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Asylum Seekers: Right to Work

Volume 648: debated on Wednesday 24 October 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered asylum seekers’ right to work.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I am grateful that this debate has been granted. I am also grateful to those right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken to me about this important issue and those who have been able to join us today.

Throughout my time as a Member of Parliament, my constituency has been a dispersal area for asylum seekers, so I have seen both models—allowing asylum seekers to work and not allowing them to do so—under Governments of different political persuasions. However, since 2002, regulations have slowly changed, and now most people seeking asylum are completely unable to work. Until 2002, people seeking asylum in the United Kingdom could apply for permission to work if they had been waiting six months or more for an initial decision on their asylum claim. In July 2002, that provision was withdrawn, except in exceptional cases.

In February 2005, there was a further change: a new immigration rule was introduced to allow people seeking asylum to apply for permission to work in the UK if they had been waiting over 12 months for an initial decision on their asylum claim. Most recently, in 2010, the right to work after 12 months was extended to those who had made further submissions on their claim. At the same time, however, the right to work was restricted to jobs on the shortage occupation list, which is a restricted list that includes nuclear medical practitioners —or, in parlance that the rest of us might understand, radiographers—and classical ballet dancers.

The Home Office’s target for decisions on asylum cases is six months. In the most recent immigration statistics, released in the second quarter of this year, the number of main applicants waiting over six months for a decision on their asylum claim increased. For main applicants and dependents, 48% of people waiting for an initial decision had been waiting for over six months.

The right hon. Lady’s constituency is next to mine, so I fully understand some of the problems that she is raising, and I agree that we need to have a good look at them. A large number of asylum seekers have some very good qualifications, but cannot get the right to work, and some of them have young families to take care of. That drives them into destitution, to say the least. The Home Office now has to look at the asylum process and speed it up but, more importantly, try to give those people work where they can.

The hon. Gentleman is indeed my next-door neighbour in the west midlands, where we have enjoyed an incredible economic boom since the downturn in 2008. A number of businesses are short of skilled labour, which is one of the things that has held our region back, yet asylum seekers waiting for an initial decision have the kind of skills that our industries so desperately need. As a west midlands MP, I find it difficult to ignore that fact.

I thank the right hon. Lady for raising this important issue. The Government have been able to allocate some Syrian families to Newtownards, the major town of in my constituency. In conjunction with local community groups and local churches, we have come together to find those people accommodation and get their children into school, but also enable some access to English language classes, which will enable them to apply for jobs. With all the good will that clearly exists, with Government allocating asylum seekers locations to be housed in and the local community coming together to help, does the right hon. Lady feel that there is a need to do something with English language classes—not a voluntary group, which is the way it is being done in Newtownards, but something separate from Government? Those classes enable asylum seekers to get jobs.

As a linguist, the issue of English language learning for refugees and asylum seekers is close to my heart. If people cannot speak the language of the country that they are in, it is difficult for them to work there, so that learning is indispensable. Like the hon. Gentleman, I have had Syrian families dispersed to my constituency, and I was delighted to discover at a fringe meeting at Conservative party conference that one young Syrian lady had managed to get employment with Starbucks. A number of employers in this country go out of their way to provide job opportunities for asylum seekers, but he is absolutely right that being able to speak the language is a prerequisite.

I am grateful that the right hon. Lady has secured this important debate. In my surgeries, I have had a City banker who is now completely destitute, with no recourse to public funds, and somebody who works in the hospitality sector, at a time when we desperately need hospitality workers and care workers. Is it not right that these people should, first of all, be able to work, but that they should at least receive some resources to be able to feed their families?

As I will illustrate shortly with some case studies, being able to work transforms the situation of asylum seekers. It hugely helps their mental health, because they can integrate better, and they contribute to our economy, which is a positive for the host nation.

Waiting indefinitely for the determination of a claim can have serious effects on mental wellbeing. I have seen that all too often in my constituency, because it is a dispersal area. I have seen young men in particular who are very depressed and isolated, and even suicidal at times. I put myself in their shoes: if I had to live on £5.39 a day, struggling to support a family while feeling that my talents, my education, and everything I had learned was wasted, I would feel really down. Sadly, in those moments of isolation, I would be focused on the reasons I had left my country of origin, and some of the terrors that had caused me to flee my home. I have seen far too many asylum seekers in my surgery who have been depressed by their experience, and enabling them to work would, I think, be transformational.

On the positive side, I will share the experience of some of my constituents who managed to get work. I remember well a group of Iraqi Kurdish asylum seekers who managed to get work in a food factory. While it was not a particularly pleasant job, the men were happy. They were only earning the minimum wage, but even that filled them with pride. It meant that they were no longer completely reliant on the state, and while they were out working in that food factory they had a sense of community, both within their Kurdish community and the wider community working in that factory.

Another example from my constituency—one I am never going to forget—is the very long drawn-out battle that I had to solve the asylum claim of a lady from the Congo, who fled after her husband was executed in front of her. It took me eight years to solve that case, and not surprisingly, she was deeply depressed. Many was the weekend after my surgery when I lay awake at night, worrying about this woman and her very young child. You can imagine how I felt when I arrived at my surgery, opened the door, and saw this young woman with a smile from ear to ear and a little thank-you card for me, as her right to remain had been granted. Already, she was working as a care assistant in a local care home, contributing to our economy. I am never going to forget that as long as I live.

Even the opportunity to volunteer can break the cycle of depression and hopelessness. A gentleman called Godfrey arrived in the UK from Uganda and spent a considerable amount of time in the asylum system, and was not allowed to work. During that time he volunteered for several organisations, including the British Red Cross, and attended employability training with the support organisation Restore. In recent years, he has been employed, first in the care sector and then in housing support. His experiences in the asylum system have made him passionate about helping others who, in his view, are worse off than him. Inability to work, Godfrey argues, can lead to problems of isolation among people seeking asylum, including mental health issues, diabetes, blood pressure problems, stress, and the depression I have referred to. Worse, he has known friends forced into poverty and made vulnerable to abuse and manipulation, such as through gangs, prostitution and drug trafficking. There are countless human examples demonstrating the capacity of work to aid integration and promote good mental health among those seeking asylum. It is a good thing.

On the right hon. Lady’s point about positive integration, is she encouraged by the poll that British Future did, which indicated that 71% of the British public support the right to work as a means towards integration?

I was just coming on to the more recent research showing changing social attitudes. I very much support the research by the Lift the Ban coalition, which suggests that the current system is wasteful as it fails to harness the skills and talents of often well-educated individuals. Some 94% of people seeking asylum want to work. Some 74% have secondary-level education or higher and 37% have a degree, which is comparable with the UK population, where 42% of people have a degree. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has also recognised the gap, saying that allowing asylum seekers in the UK greater access to the labour markets would not only increase individuals’ self-reliance but avoid the loss of skills. Abilities and skills need to be used if they are not to become rusty or obsolete.

Allowing asylum seekers to work could save public money as well as provide an economic boost. Lift the Ban estimates that if 50% of the people waiting six months for a decision on their initial asylum application were able to work full time on the national average wage, the Government would receive an extra £31.6 million a year from their tax and national insurance contributions. Moving them off subsistence support but retaining support for accommodation would save the public purse £10.8 million a year. The total net gain would be much as £42.4 million.

Among European countries, the UK prescribes the lengthiest restrictions before people seeking asylum are given the right to work. In that regard, we are something of an international outlier. In comparable countries, people are largely given the opportunity to support themselves sooner. For example, the USA, Spain and the Netherlands all allow work after six months, Germany and Switzerland allow work after three months, and Canada allows asylum seekers to work on day one. In the UK, however, asylum seekers must wait a minimum of 12 months before they are given the right to work. I ask the Government to review that.

There is an indication of a wider shift in public opinion, as the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) pointed out. There is a letter in today’s Daily Telegraph from 16 religious community leaders who have signed an open letter commending the efforts of Lift the Ban and calling for the right to work to be restored after asylum seekers have waited six months for a decision. As the hon. Gentleman said, polling undertaken this year shows that when asked, 71% of people agree with the following statement: “When people come to the UK seeking asylum it is important they integrate, learn English and get to know people. It would help integration if asylum seekers were allowed to work if their claim takes more than six months.”

Given public support for such a change and that in these times of near full employment we are short of workers in key areas, surely we can now look at asylum seekers’ right to work more holistically and in a way that better respects their human dignity. I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for attending the debate today, and I look forward to hearing whether the Government will consider allowing people seeking asylum and their adult dependents the right to work, unconstrained by the shortage occupation list.

I did wonder whether the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) was going to contribute. I am not sure whether she had indicated as such to you, Mr Betts.

First, I want to apologise. I was not just at the Macmillan coffee morning; I was the host. I was giving a speech, and it was a very difficult one to cut short. I apologise. I will not take up the Minister’s time further.

Thank you. That at least clears that up. I very much appreciate the words of wisdom I have heard on many occasions from the hon. Lady and my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), who secured the debate. I absolutely recognise that the rights of asylum seekers and refugees are an important issue to them. It is a subject on which they have spoken many times in this House, with much knowledge and erudition.

This debate on access to work for those claiming asylum is important. We can see that, for a 30-minute debate, it has provoked a lot of interest from the House. Members may well want to intervene, and I will certainly be happy to take interventions, but I particularly want to thank the Lift the Ban coalition for its recent report, which was sent to me. It raised a number of important points.

Members will know that the UK has a proud history of providing protection to those who need it. This Government are committed to delivering a fair and humane asylum system. We are tackling the delays in decision making to ensure that most asylum seekers receive a decision within six months. In the year ending June 2018, we granted protection or other forms of leave to more than 14,000 people, and we are increasing integration support for all refugees to help them rebuild their lives here and realise their potential.

I am sure Members share my appreciation for the excellent work that all agencies do to help and protect these very vulnerable people, but our protection does not end there. All those claiming asylum are provided with accommodation and support to meet their essential living needs if they would otherwise be destitute. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) raised that issue. They are entitled to full access to healthcare and, for those under 18, access to full-time education. Those recognised as refugees, including those resettled here, have immediate and unrestricted access to work and other services that can support their integration.

As might be expected from a former Minister at the Department for Work and Pensions, I certainly recognise the importance of work when it comes to physical and mental wellbeing, building a wider sense of contribution to our society and community integration.

The Minister knows that I have a lot of respect for her, but given that the Government rightly put a lot of emphasis on tackling loneliness—there are all sorts of strategies about that—surely she can understand that one way of tackling loneliness for asylum seekers would be allowing them to work.

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting and important point. When I was at the DWP, I was often to be found saying that work was good not only for people’s financial wellbeing, but for their emotional and physical wellbeing. We know that children will have better outcomes if their parents are in work.

I am oft to be heard talking about finding better routes into work for our refugee populations. I absolutely recognise that we have a great deal of work to do in that respect, because the employment outcomes for refugees are way below the general population, and way below where we would want them to be, notwithstanding the fact that we know that many people who come here, particularly under the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, have specific challenges, which may be about long-term sickness or having large families or children with disabilities. We in this place and in this Chamber will all know that we have established many of our networks, relationships and friendships through our colleagues and through being at work. It is important that we find successful routes in.

I am referencing refugee communities in particular, but it is not lost on me that I receive many representations from right hon. and hon. Members, from the non-governmental organisation community and from individual asylum seekers whom I have had the opportunity and privilege to meet. They, too, would like the opportunity to be able to make a contribution and establish the same levels of networks and friendships that we all do through work.

I am listening carefully to the complex arguments about permitting asylum seekers to work, and I will of course consider further evidence that comes forward. As many Members will know, and as my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden rehearsed, the Government’s current policy is to grant those seeking asylum in the UK permission to work where their claim, through no fault of their own, has not been decided after 12 months. Those allowed to work are limited to jobs on the shortage occupation list, which is based on expert advice from the Migration Advisory Committee. My right hon. Friend made her point absolutely perfectly by referring to ballet dancers.

The policy aims to protect the resident labour market and ensure that any employment meets our needs for skilled labour. Members will know that the shortage occupation list is currently under review. All asylum seekers can make a valuable contribution to their local communities by undertaking volunteering activities. My right hon. Friend referenced the event she hosted recently alongside Refugee Action. We heard about the experiences of a number of people who had been through the VPRS and the asylum system more generally. The point about language was made repeatedly.

I was most struck by a young lady who had come here on the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. She had been in the country for only six months and she used what I regarded as a terrible term, which I utterly reject, when she said, “When I came here, I was useless.” That really struck home because in no way was that young woman useless. Within six months she had got herself to such a level of English that she gave a word-perfect speech to a packed room at the Conservative party conference. That will not win many accolades from some Members here today, but conference is a tough gig. It is not always the easiest audience to speak to, but she did it beautifully. She said, “Six months ago I was useless, but now I am sitting here, working, and able to give a speech to you all.” It was hugely impressive. We also heard from a gentleman called Godfrey—the same gentleman my right hon. Friend referenced in her speech—who spoke at length about how volunteering had enabled him to feel that he was making an important contribution and given him back a sense of self-worth.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke about how his community had wrapped its arms around Syrian families who had been resettled under VPRS. The work that we have done on community sponsorship, learnt from other countries such as Canada, has absolutely shown us that communities are willing to accept and welcome refugees into their midst. They are often best placed to help and are incredibly supportive, providing a network that enables refugees to make friends they can turn to for support in times of crisis. I might sound like a stuck record, but also provided are those all-important routes into work, which we all recognise are important.

Oh. You have educated me, Mr Betts, but I will certainly be happy to take up any issues that the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise with me outside the Chamber.

Our position is also comparable and consistent with the immigration rules for non-EEA nationals wishing to come here and work in the UK, but that approach could be undermined if non-EEA nationals were able to bypass the rules by lodging unfounded asylum claims. It is an unfortunate reality that some migrants make such claims to stay in the UK, and it is reasonable to assume that they do so because of the benefits, real or perceived, that they think they will gain.

Currently, around half of those who seek asylum in the UK are found not to need international protection. Allowing earlier or unrestricted access to work risks undermining our asylum system by encouraging unfounded claims from those seeking employment opportunities for which they might not otherwise be eligible.

May I clarify something with the Minister? When she gives figures on those refused asylum, do they take into account the numbers who, having been refused initially, will subsequently be granted asylum on appeal? It is those cases that I am particularly concerned about.

I believe that is taken into account. The hon. Lady makes an important point, because I am conscious that—I will probably say something about this later—for both original applications and appeals, the system takes far too long. We know that throughout the appeal system many people bring forward additional information that, had we had the opportunity to consider it in the first place, would have led to a case being granted at the first opportunity. I am firmly of the view that we need to continue to do more not simply to speed up the processes, but to make sure that the decisions made are the right decisions in the first place, and we need mechanisms whereby people can bring forward additional information throughout the process. Also, the headquarters in Bootle is trialling a system where we sit asylum decision makers with both junior barristers and presenting officers so that they can better understand and learn what type of case is most likely to be granted at appeal so that cases can be granted earlier. They have a much better opportunity to learn from each other and to make sure that the right decisions are made in the first place.

I recognise that there is a significant debate about the evidence to demonstrate that policy changes made by Government act as a pull factor. I am not pretending for one moment that migration choices are not complex, and I know that isolating the impact of individual policy changes is far from straightforward, but there is evidence that policies affect migrant behaviour. It is also reasonable to assume that economic incentive is at least one element in a range of factors that encourage people to choose to move to a particular destination after first reaching a safe country.

I congratulate the Minister on what has been a thoughtful and helpful speech. Can she point us to the evidence about pull factors? The Home Office’s own work on this issue indicates that the right to work is not a pull factor.

I can point to evidence from Germany, where a change in policy saw a significant increase in the numbers arriving. Interestingly—the hon. Gentleman might be fascinated by this—that was a point that I removed from my speech. I am conscious that we are concerned about pull factors. We do not want anybody making risky or perilous journeys with the aim of an economic goal, as opposed to fleeing from persecution, but of course we recognise that they can be in a position where they cannot make a choice and have to make such a journey. I felt that the message given by that chunk of my speech was too harsh. We have a fantastic reputation in this country for being a safe haven for those in need, and I really want to build on that. However, I want to build on it through schemes such as VPRS, Mandate and Gateway. Various hon. Members here have heard me speak previously about ambitions to turn them into far more holistic and comprehensive schemes instead of what strikes me as a piecemeal approach.

The Minister is being incredibly generous. On that point, I welcome her commitment to more holistic schemes. Does she therefore agree that if we want to prevent dangerous journeys, one of the best things we can do is honour the commitments we have made under the UN global compact on refugees and actually expand resettlement? Let us make it easier so that people do not feel forced to make dangerous journeys and let us encourage our allies and other countries to do the same.

The hon. Lady is right that we need a whole-route approach. We have to look to where we can build stronger alliances, but I am also very clear that we must make sure that refugees claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. We know that in many cases that does not happen. We also know that in many cases—I referenced this earlier—refugees who have been granted status find it difficult to enter the job market, but that is for very understandable reasons. Rather than encourage further integration for those who might eventually not qualify for protection, our priority is focused on our efforts to support those who most need it.

We are taking action to support refugees to integrate and find employment as quickly as possible so that they can establish themselves and build lives here. The “Integrated Communities Strategy” Green Paper, published in March this year, underlined that commitment. It also set out the Government’s priorities to focus on English language, employment, mental health and cultural orientation. When I was in Jordan during the summer recess, I was struck by the work going on there on cultural orientation for people who were yet to be resettled. There were interesting and fascinating discussions in the session that I was able to be part of, but what really struck me was the importance of doing more on that front. In many cases people who are eligible and accepted for resettlement will wait many months before they make the journey here. We should not miss the opportunity to make sure that their cultural orientation and language preparation is as good as it can be. The Syrian refugees who had some level of English were really keen to use it, practise it and have conversations, whereas others in the group clearly felt much more isolated because they did not have that opportunity.

We will publish our response to the consultation later this autumn. There is a great deal more to be said about integration and training and employment. One of my first visits as a Minister was to Bradford, where I visited the specialist training and employment programme, which was all about moving refugees into work and helping them build a CV, improve their English and then find the great employment opportunities that we know are out there, with companies such as Ben & Jerry’s, with its ice academy, and Starbucks. Indeed, the STEP—skills, training and employment pathways—programme was working very closely with Tesco.

I have very few moments left, but I want to reassure Members that I am listening carefully to the argument. There is much merit in it. My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden has certainly conveyed her views extremely clearly and well. The issue is multifaceted and complex. I look forward to further discussions with Members and NGO colleagues. I remain receptive to the views and evidence presented to me on the right to work. However, it is important that we recognise that there is a balance to be struck and that we make sure we make the right decisions.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.