group indefinite leave to remain and
enabling them to work is the most cost-effective way of dealing with the
situation and will save taxpayers' money on support and legal aid.
'These are difficult decisions but I do not believe it is the best use of
taxpayers' money to take these expensive long-standing individual appeals
through the courts.
'This one-off exercise will enable those who have suffered years of
uncertainty over their status to move off benefits and into work to fully
contribute to society.'
Mr Blunkett's official spokesman said that it was impo ssible to put a figure on the total number of people who will be allowed to stay in the UK, but he said it would be at least 30,000 including children, and did not disagree with an estimate of 50,000 or more.
The families were largely from Kosovo, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
and Turkey, he said.
Mr Blunkett's spokesman said it would be the largest amnesty programme in
recent years, compared with 21,500 given amnesty by previous home secretary
Jack Straw in 1998-1999, and 32,300 under the Tories between 1991 and 1994.
Officials also announced plans for measures to end all benefits for failed
asylum seeker families if they refuse to take up the offer of a voluntary,
free flight home.
The spokesman said these proposals - which will require new laws to be
passed by Parliament - could see asylum seeker children taken into care if
their parents were denied support.
'We can't allow the children to starve because of the actions of their
parents,' he added.
The spokesman conceded that voluntary return schemes had not been a success
so far, with poor levels of take-up.
'Having offered a bit of carrot, there is a need for a bit more stick,' he
Shadow home secretary Mr Letwin said: 'This decision will make Britain a
magnet for asylum seekers who now know that even if their cases are rejected they could be allowed to stay.'
Nick Pearce, director of left-wing think-tank the IPPR, said: 'This is a
difficult decision for any politician to make, but its the right one. It's
sensible and pragmatic, and fair to the families concerned.'
STRAND NEWS SERVICE