by Angus Macdonald AN ecumenical delegation me, Home Secretary, Kenneth Baler, this week to stress the churches continued opposition toproposed changes in asylum policy, despite signals from tie government that it may have to drop its controversial Asylum Bill from its legislative programme for this session of Parliament.
David Haslam, a spokesperson for the ecumenical Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland, which is organising the visit, said that the asylum issue could resurface after the election, and stressed the need to continue pressing for proper provision for asylum-seekers.
"If the Conservatives remain in power, these things will come forward again, and at this meeting we will continue to make the same points about the need for a proper appeals system, including oral representation, And adequate resources for dealing fairly with asylum-seekers," he said.
The controversial bill, which was intended to "streamline" procedures for dealing with asylum-seekers, may be dropped from the House of Lords timetable in order to leave room for other legislation prior to the
forthcoming general election. Since the government is unable to guillotine debate in the Lords, it is highly unlikely that there will be time for the committee stage of the bill, particularly if as some observers have predicted the election is called for early in April.
The measure had faced considerable opposition from Catholic peers, church leaders, lawyers and civil rights groups, who feared that the changes might result in asylum-seekers being returned from the UK to situations where they would face harassment, detention, torture or death. The great majority of refugees in the UK are seeking safety from countries of conflict and danger," said David Haslam. "Any new legislation should arise from full consultation with refugee agencies including the lawyers involved in refugee work, and with the refugee communities themselves, and should include the right of appeal."
Cardinal Basil Hume and Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George. Carey, articulated church concerns over the bill in a letter to theTimes in November, which was widely quoted during the subsequent debate, whilst Bishop Kevin O'Connor, head of the bishops' committee for migrants, recently hosted a public debate on the issues raised by the proposed legislation attended by MPs of all parties and Catholic members of the House of Lords.
Bishop O'Connor said this week that he felt pressure exerted by the bishops had been worthwhile. it brought the issues into the public domain, and we are hopeful that when the bill does come again to Parliament, the controversial amendments will be dropped," he said.
John Joseet, adviser on refugees to the Catholic bishops' conference, said that the intervention of senior churclunen had motivated the government to think again, and called on those shaping any future legislation to take account of the views of experts and interest groups in the field.
At Wednesday's meeting with the. Home Secretary the delegation, led by Anglican Bishop of Liverpool David Sheppard, sought assurances from Mr Baker that the asylum debate won't become an election issue. "We shall seek a statement that he won't be using asylum-seekers as a pawn for electoral advantage," said David Haslam.
Catholic MP David Alton, who opposes the bill, suggested that the government had been trying to play the racist card as an election tactic in highlighting the asylum issue. "The government was subtly reminding people that 'we're the only ones who can deal with this flood of refugees', which is nonsense," he said.
Church leaders have
previously expressed unhappiness that the debate has been carried out in what the Anglican Bishop of Kingston described as "an atmosphere in which asylum-seekers have become associated with deception". This follows publicity about "bogus" applications.
Other issues raised at the meeting with Mr Baker included the curtailment of leave to appeal for those who make unsuccessful asylum applications, the fingerprinting of all asylum-seekers, and the lack of protection for children.
The housing implications of the bill have also been a cause for concern amongst churchmen.
A spokesman for the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland said that there were fears among a number of churches in London and elsewhere are providing emergency accommodation for asylumseekers that under the projected legislation they may be forced to evict refugees.