Scottish Executive squares up to Straw over asylum seekers

6 Jan 00
The Scottish Executive is facing a showdown with Westminster next week over the treatment of asylum seekers. Home Secretary Jack Straw is anxious to persuade Scotland to accept an extra 1,000 asylum seekers to ease the pressure on south-east England.

07 January 2000

But Scottish ministers are under intense pressure from backbenchers in the Holyrood Parliament, which reconvenes next week after the Christmas break, to overturn a Home Office scheme to replace benefits with food vouchers.

The cross-party refugee group has put down a motion calling on the Scottish Executive to refuse to implement the scheme and to restore cash benefit payments.

The group claims that legal advice suggests Scotland can adopt its own rules, even though immigration policy has not been devolved.

One senior official said that the Executive might be able to overturn the Home Office rules because of their implications for policy on housing and social services, which has already been devolved to Edinburgh.

'If this goes through it will undermine the scheme in England and Wales and will be highly embarrassing for Jack Straw,' he said.

Dennis Canavan, the independent socialist MSP and a patron of the Scottish Refugee Council, accused Straw of trying to interfere with Scotland's housing and social services policy.

'While Scotland should adopt a more generous attitude there is also an important constitutional principle at stake here, quite apart from the need for a fair deal for the asylum seekers themselves,' he said.

The pressure on Scottish ministers increased further when the Church of Scotland and leading Catholic clergy issued a joint statement describing the Home Office scheme as 'a disgrace to Scotland's sense of fairness'.

Glasgow City Council, which has been asked by the home secretary to take two groups of 325 asylum seekers plus dependents before March, is also locked in a dispute with the Home Office over funding.

David Comley, the council's housing director, said: 'What we are trying to do is agree proper financial arrangements with the Home Office. The discussions are ongoing.'


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