Asylum Bill scrapes through Parliament after last concession

By Ben Russell and Nigel Morris

08 November 2002

The biggest reform of immigration policy for 30 years finally cleared Parliament last night after a last-minute deal overcame bitter Tory opposition to building rural accommodation centres for asylum-seekers.

The Animal Health Bill, tightening controls against foot-and-mouth disease, was also approved, hours after the Government suffered another Lords defeat on the issue.

A day of frantic horse trading between the two Houses rounded off a stormy parliamentary session in which various government measures were overturned 58 times by peers, the highest total number of defeats in 30 years.

The deadlock over the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill was finally broken when Oliver Letwin, the shadow Home Secretary, dropped Tory objections to opening huge accommodation centres in rural areas after powers were given to an official monitor to comment on whether their location was suitable.

Mr Letwin claimed victory at the end of a week in which the Lords forced the Bill back to the Commons on Wednesday when it defeated the Government over plans to build the 750-place centres for asylum-seekers in Oxfordshire and Nottinghamshire. But Home Office sources said the Conservatives had climbed down, insisting that monitors would not have a veto over proposed centres.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, said the change was a "last throw of the dice" to ensure the Bill was passed before the end of the parliamentary session. He has made a string of concessions, dropping plans for one of the big centres in Worcestershire and accepting plans for smaller-scale centres to be built in urban areas.

Mr Blunkett said: "I am making no more amendments to this Bill and I hope the upper house will now agree to pass this legislation and allow us to do what all of us want to put in place a more effective, reasonable, sensible and sensitive system in which the British people have trust, and which people across the world will know offers a better opportunity to come here legitimately, to work legitimately or to seek sanctuary here in a more effective fashion."

Mr Letwin said: "We have always supported the broad thrust of this Bill but there were some aspects of it that were clearly inadequate or over-reaching."

The Lords inflicted its final defeat of the parliamentary year on the Government when it rejected plans to give veterinary inspectors sweeping powers to enter farms suspected of harbouring foot-and-mouth. By a vote of 144 to 108, peers called for inspectors to get permission from a magistrate and for farmers to have stronger powers of appeal against inspections. They complained that scores of farmers had been compelled to have their animals slaughtered unnecessarily last year.

Lord Whitty, an Environment minister, warned that for peers to reject the will of MPs on the issue for a second time would seriously undermine the Government's ability to control a future epidemic. But as the Animal Health Bill returned to the Commons only hours after the final defeat, the Government gave ground to prevent it from being lost.