I beg to move,
That this House has considered asylum seeker employment and the cost of living.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. My constituent Mary had to flee her home country of Kenya because of fear of persecution and sought asylum in the UK in 2017. I met Mary in August of this year and learned about her story and the barriers that she has faced since coming to the UK, one of which is the barrier to being able to work. Back in August, she told me:
“I was made to understand that I did not have the right to work as a person seeking asylum. This was…devastating for me as I knew I had some transferrable skills that I could use here to build my life and contribute to society.
Not being able to work really affected my mental health. It felt…demeaning for me especially being a parent and not being able to fully provide for my child. Most days, I was confined in the house, dealing with devastation and a lot of stress. There were days my daughter had to miss school when it was non-uniform…days”.
Mahmoud came to the UK in 2020, fearing for his life. He was forced to leave behind his wife and young son. Mahmoud was a civil servant and campaigner in Sierra Leone. He loved his job, but more importantly, he loved the fact that he was advocating for others. His life was sent into a spiral when the authorities began persecuting him. He said:
“Going hungry brings me some comfort. The money that could pay for my food has paid for the food my family is eating. My little son”—
I congratulate the hon. Member on securing the debate. While inflation has pushed the cost of energy and food to a 40-year high, the asylum support allowance has risen by just 13p from last year. Does he share my concern that the Home Office has not adequately considered the harm done when refugees cannot afford the very basics, such as three meals a day?
I thank the hon. Lady for the intervention. I was just coming on to that point, but I completely and wholeheartedly agree.
As Mahmoud said, going hungry brings him some comfort. The money that could pay for his food has meant that his little son will not go to bed hungry. That is the only comfort that it brings him. He used to spend £10 on his weekly grocery shop, but now, increasing costs are making that impossible. These are not one-off instances; this is the life of an asylum seeker in a cost of living crisis.
Close to 18 months ago, I was in a debate on the Nationality and Borders Bill. In that debate, I said that asylum seekers travel through many safe countries, and that they essentially have a shopping trolley as to what they want as economic migrants. I want to go on record here and say that it is important to admit when you are wrong. My meetings with Mary and others have shown me that I was wrong, and I am sorry for that. Every week, the Government use scapegoats, and as we continued to see even yesterday in the Prime Minister’s statement, asylum seekers have been one for this Government for far too long. I am sorry for playing my part in that narrative as well.
These people are not arbitrary numbers for newspaper editors to froth at the mouth about, or to stoke the fire of intolerance. They are human beings, and we all need to remember that. They have had their hopes and dreams for themselves and their children dashed, but they still have hope. They want a good education; they want to live life without fear of persecution; and more importantly, they need our help and assistance. The persecution may be for a religious or political belief, due to war or because of the sexuality of the person they love, but when I have met asylum seekers, one thing has always been constant: the need for dignity after all they have been through. I am sure that we can all agree that having a purpose through work brings dignity.
People seeking asylum in the UK are in effect prohibited from working, and are forced to rely on just £5.84 a day while they wait for a decision to be reached on their asylum claim. During the cost of living crisis, that small sum makes it impossible to cover what is needed. As the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) said, an increase of just 13p in a year seems miserly in the crisis that we face as a nation.
You have fled persecution, and you fear for your life. You have taken on a potentially near-death experience, crossing dangerous waters in an overflowing dinghy with both your children. You get to your destination, but all avenues are blocked. That £5.84 does not even buy two cups of coffee. It is not enough to feed or clothe yourself or your children, to travel to appointments, or to buy toiletries and sanitary products; that is not feasible. That just is not fair.
Immigration rules dictate that people can apply to work only after they have been waiting for a decision on their asylum claim for over a year. There are many reasons why lifting the ban on asylum seekers working in the UK is the right thing to do. Forcing people fleeing persecution to spend months of their lives in poverty is inhumane. It has a detrimental impact on their physical and, more importantly, mental health. Enabling people to work provides them with the human dignity of being able to support themselves and their families while they build a route out of poverty. There are moral and ethical reasons why that would be the right thing to do. Lifting the ban would also provide considerable fiscal benefits to the country.
Without the opportunity to work, many people seeking asylum are forced into unsafe and exploitative practices, including forced labour. Research by the OECD found that a lack of permission to work can lead some people seeking asylum to work unlawfully, and that type of work can lead to situations of exploitation and modern slavery, as they do not have recourse to health and safety measures, or even regulated employment practices.
The Lift the Ban coalition estimates that reform of the policy could save the UK economy more than £333 million a year. If 50% of people who have waited more than 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 almost £249 million from the tax and national insurance contributions alone. If they no longer required subsistence support but retained support for accommodation, the Government would save an additional £84 million.
By the end of 2022, the Treasury will have wasted nearly £1 billion over 10 years as a result of banning people seeking asylum from working. Lifting the ban would also bring us into line with other countries around the world. The restrictive approach that the UK takes on the right to work makes it an international outlier. In comparable countries across Europe and in Australia, people are given an opportunity to support themselves earlier, with fewer restrictions. In France and Spain, there is a six-month wait, and in Germany a three-month wait.
Employment figures continue to show tightness in the labour market; the CBI has identified that three quarters of businesses are being hit by labour shortages. The British Chambers of Commerce suggests that reform of the shortage occupation list is required to allow sectors facing an urgent demand for skills to get what they need. It makes no sense for business, or for this country, to prohibit thousands of people who have the necessary skills from filling vacancies in industries that are desperately in need of workers.
Members should not listen only to me; the Lift the Ban coalition brings together almost 270 members, including the TUC, Unison and Oxfam, as well as those famous lefties at the CBI, Bright Blue and the Adam Smith Institute. The Government’s own Migration Advisory Committee released its annual report on Monday. It found that banning asylum seekers from working results in their entering the informal economy on poorer wages and conditions, which leaves them open to exploitation. It states:
“We also recommended that the Government review their policy more generally on allowing asylum seekers to work.”
It is not only businesses but the public who support that. YouGov polling carried out in March 2022 found that 81% of the population support granting the right to work after someone has waited six months. According to Refugee Action, 97,717 people seeking asylum have waited more than six months for an initial decision on their application—a sixfold increase from five years ago.
We have heard many times about the asylum system being broken. The figures alone show that to be the case. Just over three quarters—77%—of asylum seekers will eventually have their asylum claim accepted. The cost of living crisis has illuminated the ongoing dangers and frustrations of the restrictive rules. Soaring food and energy prices have pushed inflation to a 40-year high, yet the rate of asylum support allowance has risen by just 13p since 2021. Without the option of supporting themselves and their families through work, many people seeking asylum experience poverty, destitution and homelessness, and develop serious physical and mental health issues. The Conservative mantra has always been that the best route out of poverty is through work, so why are asylum seekers left in destitution and not offered that route?
Labour supports granting asylum seekers the right to work after they have waited for six months. The Minister for Immigration admitted recently that although he did not think the policy should change due to pull-factor concerns, there are good arguments on both sides of the debate. The Government’s defence of the policy is that enabling asylum seekers to work would act as a pull factor, and that wider economic policy schemes could be seriously undermined if migrants were able to bypass work visa rules by lodging unfounded asylum claims in the UK, but that falls flat given that a leaked Home Office report showed that permission to work is not a pull factor. The report revealed that many people seeking asylum do not have a prior understanding of welfare policies or access to provisions before they come to a country, and they have little knowledge of economic conditions in destination countries.
Equally, the argument that economic migrants will make false claims in order to access the labour market is not a strong line of defence. A six-month waiting period would provide a strong safeguard against that. It is implausible that somebody would bring themselves to the attention of the authorities on the basis that there might be a chance that their asylum application will not be decided within six months. In reality, most people seeking asylum do not have a choice about the country to which they flee. Many of those who have come to the UK have done so because of cultural, family or community connections.
I pay particular thanks to Refugee Action for all the important work it does in supporting asylum seekers. It has been an invaluable source of information and, more importantly, education to me. I also thank World Jewish Relief; it set up its specialist training and employment programme in 2016, which helps refugees to gain language skills and qualifications, and to get training. It also provides one-to-one assistance in CV writing and interview skills.
We need an asylum system based on compassion. I hope the Minister has listened closely to the body of supportive evidence and takes heed of it. Human beings all need support at some point. Please do not leave these people behind.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) on securing this debate, and on making such a powerful speech. It took a lot of honesty and courage, and I believe it truly honours his constituents.
When we see people through the lens of how they were created, we do not see the labels that people have adhered to them. We find our brothers and sisters, our colleagues and friends. For that reason, it is so important to seek the very best for people who are at their very worst. I have serious concern about people who are not in education, employment or training. We know the impact that has on our constituents, no matter where they come from or their circumstances. We know about the impact on their mental health, their self-esteem and their dignity. We know about the impact on wider society, the local economy and the Treasury. The desire to work is instinctive in all of us. We want to contribute and make a difference to our society, and people who have come far want to make their contribution, too.
Not allowing asylum seekers to work means that the public perceive them as living off the state. Much of the public do not know about the work restrictions and the lack of access to welfare. Does the hon. Lady agree that the Government’s approach to refugees contributes to misconceptions, and may lead to racism?
I thank the hon. Lady for that point. There is a risk that that approach can be used to fuel a debate. That is why it is important to ensure that people who come to live in our communities are integrated into them, become part of our streets, families and society, and play a strong role by contributing and receiving, as we all do. That makes stronger societies. She makes a pertinent point.
People’s desire to work should be honoured, but as we know, across society, some of those people will be picked off by traffickers. Many people are trafficked to our country, and their securing good employment is one way to mitigate that. We know about the rise of modern slavery and exploitation. A black market is operating, and it would be far better for people to have the opportunity to contribute through legal employment than to be taken to darker places. When people are in employment, additional safety and accountability is placed around them. We hearing too many stories of people disappearing. That is not safe for them, or for wider society.
Let me look at another aspect of the argument. I hear constantly from employers in my constituency and across North Yorkshire that there is a serious labour shortage. I am thinking about the NHS and social care, where services are unsafe because they cannot be properly staffed. We have an NHS crisis; it needs to secure more and more people in work. I am thinking about our wider public services and the contribution that so many people could make to the UK, just as they contributed in the countries from which they fled. I am thinking about the opportunities in agriculture; we need to increase our food security. I am also thinking about logistics, in which, again, there are serious labour shortages.
So many of the people coming to our country could be part of the future economy. We have a climate crisis and are talking, at this very cold time, about the need to retrofit homes, yet we do not have the skills or the workforce to do that. We could train a new generation of workers to be part of the army that will be needed to address those issues. Construction and engineering are other examples. There are so many such areas.
In my constituency, many hospitality settings have to close for part of the week because they simply do not have enough labour. That lack of labour is having a significant impact on the economy. The Government have been challenged by productivity, yet people who desperately want to work are being denied that opportunity. They could bring a greater return to the Treasury and help the economy across the board to settle, so that inflation could be controlled and the cost of living crisis, into which we have all been plunged, addressed.
Asylum seekers have to wait 12 months before they get the opportunity to work. That demonstrates the crisis that has emerged, owing to the Home Office not having enough labour in place to process claims more quickly, and it costs people significantly. People’s talents are being wasted. I would fully support an employment programme that ensured that people had the opportunity to work. Last week, I met the Minister for Immigration to discuss that very issue, and to talk about the opportunities now that York has many asylum seekers coming to stay in our city. I offered our city, which is England’s only human rights city, as a city of sanctuary. There is an opportunity for people to come, and I suggested that in an orientation, they should receive the input and support that they need to address their trauma, and should receive any necessary language support.
We should also start to triage people, and to look at who would most benefit where—for example, for younger people, we should look at schools and colleges—and at where the skillsets are. For many people, it might be worth looking at the occupational shortage list; they could then move into skilled employment. Others should have the opportunity to undertake training, and work could then be identified for them. Alongside that, we should ensure that people have the accommodation that they need. If people are in employment, they can contribute to the cost of their accommodation and that of their family.
I also discussed a scheme that I would like the Government to adopt for people coming to the UK for asylum: homes for asylum seekers and refugees. That would give people the opportunity to integrate, and to live with families here. We have seen the success of the scheme for people coming from Ukraine, who have been able to integrate into communities. When 77% of asylum seekers have their applications granted, it obviously makes sense to get people ready for employment and for the opportunity to play a full part in our society as part of our communities. To deny those people that opportunity for 12 months is to deny them a year of their life, which is completely inappropriate. We know that work is therapeutic and healing, and it is one way of providing dignity for people. I have heard many stories of constituents who have come to me and begged for the opportunity to work, to provide and to be humanised through labour.
It is absolutely right that we now see the Government move; it is economically literate for them to do so, but it will also dignify people across society. It will build a stronger economy for the future, build better integration, take away the barriers that divide people and ultimately build a stronger society for all.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) on securing the debate. Its timing is particularly good, given that we are about to go into the Christmas recess. Many of us will enjoy time with our families, and at the same time we are asking people not just to exist on £5.84 per day but live in cold and often damp housing. It is not a time of cheer for those people.
Earlier this year, I presented my Asylum Seekers (Permission to Work) Bill for First Reading. I discussed many of the issues that hon. Members have raised this morning. Ultimately, if we strip all this back and look at what the actual issue is, it is the Home Office; that is the bottom line. It is not making decisions and people are kept in limbo. Yes, we might hear about people kept in limbo for months, but for many of them—including a lot of my constituents—it is year after year of living hell. They cannot move on with their lives and they cannot do anything; they are literally just stuck there.
If the hon. Member’s inbox is anything like mine, she will have people who are waiting two or perhaps even three years. They come to my office literally every single day just to see if we have had any news whatsoever. Unfortunately, all that we can say is, “No, but we will chase it again.” It is not being able to actually get on with life; they do not have a life, because they are not able to. They are stuck in limbo, as she said. She is absolutely right; this is fundamentally a failure of the Home Office, and it needs to be corrected now.
Absolutely. One of my constituents has been waiting seven years for a decision. Are they an asylum seeker? Well, they are an asylum seeker—but are they a refugee or not? Surely we can come to a decision on that faster than seven years. We have a duty. If these people are not genuinely refugees, let us allow them to move on with their lives, because they cannot do that.
This is also economically stupid. We hear about the cost of housing these poor individuals. What we should be looking at instead is this: if they are working, what tax revenues can we gain? In fact, if only half of those currently awaiting a decision from the Home Office were able to work, it would generate nearly £200 million a year in tax revenues. We do not hear that; that is never put on the front of the Daily Mail. While there has recently been an increase in the shortage occupations where people can seek employment, there are still glaring gaps. Members have already talked about hospitality; I also have businesses in my constituency that are having to close because they cannot get staff. Meanwhile, literally upstairs from the café that is having to close, we have housed asylum seekers who are desperate to work. It makes no sense; when that café works, it closes. People—native Glaswegians, in my case—are also losing out, and money for the local economy is being lost. Simply by not allowing the neighbours upstairs to work, we are causing businesses to fail. It is economically stupid, but it is what we have come to expect.
Teachers are allowed to work if they teach maths, physics, computing or Gaelic, which is useful in Scotland, but there are huge shortages of teaching staff across the UK and we should be able to allow those people to come in and help. We have also seen shortages of HGV drivers, yet those people are not allowed to do such work.
In the rhetoric that we hear it is interesting that these individuals are coming here to steal all our jobs, at the same time as claiming all our benefits. That is the paradox that neither the Daily Mail nor this Tory Government seem to be able to solve. In fact, the reality is that these people do neither of those things. The majority of people are simply looking for somewhere safe to get on with their lives, where they can contribute.
Contributing is important: if we allow them to work, they contribute to the community and become part of our society. We all benefit as a result. I pay tribute to my constituent, Jean, who worked very hard with the asylum-seeker community about 20 years ago in Glasgow, when the Home Office was trying to deport people. She mobilised the local community to stop that happening. The story was told as “Glasgow Girls”, and one of those Glasgow girls, Roza Salih, is now an SNP councillor in Glasgow. Jean was the power behind the movement to stop the deportations happening. Kingsway Community Connections and people such as Jean are working hard to help people integrate and learn the language, and to show that they are welcome, which they are, but all the time we are battling against the poisonous rhetoric that causes so much difficulty.
We also hear about safe and legal routes. I would love the Minister to tell me what the safe and legal route is for my constituent’s sister, who is women’s rights worker in Afghanistan. Her brother was shot in front of her a couple of months back, by people who told her they are coming back for her. What safe and legal route is available to her? She is literally under threat of execution at the moment.
Working while waiting for a decision on an asylum claim allows for better integration, is economically sensible and allows us to learn from other cultures. It provides economic benefits to our communities and allows them to thrive. Finally, I congratulate the hon. Member for Bury South once again on securing the debate and allowing us to put on record some of the issues.
It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I offer huge congratulations to the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) on securing this important debate and on making a brave and moving speech. I thank him for what he said.
The right to work is a frustrating issue. I find myself unable to get into the Government’s head on many parts of the discourse in this place about migration and how we treat refugees and asylum seekers, but the right to work is one area where the Government may be able to be pragmatic. I will make the case for that more fully if I have time at the end of my contribution, but to put it very bluntly and crudely, there are great left-wing and right-wing arguments for giving asylum seekers the right to work.
There are good bleeding-heart liberal reasons why we should care for people who are asylum seekers, as giving them dignity and the ability to integrate is a kind thing to do, but if the Conservatives, and the newspapers to which they tend to bow down, are really bothered about the cost of the asylum system, the answer is to allow people to pay their own way. There it is—I have solved the problem in one fell swoop: allow them to work, pay taxes and contribute to our society. That would be such an easy thing to do and I have a slight sense of hope from the Minister for Immigration, who was in Westminster Hall the other week responding to a debate on a related issue, that there may now be a little strain of pragmatism in the Home Office. I will continue to push for that, and I hope and pray that it might come to the fore.
Allowing refugees to work lets them integrate into their new communities faster. It could help tackle modern slavery. According to the campaign, Lift the Ban, it could hugely benefit the economy to the tune of £97.8 million per year in net gains for the Government. Does the hon. Member agree that allowing asylum seekers to work is beneficial for both them and the UK?
It really is, and I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for making that point. She is absolutely right, and I completely agree with her. It is worth bearing in mind the fact that some of the Government’s tough posturing on asylum seekers contributes towards modern slavery. For instance, the nonsense about deporting people to Rwanda—what will that do? Will that stop people coming to the UK? Nope—it will stop people claiming asylum when they get to the UK, and then they will end up in the black economy, involved in modern slavery, forced labour and exploitation.
The objections to giving asylum seekers the right to work, or allowing the UK to make use of their talents—let us put it that way—are bogus. Fundamentally, they focus on the nonsense of the pull factor. Let us deal with that, first and foremost. The idea that the UK is being swamped by asylum seekers is nonsense. The massive majority—up to 90% of refugees—remain in a country neighbouring the place they have fled. Of those who find their way to Europe, four times more asylum seekers are in Germany than are in the UK, and there are three times more in France than the UK. If we were briefly to put the UK back in the EU for league-table purposes, we are 17th out of 28 when it comes to the refugees we take per capita. We are neither overwhelmed nor swamped.
The extent to which we are is because of a broken asylum system, where we fail to triage people’s claims, and leave them rotting for months, even years, without an answer. That is absolutely outrageous. Yes, the cost of having people in hotels is huge, and it is entirely down to Government incompetence, not down to us being swamped by people seeking to invade and exploit us—and all that nonsense.
I have been to Calais, I have been to Paris to talk to displaced people from Calais, and out to some of the Greek islands where refugees first arrive in Europe. I talked to those who are seeking to come to the United Kingdom. First, they are a small minority. Secondly, when I dug down and asked why they wanted to come to the United Kingdom, their answer was family ties, and cultural reasons—particularly if people come from a country that was once part of the British Empire, and for whom this is the mother country. If that is the case, this is a place that people will seek to come to—but they are a relatively small minority.
With regards to all the hostile environment argument the Government comes up with to try to punish and dissuade people from coming here, there is no law that is dastardly enough even to remotely compete with the biggest “protection” this country has from asylum seekers—the small matter of being a flippin’ island. It is hard to get here—really hard. There is nothing that we could do that would be able to match that bar to coming here, which is probably why we are 17th on the European league table, and have nowhere near the numbers of France and Germany.
It is worth saying that there is one pull factor. There is a pull factor about Britain—it is our centuries-old reputation. That is something that makes me proud. When one listens to people who are heading here, they are not saying, “I want to cream off the taxpayer.” They are not saying, “I want benefits,” or “I can get free NHS treatment.” They are not even aware of those things. They are aware of Britain’s reputation as a place of sanctuary. These are people who have been persecuted because of who they are, what their beliefs might be or what ethnicity they might be. They see Britain as a place where they can have a family in peace and quiet, and earn a living.
That is absolutely right. They probably speak English, or have been taught it, so there is a sense of Britain being the mother country. The reputation of Britain as a place of religious and political liberty—a place of freedom—where people can live a quiet life is the pull factor. No amount of ridiculous legislation from this Government or any other will scrub out several centuries of having that reputation—a reputation we should be proud of.
I spent a little time in the constituency of my neighbour and friend the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell), who is a Conservative MP—I will not say “but a decent human being”—and a decent human being. I went to one of the places where asylum seekers are being kept, and the people supporting them spoke highly of the hon. Member and his work supporting asylum seekers in their casework applications to have their cases heard. I came across people who had obviously gone through enormous trauma in the places they had fled, particularly those who fled through Libya, which is a place of terrible persecution and awful deprivation for those who have to pass through it to get to the Mediterranean. Many of them have post-traumatic stress disorder, and the mental health impact on them of having to wait for months on end is utterly intolerable. Many were not there because they were on antidepressants and simply could not get out of bed. My experience of meeting those people and seeing the talent they had made me think, “What a waste it is that that talent is not allowed to be deployed.”
Let us consider: why should the Government give asylum seekers the right to work? Why should the Government give the UK the right to benefit from asylum seekers’ talent? It is simply because they will pay their way. If we are worried about the cost of asylum seekers to the taxpayer, we can stop worrying about it by giving them the opportunity to work, so they will be less of a burden and, by paying tax, will actually be contributors. We should think what it would mean for their mental health and dignity, which is important, and for their ability to develop their English and fit in more. As others have said, over three quarters of asylum seekers will be granted refugee status or granted asylum in this country.
I rise to intervene because while we have been speaking, there has been an incident in the channel. Forty-seven people have been in the water and unfortunately several have died. That shows the dangerous lengths people go to to come here. It is not just for economic benefit and migration; people are taking a serious risk for cultural and familial reasons, and all the reasons we are talking about in this debate. We are a proud, tolerant country that should be accepting and trying to abide by that. Unfortunately, I feel that in the rhetoric we are hearing if someone said, “Build a wall”, I would not be surprised, so we need to overcome that and show compassion now more than ever.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for his intervention. I know I have gone on for longer than I should, and I will wrap up in a minute. What he said was obviously heartbreaking, and it is a reminder that the reason why all the channel crossings happen is the lack of safe routes. If we allow people to apply when they are on dry land, they will not make ridiculous journeys like that. It is a minority of people who are fleeing who come to this country and, because we are protected by that body of water, people have to do dangerous things to get here. That is not a decision people take lightly. They take it because they are desperate and they see the United Kingdom as a place of safety for them. Giving asylum seekers the right to work will absolutely lessen the financial burden on the taxpayer. It will give the Government a defence for the many people encouraging them to be even more beastly because they are allowing them to share the cost of the system. It will help with integration, mental health and, as the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) rightly pointed out, workforce issues. One of the major reasons why our economy is in recession is that there are parts of the economy where there is more demand than we can meet—that is an outrage.
It is really disheartening to hear about those deaths from the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford). While the moral and economic justifications are obvious, allowing asylum seekers to work would, conversely, deprive the Government of propaganda that says, “Asylum seekers are a drain on the country and a detriment to our society”. We all know how much the right-wing mainstream media love to fall back on finger-pointing and othering the poor, the vulnerable and especially refugees. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) will agree that allowing asylum seekers to work would give them the opportunity to provide a better standard of living for themselves and their families and improve their participation, engagement and contribution in UK society.
I completely agree with everything the hon. Lady has said.
In conclusion, I want quickly to make a point about workforce in my community. There is a stat I often reel out—I did it yesterday in the main Chamber—that comes from a survey of Cumbria Tourism members. The lakes is the second biggest visitor destination in the country outside London. We have 20 million visitors a year and a relatively low population, so workforce is an issue. Some 63% of tourism businesses in the lakes report operating below capacity because they cannot find the staff. I am not saying that giving asylum seekers the right to work is the only answer, but it would contribute and help us economically. There are good self-interested reasons for the country to do this, but it is also the right thing to do morally.
This is about leadership. The rhetoric and discourse from the Government on asylum in particular—how we treat those who come to us for sanctuary—are a failure of moral leadership and show a lack of courage. They say there are two forms of leadership: one is where the leader sees the direction the crowd is travelling in and goes down to the front and says, “I agree”, which is not leadership, by the way; the other is where the leader has the courage to make the case. Leaders should lead and make the case. There is a strong, hard-nosed conservative argument for doing this, as well as a bleeding-heart liberal reason. Would the Minister agree to look into the mechanisms that would need to be employed to give asylum seekers the right to work or, to flip it the other way round, to allow the United Kingdom to make use of the talents of those who come to us for sanctuary?
It is an absolute pleasure to speak in this debate on a subject that is very close to my heart. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who captured the exact reasons why we are here. It is because we believe there is a good case to be made, and I am going to make my case for my constituency, as he did for his.
All of the hon. Gentleman’s speech captured my attention, but the one particular point that I took out of it was the fact that many asylum seekers may have a connection with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They are well aware of what the country that they may see as their mother nation has to offer them. The hon. Gentleman captured the emotion of the occasion very well, as well as the importance of the case we are trying to put forward. It is because of issues relating to human rights and freedom of religious belief that many asylum seekers have fled from where they came from, whether that is Afghanistan, Syria or Ukraine, as is topical at this moment in time and very fresh and real in our memories.
I want to put forward the case for Strangford. I am going to name some of the firms in my constituency that have offered jobs. Their offers are on the record and I have made those companies’ names available to Ministers. I do not understand why people who are here have not been offered those jobs when they are available, but I will speak more on that in a minute.
The rise in the cost of living is having a severe impact on many across the United Kingdom. People in full-time employment with possible savings are still struggling to make ends meet. I say this respectfully to Government: I believe that there must be some element of compassion for those who are awaiting asylum decisions and living on incredibly low amounts of money. I have always had the belief that we must help those who do not have the capacity to help themselves. We are fortunate and privileged to be Members of Parliament. Our job is to speak up for those who do not have anyone to speak for them. We may never meet them, but that does not mean we will speak up for them any less. Each and every Member who has spoken so far in this debate has reiterated that point. I know that the shadow Ministers who will follow will also confirm the stance that we all share on this matter.
There are currently 97,717 people in the UK seeking asylum, often waiting well over six months for a decision—a sixfold increase from five years ago. Numerous concerns have been raised about the amount of money allocated to those awaiting asylum decisions just to survive. I challenge anybody in this place to survive on that amount of money.
The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) referred to Lift the Ban, which is a really good project. It focuses attention on this issue, and I have some questions for the Minister. The Lift the Ban campaign has given Northern Ireland businesses and others across the United Kingdom a real insight into the benefits that would come with allowing asylum seekers to work. One asylum seeker living in a hotel in Belfast stated, “Now, the asylum seeker receives just £8 a week—that is not enough.” He said, “An asylum seeker living in shared accommodation receives £37 a week—that is also not enough and, even worse, not fair.” I do not believe that it is fair, either. I am no more compassionate than anybody else in this Chamber, but I understand fairly well what everyone is trying to say. Relying on that amount of money per week to cover essentials such as food, clothing and travel has never been easy for people seeking asylum, especially given the financial turmoil that we have all faced in the last couple of months and will face in the months to come.
I greatly respect the Minister and we have been friends for some time, but has she seen the Lift the Ban campaign? If not, I respectfully ask her to take note of it and to look at the options and solutions that it has put forward to try to address this issue. Will the Minister adopt and promote the proposals espoused by the campaign?
With consumer prices rising by 11% since last year, there have been increasing calls from the Lift the Ban campaign and others to encourage the Government to allow asylum seekers out of inactivity and let them partake in some employment. It is probably no secret that I am a bit of a workaholic; I like to be busy. I suspect that other MPs like to be busy, too. Can you imagine sitting in a hotel or shared accommodation for seven days a week and only being able to go out for a wee stroll? Your mind does not function—I say that very respectfully—your body does not function, and you become depressed. Indeed, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale referred to asylum seekers being prescribed medication for depression.
We should allow those who are skilled and, more importantly, willing to work to get into employment and find some part-time or full-time work that requires little official training. I do not say that in a demeaning way; I say it because it would mean that asylum seekers could step into a job tomorrow, which would allow them to earn a little extra cash and make their daily lives easier. I have companies in my constituency of Strangford that are looking for workers, and I have conveyed that to Ministers on numerous occasions. Syrians, Afghans and Ukrainians in the asylum system have skills and there are job vacancies, so why not help them by giving them the opportunity to find employment? It would also give them some dignity and lift their confidence. Families would know that their breadwinner was out there earning for them, and it would keep families together—I am very conscious of that.
As usual, the hon. Gentleman is giving a well-considered speech. Does he agree that it is the most natural thing in the world for human beings to have purpose and meaning in their day? Going out and earning a living gives them that purpose. Without that, asylum seekers are vulnerable to exploitation from those who would take advantage of the very vulnerable in our society.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right and I could not put it any better, because that is exactly how I feel. We should give them dignity and a purpose in life—I genuinely do not think that is too much to ask. That is why this debate is so important.
I will give another indication of the jobs that are available. The owner of a bar in Belfast revealed that they were crying out for staff. As we come up to Christmas, there are literally hundreds of jobs that could be taken advantage of in the hospitality industry in particular. Again, I just do not understand why those jobs are not being offered to people. If they cannot fill the jobs from the society we live in—whatever the reasons may be—there are plenty of people in hotels not too far away who would love that opportunity. There are people from Afghanistan sitting in a hotel in Bangor, which is a city in North Down. They have been there for over 15 months. My goodness. I am going to challenge everybody in this room: would anyone like to be sitting like that in a hotel? Bangor is nice, by the way, but that is not the point. It is not in my constituency, but I say that with honesty. Could anyone’s mind take that? Could anyone physically take that? I do not think so.
On the hotel issue, this is portrayed as some sort of luxury. Can anyone imagine being in a hotel room? I stay in hotels here in London. It is bad enough doing two or three nights a week, but imagine that being your only place, with no cooking facilities, no place for the children to sleep, no separation of family members and no privacy. It would be hell.
I understand the hon. Lady’s point. I did not say that to be judgmental, by the way. I just wanted to make that point.
Although I appreciate and respect the Government decisions on not permitting asylum seekers to work, I believe that schemes could be put in place by our Government—my Government—to allow them to get back to society. They want to get back to society. They want to do something. They want to be purposeful with their lives here in our country. For example, they could take part in community service and assistance by means of cleaning streets or doing local gardening—for those who just want to be physically active. It does not mean the job is demeaning. It is important. It helps us out.
I want to mention two companies. Willowbrook Foods has a number of jobs and I met the chief executive officer, John McCann. He told me to tell Government that he has jobs available. He has been trying to fill those jobs within our own constituency but has not been able to do so, so there are jobs and opportunities. The CEO of Mash Direct is Martin Hamilton. I heard the same thing from him. I think Willowbrook Foods employs about 260 to 270 people, and Mash Direct employs about 230 to 240. They have jobs available and they have specifically said that they want to help the Afghans, the Ukrainians and the Syrians get the jobs and make their lives better. I believe this allows for an improvement of local standards and improvement in the mental and physical health of asylum seekers. It would give them a way to give back to our community and a chance to make some money in order to get the essential items that they need and want.
Amid the cost of living crisis, the Government are taking steps to assist all aspects of our society. I ask that that includes those awaiting asylum decisions. To be asked to live on as little as £8 a week is shocking. Yes, accommodation and essential bills, such as for heating and electricity, are covered, but many of these families have young children. What about their schooling? What about the help for young children? They are just wee children, who look to their mum and dad for support, succour and help. But, at the end of the day, they also need to have active minds and bodies. Is that too much to ask? Some even have babies who require nappies, formula and baby food, which come at extortionate prices. In the last month I have become a grandfather again—it is the sixth time around. Rachael and Luke tell me that the price of baby stuff—they already have a child so they can compare it—is getting extortionate.
I strongly encourage and urge Government to consider the introduction of schemes, such as Lift the Ban and others, to ensure that asylum seekers have the possibility of earning some money for themselves while serving and working in our local communities, as well as dignity, understanding and opportunity. It is due time that Government understood that asylum seekers have abilities and skills and there are jobs available right now that they can do. To my mind, to give asylum seekers jobs is a win-win.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) for securing this debate and being honest and courageous enough to say that he has changed his mind. Many people get stuck in the position of thinking, “I’ve said something once so I have to stick to it forever,” so it can be difficult to do that. I thank him very much for doing that; it is incredibly powerful.
I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) and for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin), who fulfilled this portfolio role with great ability over the past couple of years. I am honoured to take it up following them; I have large shoes to fill.
I thank Refugee Action for its action on this issue and its campaigning over many years as part of the Lift the Ban coalition. More locally in Glasgow, I thank the Maryhill Integration Network and the Red Cross VOICES Network, which have done so much to bring this issue to light.
We all agree that, regardless of our constituency, political party and ideological position, there is a case to be made for allowing asylum seekers the right to work. The Migration Advisory Committee is giving the Government the same advice, so they really ought to be listening to it. I am desperately sad to hear the news that some people may have died in the wee small hours trying to cross the channel this morning in perishingly cold conditions. It highlights that we urgently need safe and legal routes to come to this country. People need to be able to apply for asylum from abroad. The only reason that people are crossing the channel in that way is that there is no safe way to do it, and I urge the Minister to give great consideration to that.
Article 23 of the universal declaration of human rights recognises that the right to work is a fundamental right, yet the UK Government’s restrictive approach to asylum seekers leaves people in limbo while the UK labour market suffers chronic shortages. All Members have spoken about the need for people to fill jobs in their constituencies and the frustration that many of us feel. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), who had a private Member’s Bill on that very issue, said that people could be living above the shop that is closing and not be able to work in it. The situation is absolutely ludicrous.
Many of the constituents who come to my surgeries week in, week out have skills that they wish to use, but the longer they are away from the labour market, the more difficult it is for them to get back into it. They feel themselves daily losing their skills, languishing, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, in hotels and guest houses, unable to do what they wish to do.
There are organisations in Glasgow working on this problem. The Bridges Programmes helps people such as doctors get back into employment in the UK, wherever they have come from. Radiant and Brighter does a brilliant job of helping people to gain skills in business. Many people have had businesses in the places they are from and want to get started here, but it is difficult to navigate that path. I spoke to Pheona Matovu, who runs Radiant and Brighter. She came here unable to work and did not want to let her children know, so she kept herself busy. She started the organisation and trained other people to give the appearance, at least to her children, that she had a job with dignity and was not sitting waiting for something to happen, because she was not that type of person. Many asylum seekers are not that type of person. They want to get on in the world and contribute. For many of my constituents, that is incredibly important, and their frustration at the Home Office is palpable.
My constituent Sandra was able to study. She has been training as a nurse, and the call went out to all trainee nurses on her course that people were wanted to help with vaccination during the pandemic. They were to do that as volunteers—they were not fully trained as nurses, so they were not employed—but she could not even get an answer from the Home Office about whether she could go and volunteer with everybody else on her course. Despite the shortage occupation list, and despite the shortage of healthcare workers, she was not able to get the assurance from the Home Office that she needed to do that. Nobody wants to fall foul of the rules, because of course that counts against their application.
Shortly after I became an MP, I spoke to a gentleman who had been volunteering with the Red Cross while waiting for his citizenship application. The Home Office took that to be almost akin to work, and that counted against him as a mark of bad character. Working for the Red Cross is a mark of bad character according to the Home Office, even though he was not being paid for it. We were able to get that case resolved, but it illustrates the ludicrous situation that many asylum seekers are in. They want to keep their skills up and they want to do more, but they know it might count against them because some civil servant in an anonymous bunker in the Home Office might decide it is a bad thing.
The next generation of people coming along is also affected. A family of seven came to my surgery some weeks ago. They have been in Scotland since 2014 and are now eligible to apply for leave to remain, because they have been here so long. They have kept their children in school and supported them. The parents have not been able to work throughout that time; we can imagine the financial pressures of supporting five children on so little. They travelled across the city so that the children could stay at the same school, even though their accommodation changed quite regularly.
Two of those children are now at university, doing incredibly important courses, in engineering and medicine. The children cannot work while they are studying, and the parents cannot work to support the children. It is incredibly difficult for that family to keep going. They should have a decision; they should not be waiting in Home Office limbo forever. Just think of the contribution that their children are going to make to this country. It is incredible. We should thank them, not make life more difficult for them.
In this cost of living crisis, the cost of food, of heating a home and of essential items such as nappies and infant formula, as the hon. Member for Strangford said, has soared, yet the amount that people have to survive on has gone up by 14p. Nobody can be expected to survive on that. We see the impact on the charitable and third sector in all our constituencies, because it picks up the pieces when the state has failed people.
Organisations such as Refuweegee in Glasgow face increasing demands on their services. People cannot clothe themselves, feed themselves and heat themselves, and the Government are doing nothing to help. People are stuck in Home Office limbo for years, unable to work, unable to contribute, and having to depend on services. That is not good for anybody. As hon. Members right across the board have pointed out, that costs the economy, when asylum seekers could instead be working and contributing to the economy in so many valuable ways.
The hon. Member for Bury South mentioned remittances, which is an important point. A gentleman from Afghanistan came to my constituency surgery a few weeks ago. This man was in pieces. He has been through a very difficult time. He worked with US forces in Afghanistan, and he has been here for a few years; he did not come in the most recent iteration. His family managed to get out of Afghanistan and are now in Pakistan, waiting for the family reunion visa. They do not know when they will get it.
That gentleman is having to send the very limited money he gets from the asylum system—all of it—to his family, to make sure that they do not starve in Pakistan while they are waiting for the UK Government to make a decision on their case, which means he is reliant on charities in Glasgow to try to get by. He is not even able to access the tiny amount of money that the Home Office gives him; he feels he has to send that to his family, because he does not want them to starve. He is going without.
I think the Government miss that sort of situation entirely. Perhaps the constituency surgeries of Government Members do not look like ours and they do not see the people that we see, but I assure them that people in Glasgow and across the UK are really struggling just now. The UK Government need to do a great deal more to address these issues.
I could talk on this subject until the cows come home, because I have so many cases that I could mention. It is desperately important that the Government recognise the peril that people are in and the reasons why people come here. As others have said, they come here because of family ties. They come here because of the English language. As Afghan interpreters told me, “We are here because you were there.” The Government should remember that. They should support people properly. They should make decisions sooner, rather than wasting fortunes on the failed Rwanda deportation programme. They should listen to the Members who are here today. We want our constituents to flourish, to do their very best and to contribute in the way they know they can.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) for calling this important debate, and I commend him for his brave, powerful and honest speech. I thank all hon. Members who have made such excellent contributions —in particular my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who always speaks with such passion and commitment on these matters.
I echo the comments about the terrible incident in the channel today. It is just appalling to think of those poor people suffering. It shows that the issues that we are discussing today are matters of life and death in the most literal sense.
The debate about whether asylum seekers should have the right to work has come to the fore largely because of slow asylum claim processing by this Government. After 12 years, a series of Conservative Home Secretaries have openly admitted that their asylum system is “broken”—and they should know, because they broke it. The backlog of asylum seekers awaiting decisions stands at 143,000. An enormous 97,700 of those have been waiting more than six months. The root cause is that the Government have failed to process asylum claims with anything like the efficiency required. In 2012, Home Office decision makers were making an average of 14 asylum decisions a month; now, they are making just five.
Tory Ministers try to blame covid, but the truth is that this is a mess of their own making. They chose to downgrade asylum decision makers from higher executive officer grade to lower executive officer grade, leading to a less experienced workforce on lower wages and with lower morale, lower retention rates and a collapsing process. The inevitable consequences were slower decisions, more decisions overturned at appeal, an increasing backlog, and ballooning costs for the taxpayer.
As a result, the British taxpayer is now forking out almost £7 million every single day on emergency accommodation in hotels—with private contractors, by the way, making a killing. It is worth noting that the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 has made the whole situation worse by adding an extra layer of bureaucracy through its so-called inadmissibility provisions. Make no mistake: the system is a shambles.
That is the backdrop against which we discuss the right of asylum seekers to work while they await an asylum decision. Currently, asylum seekers who have been waiting more than a year are able to work in shortage occupations. The Labour party is clear that that period should be reduced to six months. It would not be appropriate for people to work straightaway on arrival, as those with clearly unfounded claims or who have come from safe countries should be swiftly returned. The asylum system is for those fleeing persecution and conflict; it is not an alternative to the normal immigration rules for those who are not. However, where people are in limbo for more than six months simply because of Home Office incompetence, there are real problems with expecting the British taxpayer to pay them about £40 in weekly earnings. That money and more could be being paid by employers, especially at a time of high job vacancy rates in Britain.
The current state of affairs is damaging to the taxpayer, damaging to the Exchequer, and damaging to the wellbeing of asylum seekers. The Government’s own Migration Advisory Committee said that restrictions were pushing asylum seekers
“into exploitative situations by preventing them from obtaining safe and legal sources of income.”
The Lift the Ban coalition, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South, estimates that reform of the policy could save the UK economy more than £333 million a year. Moreover, research by the OECD found that being refused permission to work leads some asylum seekers to work unlawfully, which exposes them to exploitative working practices because of the absence of health and safety and other regulatory employment protections. That, of course, tends to lead to undercutting and a race to the bottom right across the labour market, so absolutely nobody benefits from the mess in which we currently find ourselves. Does the Minister recognise the absurdity of the situation?
Currently, the Government allow asylum seekers to work in jobs on the shortage occupation list if they have been waiting more than 12 months for their claim to be heard. As I mentioned, we support the view that asylum seekers should be able to work after six months, on the basis that the Government should not be taking longer than that to process a claim, except in the most exceptional circumstances. There is strong support for that view across the House, including from a number of Conservative Members.
In case the Minister has forgotten, may I remind her that the long-standing target of processing 98% of straightforward asylum claims within six months was scrapped by this Government more than four years ago, with no indication of when or whether it would be reinstated? Perhaps the Minister could enlighten us about whether that service standard will ever be reinstated. It is a shocking sign of Conservative Government failure that almost 100,000 asylum seekers have now been waiting more than six months.
It appears obvious that the right to work should exist alongside a functioning system. That is why our entire focus, when we are in government, will be on clearing the backlog and getting back to the six-month service standard. In other words, the debate about the right of asylum seekers to work is a symptom of the fact that the Government are not clearing the backlog or stopping the boats.
On the issue of small boats, we on the Labour Benches are clear that the dangerous channel crossings are a real problem and that preventing them is a priority for our party. In 2019, the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), said that she would stop the small boat crossings in months. Three years later, the numbers have rocketed to around 45,000. Meanwhile, we recently had the chaos of 4,100 people living in Manston—more than double the legal limit—with the local Conservative MP blaming the Home Secretary for failing to provide the appropriate accommodation. Last month, another Conservative MP called on the Minister for Immigration to consider his position over the procurement of hotels around the country. We know that 222 vulnerable children have gone missing from asylum accommodation, and there have been other deeply disturbing safeguarding issues.
The public can see that the asylum system is neither firm nor fair, neither compassionate nor competent, and neither safe nor secure. The system needs fixing, but unfortunately the Conservatives are more concerned about chasing headlines than doing the nitty-gritty of good government. They put tough talk above hard graft. The country can see that government by gimmick is not working. An obvious example of that is the failing Rwanda offloading plan: with a mere threat of deportation, we are supposed to prevent crossings, but crossings have increased dramatically since that announcement.
The Labour party wants to stop refugees crossing the English channel and to crack down on the smuggling gangs that exploit refugees for profit, but the Rwanda plan is unworkable, unaffordable and unethical. Labour has shown leadership by setting out a five-point plan to deal with the mess. It is a serious approach based on sensible policy solutions; it is not based on what would best achieve a right-wing tabloid front page headline. First, we would crack down on the criminal gangs by repurposing the wasted Rwanda money for an elite unit in the National Crime Agency that would partner with France, Belgium and Europol to crack down on people smugglers.
Secondly, we would speed up asylum decisions by restoring order and smart management to the Home Office and by returning to 2016 levels of asylum processing. As part of our plan, we would fast-track applications of asylum seekers from safe countries in order to ensure swift returns. The previous Labour Government used the safe countries list to fast-track returns, but when this Conservative Government lost control of the asylum system as a whole, the fast-tracking process fell off the cliff with it.
Recently, the Labour party has been pushing for that system to return in the context of the number of Albanian channel crossers rising to 12,000. The Government have announced their intentions, but the detail is still unclear. It feels like more rhetoric, but we hope we are proven wrong on that. Labour’s common-sense fast-track system, combined with the much-needed injection of energy and competence that we would bring to government, means that we would deal with the issue in our first 100 days.
Thirdly, we would reform resettlement schemes better to target those most at risk of exploitation by trafficking and smuggler gangs, and liaise closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to get the Afghanistan scheme working properly. Fourthly, we would replace the Dublin agreement on returns. Fifthly, we would work internationally to address crises that lead people to flee their homes.
Does the hon. Member not agree that the immigration system is based on the hostile environment and that we are going to have difficulties unless we do something about that? The Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016 effectively introduced internal borders. That means that every aspect of someone’s life, including going to a bank and accessing any type of service, is being policed by immigration control internally, as opposed to at the border. That is the problem of the hostile environment, and it would be much easier simply to allow asylum seekers to work.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She is absolutely right that the hostile environment is profoundly counterproductive. Much of the thinking around the asylum system is based on a hostile environment for assessing applications, which has led to the system becoming completely blocked, and that has become a magnet in itself. The backlog is a magnet for many people, who pay people smugglers knowing that when they arrive in the UK it will take up to 450 days for their claim to be processed, so it is counterproductive in terms of the efficiency of the system. Of course, the hostile environment to which she refers is also the root cause of the appalling Windrush scandal, which has had such a damaging impact on communities across our country.
Having set out our approach to the right to work and how Labour will deliver on that in government, I look forward to the Minister’s response to these vital questions. We need to get away from empty rhetoric and towards something that resembles the efficiency, speed, compassion and control that we need, so that we can have an asylum system that works for our country, we can start to get control of our borders again, and we can ensure that people who come here fleeing war and persecution are able to make a valued contribution to our society and, indeed, our economy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Before I move on to substantive matters, I want to say that we are all now aware of possibly tragic news—certainly a major incident—in the channel. The authorities have been responding to the incident and full details will be forthcoming in due course. I understand that the Home Secretary is coming to the House to make a statement, so we will have more information then. It is of course a tragic situation that is evidence of what is happening in relation to the present system, which is why the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister are very keen to resolve the issues that we have in relation to asylum applications and economic migrants.
I thank the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) for securing this debate and all who have contributed today; there have been heartfelt contributions. The UK has a proud history of welcoming and supporting those in need of our protection. We take our responsibilities very seriously and are committed to ensuring that we act in accordance with our international obligations.
Let me touch first on the eloquent points made by the hon. Member for Bury South. I am looking forward to even more eloquent apologies; there were a lot of policy issues on which he was flagrant and boisterous—I think that is the way of describing it—in the Chamber when he sat on the Conservative Benches, and there need to be various apologies to his constituents. It was interesting to read about his speech in The Guardian at 9.17 am, before he had been able to make his apologies, but I am grateful for his explanations today.
I turn to the cost of living. There has been a series of economic shocks. Cost of living issues, which people have raised today, are very much in the mind of the Government. The pandemic has contributed to them, and Russia’s unacceptable invasion of Ukraine has led to global pressures on the rising cost of living. The Government understand that people are worried about the cost of living challenges ahead. That is why decisive action has been taken to support households across the UK. We continue to keep the situation under review and will focus support on the most vulnerable while ensuring that we act in a fiscally responsible way.
We are of course alive to the potential impact of rises in costs in the asylum system. It is important to remember that a full package of support is in place for asylum seekers while their claims are assessed. The Government have a legal obligation to provide support to those asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute, through accommodation and allowances to meet their essential living costs. The pressures exerted on the asylum accommodation system in recent weeks and months have been well documented. Nevertheless, despite those acute challenges, we have managed to continue to provide support where needed.
The level of allowance is reviewed annually to ensure that the amount provided meets the essential needs of asylum seekers. As of the end of September 2022, 100,547 individuals were in receipt of support—46% more than at the end of September 2021. Of those, 95% were in receipt of support in the form of accommodation and subsistence. The remaining 5% were in receipt of subsistence only. Since 6 September, over 100 new hotels, providing over 9,000 additional bed spaces, have been brought into use, and we continue to add to the pipeline of available accommodation.
It is no secret that the UK’s asylum system has come under severe strain. One of the main factors has been the extraordinary and unacceptable number of people crossing the channel with, as we have seen again today, possibly tragic consequences. As I said, around 100,500 individuals are currently on asylum support. That is an unprecedented figure. The cost of accommodating asylum seekers in hotels is more than £5.6 million a day. All of that underlines why change is so badly needed. Getting a grip of the situation has been a priority for the Home Office.
It might be helpful if I set out some of the key rationale informing our asylum seeker right-to-work policy, which has been mentioned. It is important to distinguish between those who need protection and those seeking to come here to work, who can apply for a work visa under the immigration rules. As the hon. Member for Bury South is aware, our current policy allows asylum seekers to work in the UK if their claim has been outstanding for 12 months through no fault of their own. Those permitted to work are, as we know, restricted to jobs on the shortage occupation list, which is focused for a good reason. It is based on expert advice from the independent Migration Advisory Committee.
As part of reforms to our economic migration routes, we have set up cutting-edge skilled labour migration routes. To protect those routes and enforce our approach, we operate the compliant environment, which among other things serves to deter people who might otherwise undercut the rules from working illegally. Our asylum seeker right-to-work policy does not operate in isolation; it is a constituent part of a wider whole. We must ensure that it supports our objectives elsewhere in the immigration system and does not undercut it. That is why the policy is designed as it is. It is primarily intended to protect the resident labour market by prioritising access to employment for British citizens and others lawfully resident in the UK.
The Minister is reeling off the Government’s current policy, which clearly is failing catastrophically, and then highlighting shortages in the labour market. We know that there is so much need in the labour market because of the lack of supply of skills, so will she admit that what she is reading out is simply failing? It is time that the Government got a grip of this and had a real reform of their policy, to enable asylum seekers to work.
It is certainly not phoney, but it is time that the Government got a grip. We cannot go back to the situation alluded to by the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), when the Home Affairs Committee reported—I think in 2011— that over half a million legacy cases had been left by the Labour Government. We certainly should not get anywhere near that, so the Government are indeed getting a grip.
I was referring to the findings of the Home Affairs Committee, which heard the evidence at the time. However, I will make some progress.
Relaxing our policy could enable people to access the very same jobs for which we, with very good reason, require a visa application process. That would make a mockery of the whole system and would simply not be right. I should be clear that, where reasons for coming to the UK include family or economic considerations, applications should be made via the relevant route, not by undercutting the system, which is simply not fair to everybody else. Either the new points-based immigration system or our various family reunion routes should be used. We must guard against creating an environment that encourages individuals to come to the UK to claim asylum inappropriately in order to circumvent economic controls. Equally, the Government have a firm position that individuals should claim asylum in the first safe place they come to.
Let me finish this point. I remember the hon. Member for Bury South talking about the shopping trolley. He explained that economic migrants were using their shopping trolley to go through various safe countries. We must remember, as the tragedy today shows us, that France, for example, is a safe country.
The Minister is talking about people coming through the established routes, but there are hardly any. Unless someone is from Ukraine, or among the tiny number of people from Syria or the tinier number of people from Afghanistan, there is no way of getting to this country safely without doing what the Government now decide is—but what, under international law, most definitely is not—illegal. What will the Minister do to establish safe routes from the region? What about working in north Africa, or indeed with our partners elsewhere in Europe, so that we do not have tragedies such as the one that we learned of today?
To answer that point, there are many safe routes—countries where, internationally, there are agreements for taking various people—to come to this country to claim sanctuary. I am proud of the Government’s history of welcoming and supporting those in need. We need to focus protection on those who need it most, not on illegal migrants.
I must make a bit of progress to allow for closing comments.
We cannot readily dismiss the risk that removing restrictions would actually increase asylum intake, reducing our capacity to take decisions and support refugees. Let me take this opportunity to make it clear that I acknowledge the hon. Members’ concerns. In particular, I am aware of the debate about the best way to look at the right to work.
The comments made by the Opposition spokesperson about productivity were on point. The Prime Minister has committed to triple the productivity of case workers to abolish the backlog of asylum decisions by the end of next year. The Government are committed to ensuring that asylum claims are considered without unnecessary delay, to ensure that individuals who need protection are granted asylum as soon as possible. We are pursuing a programme of transformation and business improvement initiatives that will speed up the decision-making process.
I will briefly mention one or two comments made by hon. Members in interventions. The mental health of people is extremely important to the Government; indeed, as the Minister for Safeguarding I find that some important and cogent arguments have been made. There is, of course, voluntary work. It is important that people get out of the unfortunate situations they are living in and that they live, breathe fresh air and do voluntary work. They do not necessarily have to be paid financially. We must protect the integrity of the whole system.
On the points about Manston, as of yesterday, there were five people staying there. The figures are not quite the same as those given by the Opposition spokesperson.
Many points were made about the Lift the Ban campaign. The Government’s view is that, as with its early reports, its most recent report was unduly and overly optimistic about the amount that might be saved by changes in the system. When cases such as the seven-year-old case mentioned by the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) are raised, it is important to recognise that they are likely to have an extremely complicated legal history. After 12 months, people can work, so there is no reason not to be working for seven years and blaming the system for that.
I will conclude to give the hon. Member for Bury South a few moments to sum up, if he pleases. I am sorry that it is only a minute.
I thank all Members for their poignant comments, including on economic illiteracy. In that respect, correcting this policy would boost productivity, growth, revenue and the economy.
We are a compassionate nation, and we need to show that, but language is also important. The Minister mentioned figures, not people, but what we have seen today is a tragedy of people, not figures. She also highlighted opportunities for volunteering. I would like to know how someone could accept voluntary work on £5.84 a day when they probably will not be able to travel the necessary distance.
I am disappointed with the Minister’s response, and there are still many questions left to be answered on this policy, but I am sure we will keep asking them.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered asylum seeker employment and the cost of living.