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Asylum Seekers and Permission to Work

Volume 684: debated on Wednesday 18 November 2020

[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered asylum seekers and permission to work.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests for the support I received for research capacity in my office in relation to work on asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. The Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy project provides research capacity to me and other Members of Parliament on this issue, and it does a fantastic job generally.

While I am thanking RAMP, I want to thank everyone involved in the Lift the Ban campaign: Refugee Action, Asylum Matters, the Refugee Council, City of Sanctuary UK, Ben & Jerry’s, UNISON, which is the country’s biggest trade union, the Salvation Army, and Church of England and other faith groups. I would also like to thank other RAMP principals, including the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds), for attending this debate. I know he wants to contribute, and that is very welcome. There is no politics involved in getting this right, in my opinion.

Who does this issue affect? An asylum seeker is someone who has applied for asylum, is legally entitled to be in the country and is awaiting a decision on whether they will be granted refugee status. After a claim is made in the UK, an asylum seeker is granted the right to work after 12 months in a limited pool of occupations. That is important, because the shortage occupation list, which is administered by the Government, is a system more akin to a Stalinist economic plan in the Soviet Union than global Britain in the 21st century.

I will give a bit of the history—come with me in my Tardis. In December 2018, the Home Secretary stated that a Home Office review of the policy on asylum seekers and work would be taking place. Since then, any questions that have been posed or letters that have been written to Ministers have all been met with the response that work is ongoing. In all that time, we still do not have a full idea of the remit, the process that is being followed or when it will report.

On 25 July 2019, in a debate about priorities for Government, the Prime Minister told my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green):

“The Home Office is currently reviewing that matter, and we will make an announcement shortly.”—[Official Report, 25 July 2019; Vol. 663, c. 1493.]

Shortly? Priorities for Government? That was on 25 July last year. We know that a week is a long time in politics, but 64 weeks after the Prime Minister told us that it was his priority to deliver the review and he would make an announcement shortly, we still have no news.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is absolutely astonishing that the Government are taking so long to look into something that would have an economic benefit for the country? Estimates tell us that up to £42 million could be contributed to the economy by people who are currently left without any dignity and living on a pittance, when they have skills that they could bring to our country.

That is beyond astonishing. I am baffled and bewildered as to why it is taking so long. I do not shy away from acknowledging the fact that migrants of all kinds have always made a strong economic contribution, and they have strengthened our community and our society for the better. They should be better treated by our Government, who have delayed on this for far too long.

On 11 June this year, in the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill Committee, the Minister announced that a new service standard for asylum claims was being developed. He said that it was

“intended to try to bring back some balance to the system…UK Visas and Immigration is engaging with stakeholders as part of these plans and considering any insight that those stakeholders offer as it tries to shape a new service standard”.––[Official Report, Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Public Bill Committee, 11 June 2020; c. 124.]

I hope the Minister who is here today will tell us what that will look like, who has been involved and when it will report. I hope that he will also tell us when what the Prime Minister promised in July 2019 will finally be delivered. I assume that those things will be together, but let us see what the Minister says.

On the numbers of people affected, the Refugee Council reported at the end of June this year that 38,756 people have been waiting for more than six months for a decision. That is a massive increase on the figure for this time last year. It is a record-breaking rise, and a record-breaking failure in the Home Office. From the end of June this year, almost 17,000 applications have been waiting for more than 12 months for an initial decision. That is astonishing, and it is pathetic. Any business with such a level of delivery would be shut down. It is a complete failure and a dereliction of duty in the Home Office. We should not forget that an application does not just represent one person; there can be a whole family on one application.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman is driven by compassion for genuine asylum seekers, but does he not agree that what he proposes would feed into the business plan of the traffickers who bring economic migrants to our shores, causing the misery that we have seen both at sea and in the backs of lorries?

It is completely the opposite, I am afraid. Asylum seekers could make, and want to make, an economic contribution to this country, and that is to be welcomed. People are forced to use illegal measures to get into the country because of the delays and our terrible system. If we were more compassionate and stuck with the UK tradition of helping people, rather than turning a blind eye or crossing the road, we would be in a better position morally and economically.

I, too, need to draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a RAMP principal. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the introduction of safe and legal routes—we very much welcome the Government’s commitment to doing that—by which people can establish their claims is key to the United Kingdom’s ability to disrupt traffickers and those who bring people into the country in very high-risk ways, which are a matter of legitimate public concern?

Does the hon. Gentleman also agree that the introduction in 2002 of the ban on asylum seekers working reflected a prevailing concern, in the then Labour Government and in Parliament more widely, about the economic impact? At the time, the United Kingdom was preparing for the accession of further countries into the European Union. However, according to the research that RAMP has shared with us both, 67% of businesses believe that now is the time to lift the ban. Does he agree that we need to recognise that times have changed, and that safe and legal routes and the changing economic climate make a case for doing so that simply did not exist when the Labour Government introduced the ban in 2002?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution, and I completely agree that times have changed. These people, however, are often professionals; they have skillsets that we should be seeking to use to benefit our economy.

I was speaking to the hon. Gentleman outside about the fact that of six Syrian families that came to Newtownards, all of the menfolk were skilled carpenters and wanted to work. One of the things that held them back was language. Does he feel it is important that we encourage those people who have skills whenever there is a market for them at the same time, as there certainly was in my constituency?

I agree, the Government should prioritise English language training to overcome the language barrier. We have seen a drop in the availability of English language teaching and training, and that needs to come back.

The point about it being time to change is really important, because Lift the Ban’s research showed that one in seven of the people seeking asylum have experience of working in health and social care. We have a shortfall in those sectors, and in any normal year we should be welcoming people and getting them into those jobs as quickly as possible. In the context of a global pandemic, there is simply no excuse for denying this workforce a chance to get on with those jobs, which we need more than ever. I hope today the Minister will talk us through how he will be fast-tracking those with health and social care backgrounds, in particular, into jobs.

We need more nurses and medical practitioners, and people with that skilled background are going through an inhumane process—state-sponsored destitution on £5.66 a day or £39.62 a week. I hope that the Minister will listen to campaigners and tell us when that rate will be increased, and why it has not yet been increased to help people protect themselves, their families and the broader community in response to covid-19.

There is evidence that this policy has left people vulnerable to exploitation and criminals. Even in Home Office-run hostels, gangs target these people because they know they are desperate for cash and income. This is a Home Office policy—the Department responsible for law and order and tackling crime has a policy that results in an increase in crime.

I will be brief. Britain, our country, has a proud history of supporting people fleeing war and persecution, and the use of language is very important. It is important to remember that asylum seekers are people; they are fellow human beings and they need to be treated with respect, dignity and fair process. Does my hon. Friend agree that the reason so many hon. Members on Opposition Benches are alarmed by inaction by this Government is that this Government and the Home Office were the architects of the hostile environment that led to so much damage to the fabric of society?

I think that there is cross-party support for this, and I will come back to the subject of the broader public.

Before I leave the subject of occupations, the Government’s list of approved proficiencies includes classical ballet dancer or skilled orchestral musician—so those are okay, but for other professions, where we desperately need people, people are being delayed in getting into those jobs. I hope the Minister will commit to overhaul the shortage occupation list system; he will have public support for that. British Future found that 71% of the British public supports the right to work after six months—public opinion will be on the Government’s side should they introduce the policy.

I want to talk about the situation in Southwark. We have 189 dispersed asylum seekers housed across the borough, and the council has a commitment in its refreshed plan to making Southwark a borough of sanctuary, working with community groups and partners to help and support refugee and migrant asylum seekers in the borough, and campaigning to end the hostile environment, which the Government told us they wanted to end. They told us they were dismantling the hostile environment, and yet here it is alive and kicking and damaging people’s lives, leaving people destitute.

I want to celebrate the work of the Southwark day centre for asylum seekers, which does a tremendous job and has very strong links to this House; my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and hon. my Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) are both patrons of it. People from the centre tell me that the majority of the people they see do not have the right to work and are dependent on charities and faith groups. Churches and mosques are picking up the slack because we have an irresponsible Government leaving people without support. Some of the people they are supporting are not even covered by the asylum support scheme and live beyond destitution. They have confirmed that 40% of the asylum seekers they are helping wait longer than 12 months for a decision—40% of the people they see. I see these people in my casework and surgery sessions—not face-to-face at the moment, although I do make exceptions, so if anyone does need to see me, we can do in a covid-secure way in my constituency office.

I promise to be super brief. I was reading a quote about how cash benefits have been regarded as

“a major pull factor that encourages fraudulent claims”—[Official Report, 14 June 1999; Vol. 333, c. 16.]

from asylum seekers. That was from Jack Straw, when he was overseeing this policy as Home Secretary. Does the hon. Member agree that one strength of recognising that times have changed and introducing the right to work is that it would prove to our constituents that asylum seekers are not scroungers, but people with skills valued by British businesses who are here to make a tax-paying contribution, rather than expecting to subsist off the taxpayer?

I agree 100% and that echoes the point made earlier that these are people who want to contribute, to make a difference and to improve our country as well as their own lives. I have two quick examples from constituency casework. One woman who applied for asylum in 2014, was initially refused, and reapplied in 2017 has still had no response and no decision. She fled Eritrea due to political repression and has physical injuries as a result of the beatings that she took there. Her current application has taken more than three years and remains undecided. The second is a man with post-traumatic stress disorder from his experience in Iran, where he was born, who received a refusal in 2019, after waiting more than a year initially. He submitted a fresh application, including more medical information, has still not received a response and is left destitute. This is an issue—the longer people wait and are out of work, the harder it is for them to contribute when permitted by the Government. Of course, there are also mental health issues and other implications for those left marginalised and isolated on the periphery of society. These are people who could be contributing, as other Members have mentioned.

It is estimated that the current policy costs the taxpayer almost £100 million a year—for an awful, inhumane and incompetent approach. The CBI and TUC back the Lift the Ban campaign. It would generate income and reduce bureaucracy, help raise additional income tax and national insurance, and cut emergency accommodation and other costs. Of course, there are stronger and long-term savings as people integrate and contribute more. Compared globally, we perform badly. Before people can work in France, Spain and the USA it is six months, in Germany it is three months, and in Italy two months. In Canada and Australia—Ministers often hold up the Australian immigration system—there is no wait. People can get into work as soon as they arrive. Why are we not using the Australian model? Why is the Minister still sustaining the damage of this policy to our economy and those people’s lives?

In conclusion, what the campaign asks for is a change and for the ban to be lifted to ensure a more humane approach that tackles this long-term isolation and marginalisation; one befitting the UK’s proud history of support and allowing people who face persecution and repression abroad to enter; and one that is in our economic interests, helping us to tackle covid so that people can protect themselves, the NHS and the wider community. Without that change the Home Office, the Department responsible for safety in this country, leaves those people and our whole community unsafe.

As I have made some interventions already, I shall be brief. As a Conservative, I believe the case is now robustly made for a change in position. We can consider the history and accept that it is right that Government Departments should implement different policies to respond to the concerns that the public, voters, businesses, and everybody in the community has in a given period.

I was reflecting on an article published in The Guardian about how the wider issue of immigration and this point specifically had become so toxic over the years. It referred to the proposals put forward by a Labour Government, for example, that the children of asylum seekers should be taught separately because they were “swamping” the classrooms of this country. Barbara Roche, who was the Immigration Minister for a number of years at the time when the current legislation was established, talked about needing to be much tougher to deter people. That was probably a response to a prevailing concern with the accession of the Visegrad countries into the European Union and a lot of coverage in the media that said that that was going to lead to large numbers of people arriving in the country with the right to work. There was understandable concern in some communities about the impact that would have on their local areas. The Government wanted to demonstrate that they were concerned, and that they were going to be tough and take effective measures to make sure that impact was mitigated.

Of course, as we have heard from the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle), we face a period in which covid, Brexit, and changes in legislation on borders and free movement all add up to a very different picture. The polling done by British Future identifies that many people in these communities have, over time, come to see that asylum seekers and refugees in their local area can bring valuable skills and should be able to use those skills in paid work, rather than subsisting for a long time on very meagre amounts paid for by the taxpayer.

It seems to me a very Conservative thing to expect people to pay their way. When people arrive and could be working in our hospitals, our care system or, frankly, in any kind of job that their skills and experience make them fit to do, we as Conservatives should enable them to do it, rather than having taxpayers pick up the tab for their costs while we make a decision on their long-term futures. That view seems to be gaining a high degree of traction.

Although I absolutely accept that there is a compassion argument at the heart of this issue, we need to recognise that that argument is not attached to any particular political viewpoint. Governments have to make decisions in the light of the circumstances that they face and in the wider interests of the country. It was, once upon a time, in the wider interests of the country to apply those restrictions to have a borders and immigration policy that commanded public confidence.

When so many businesses around the country say that they are struggling to recruit workers, particularly skilled workers for certain types of job—the farming industry was talking about that over the summer with preparations for harvesting, and for local authorities recruiting staff for social care is a major challenge, with significant upward pressure on wages—there is an opportunity to bring people with those skills in to make that contribution and become tax-paying, economically active members of our society, rather than subsisting on the taxpayer. That is why I think it is time to make the case for a change in that policy.

It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing the debate and getting through his speech in record time—he cantered through it and got a great deal of content into a relatively short time.

I will start by addressing some of the points made by hon. Members. A lot of emphasis was placed on the contribution that migrants can make to our economy, but of course, we have a legal route for those who are able to make an economic contribution to get into the United Kingdom. We have a new points-based system coming into force in just a few weeks, and anyone from anywhere in the world is able to apply under that scheme. If they meet the criteria, which are quite generously drawn, they can get a work permit and come here to work and make the contribution to which hon. Members have referred. That route exists and will be in full operation very shortly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) said that if there were safe and legal routes, people would not have to come and claim asylum in this way. There already are a number of safe and legal routes. I have already mentioned the work visa route, but for people who want to reunify with their family, we have family reunion rules, under which 7,500 people came into the United Kingdom in the year up to March.

We also have a refugee resettlement scheme, which is, I suspect, the scheme used by the six or seven gentlemen mentioned by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), whereby we go directly to countries of danger, particularly Syria but to others as well, and bring the most vulnerable people directly into the United Kingdom. Under those rules, we choose who deserves to come in, rather than people entering illegally. In the last five years, up to March 2020, 25,000 people—half of whom were children—have come into the UK under that resettlement route, which is the largest of any European country. Those safe and legal routes most certainly do exist.

I can confirm that I have been to the refugee camps in Jordan and seen how those most in need are selected. Indeed, we delegate that job to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, so it is not us choosing them but a well-respected international body choosing those who can come and who do not need to resort to paying the people smugglers—that is, if they have the money to pay them. Those most in need do not have the money to pay the people smugglers.

My right hon. Friend, who of course has considerable expertise in this area, is absolutely right. The UNHCR, over the last five years, has chosen the people who are most in need, whereas those who come here, for example, in small boats across the English channel are not necessarily those most in need; they are those who can afford to pay people smugglers, or those who are fit and strong enough to force their way across the English channel. They are not those most in need; they are effectively pushing their way to the front of a queue and potentially displacing people whose need is greater—those people who have come over, for example, on the family resettlement route.

That brings me to the point about the current policy, introduced, as we have been reminded, by the last Labour Government. Many of the reasons that the last Labour Government chose or had regard to in introducing this policy do, I think, apply today. The first point is that we have legal routes—very clear legal routes—for coming to this country to work and make a contribution. If somebody can enter the country clandestinely, for example on a small boat, which is dangerous and unnecessary—it is unnecessary because they could quite easily claim asylum in France, a safe country—and immediately start working or start working after a very short time, that undermines the points-based system and the legal route that we have created. What is the point of having a legal route if it can be immediately circumvented in the way that I have described?

Does the Minister accept that, in the current circumstances, if someone is in this country legally, has come through the safe routes and followed all the procedures, they are not allowed to work, yet they could be making a contribution to society? Will the Government not take that into account?

Well, of course, people who come in through the family reunion route can work straightaway; people who come in under the resettlement programme—those 25,000 people, including the constituents of the hon. Member for Strangford—can work straightaway. We need to speed up our asylum decision making; some fair points were made there. Clearly, the pandemic has made that considerably more difficult, but we need to work to speed up those decisions, which is in everybody’s interest. It is in the interest, clearly, of the person seeking asylum, so that they know where they stand; that is only fair. If they do get a positive decision, it means they can start working; that is only fair to the taxpayer as well.

I have to just finish, because there is very little time remaining. I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me for concluding.

I also am concerned about the possibility of creating some measure of pull factor, because if people know that they are able to come here on, for example, a small boat or the back of a lorry, or on an aeroplane, without proper documentation and immediately, or very nearly immediately, start working, that will act as a further encouragement to come to the UK and add to the 35,000 asylum claims that we have already. Particularly in the case of people who are in safe countries such as France—pretty much all the small boat arrivals come from France—they are in a safe country where they could, if they wished, claim asylum.

I will just say that the shortage occupation list is rather wider than was represented. It does include nurses and medical practitioners. I commend that scheme to people with those skills who want to work.

Will the Minister look at those who have health and social care backgrounds and fast-track them on the SOL, so that they can work sooner and while our services so desperately need them?

We conducted a review of that back at the beginning of the pandemic, and the numbers that I was given were very, very small, but I will say that the professions that are on the shortage occupation list and can be applied for include medical practitioners, psychologists, nurses, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists—and even actuaries and architects. Paramedics are on there as well. There are quite a lot of medical professions on the shortage occupation list already. A review is ongoing. It will report as soon as we are able to complete it, and I will of course report back to the House when that happens, but in the meantime I completely take the point about speeding up and making sure that we make these decisions quickly, for all the reasons that we have discussed this afternoon.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.