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Law Lords defy government

May 18 2009
Senior judges comment on the number of refugees and asylum seekers adding to the homeless population The rise of refugees and asylum seekers amongst the homeless has been commented on frequently by rough sleepers and service providers, but now the Law Lords, led by Lord Bingham, have brought to attention the cause of this influx, and at the same time caused embarrassment to the government. On 3rd November, the government suffered a defeat in the courts on its policy aimed at turning away asylum seekers and economic migrants. In court, the Law Lords backed an Appeal Court decision that action to curb benefit payments to these groups threatened their human rights. They also rejected an attempt by the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, to overturn that decision. The policy in question is a recent move by the government in which welfare support is denied to asylum seekers who do not immediately make a claim after entering the United Kingdom. By this hard line policy, refugees and asylum seekers without cash are forced to rely on charities, and often face life on the streets. Introduced by the previous Home Secretary, David Blunkett, it was felt by some to be in contravention of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 3 states that nobody should be subjected to "inhuman or degrading treatment". Government claims that asylum seekers having to sleep rough did not breach Article 3 failed to win the day. Although the government's lawyers admitted it was a "hard policy" they stated that denying support to those who could reasonably have claimed asylum was for "the greater good," only affecting those that failed to make the quick claim. However, saying that the Home Secretary was justified in waiting to see if the people it affected crossed the "threshold of suffering" before giving state aid opened up a can of worms. The Senior Law Lord, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, countered these arguments by saying that although the responsibility to house the homeless and provide for the poor could not be assumed from the wording of Article 3, "I have no doubt that the threshold may be crossed if a late applicant with no means and no alternative sources of support, unable to support himself, is, by the deliberate action of the state, denied shelter, food or the most basic necessities of life." Lord Bingham followed this statement saying that the Home Secretary has duty of care for an individual who "faces an imminent prospect of serious suffering caused or materially aggravated by denial of shelter, food or the most basic necessities of life." This challenge to the government was welcomed by Shelter. Those concerned about the overstretching of homeless day centres and soup runs with the influx of refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants should welcome this ruling that will ease the pressure on services, especially those unable to offer specialist advice. But how much difference will it make in the long run remains to be seen, and the more cynical readers will look at the numbers, along with the governments past record on these matters, and expect little improvement.