In denying the right to food and shelter, Blunkett’s new benefit rules breach the European Convention of Human Rights.
Mr Justice Collins, sitting at the High Court, has blocked the implementation of Section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, which denies ‘late claimants’ for asylum the right to state-funded shelter and food.
At the hearing a week before, the court heard the consequences of denying support to asylum seekers who did not apply for asylum ‘as soon as reasonably practicable’, as demanded by the new rules. Keir Starmer QC, representing five of the six asylum seekers challenging Section 55, asserted that the Home Office rules had forced the asylum seekers on to the streets. He cited the example of an Iraqi man who had spent the night ‘in a telephone box and a tunnel’ and the case of a young woman from Ethiopia, who was found destitute at Heathrow Airport.
Giving his judgement yesterday, Justice Collins said that the rules, as they were applied in the six test cases, breached the European Convention of Human rights. He ruled that there was a ‘real risk’ of destitution, leading to injury to health. He added that ‘insufficient consideration had been given to the issue’ and that the decision made in the case of the six ‘must be quashed and reconsidered, if that has not already happened’. ‘Parliament,’ he said, ‘can surely not have intended that genuine refugees should be faced with the bleak alternatives of returning to persecution or of destitution’.
The six claimants – from Angola, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Iraq and Iran – had been given emergency support pending the outcome of the legal action. Yesterday’s ruling has a bearing on more than 150 other asylum seekers who have begun legal action on similar grounds. And the National Asylum Support Service has today announced that it has stopped issuing negative Section 55 decisions and that all those who have previously received a negative decision can ask for it to be reconsidered. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns, around 7,000 asylum seekers have received negative decisions since the measure was introduced on 8 January 2003.
Reacting to the verdict, Home Secretary David Blunkett told BBC Radio 4’s The World At One: ‘Frankly, I am personally fed up with having to deal with the situation where parliament debates issues and the judges overturn them.’ He added that he did not accept the judgement and would seek to overturn it. The Home Office’s appeal against the ruling will be heard on 3 March.
Jerry Clore, of Clore and Co. solicitors, one of the firms involved in bringing the case, said: ‘This judgement is the inevitable conclusion of the way in which this law has been interpreted since 8 January. In the past few weeks, I have seen individuals subjected to the most appalling levels of destitution. I am relieved that the High Court has stepped in, once again, to prevent the erosion of a very basic human right – the right to food and shelter.’
Tory Shadow Home Secretary Oliver Letwin said: ‘This confirms our view that the entire asylum system needs to be scrapped and replaced with a quota of genuine refugees.’ He added that this would require renegotiation of, or withdrawal from, international agreements.
Margaret Lally, acting Chief Executive of the Refugee Council, said that she had been a daily witness to ludicrous decisions, in which people, who had made their asylum claims within 24 hours of arrival, were being turned away with nothing and with no right of appeal. She added that, when the legislation passed through parliament, the government claimed new arrivals would not be left sleeping rough or relying on food parcels and blankets to help them through the winter. MPs and peers were reassured that the Home Office would operate the policy reasonably. David Blunkett told MPs: ‘We need to be reasonable and take into account the trauma that people experience. We need therefore to allow a reasonable period before we presume that people have come into the country for another reason.’
But it appears that such assurances to parliament have been abandoned by the Home Office in its continued policy of making asylum seekers’ lives intolerable.