Blunkett's uncivilised act

Observations on asylum-seekers

Yet another legal defeat for David Blunkett and his Home Office on the issue of welfare support for asylum-seekers has resulted in predictable howls of outrage from both new Labour and the Conservatives. But in a civilised democracy, incompetent or misguided ministers who make bad laws must expect to be mauled by the courts. And in this case, the relevant law - section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 - is very bad indeed.

Section 55, which the Home Secretary pulled from his hat at the last gasp of the act's bumpy passage through parliament (an increasingly common tactic of this government), allows the shambolic National Asylum Support Service (Nass) to refuse all welfare support to asylum- seekers who do not apply for asylum immediately upon arrival at a port, even if they go straight from the port to the Home Office in Croydon and apply within hours. There is no right of appeal. This has reduced men and women legitimately awaiting a Home Office decision on their asylum claim to the point where they have to beg for food, sleep in telephone booths and defecate in public parks.

Even people who want a reduction in the number of asylum-seekers coming to the UK must surely agree with the judges that such bureaucrat-induced degradation is simply not tolerable in a "civilised nation". But it is not just inhumane - it is nothing short of bonkers. Forcing asylum-seekers into such destitution does nothing to improve the efficiency of the asylum system - indeed, the cumbersome section 55 decision-making process simply diverts scarce resources from other parts of the still-underperforming asylum system. And it will not deter new arrivals - the average Iraqi or Afghan intent on reaching the UK knows nothing of section 55, and probably wouldn't change his plans if he did.

And with both sides of every legal challenge to section 55 funded by the state, Blunkett's stubborn refusal to give in is costing the taxpayer a small fortune. Yet section 55 is so deeply flawed - and, in the words of the high court, the legal arguments deployed by the government's lawyers so "bizarre and distasteful" - that it is only a matter of time before the courts leave the Home Secretary with no more room to manoeuvre.

But Blunkett's folly becomes a scandal when one realises that he and his ministerial team grossly misled parliament - and the public - about how section 55 would be applied. MPs and peers were assured that the measure would be used only against those who make a last-minute asylum claim in an attempt to delay or impede deportation, after spending long periods - ministers talked about "months" - in the UK as a student or worker. In practice, the third-rate bureaucrats at the National Asylum Support Service have - with ministerial approval - applied the measure blanket fashion, to as many cases as possible, without heed to the requirements of two previous, damning court rulings.

We are told that British soldiers gave their lives to bring democracy, good governance and the rule of law to Iraq. So why, especially when it comes to asylum, are such concepts so disposable at home?