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House of Lords Hansard
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Asylum Seekers: Mental Health
10 November 2014
Volume 757

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the mental health of asylum seekers who have had to wait 12 months or longer before being allowed to apply for work.

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My Lords, asylum seekers may apply for permission to work if their claim has been outstanding for 12 months. The Government have had no cause to assess the impact of this policy on the mental health of asylum seekers. However, we are always open to discussing any welfare concerns with voluntary sector and refugee groups.

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I am grateful to the Minister for his Answer. However, does he not agree that we are all very much aware of the stress and tension that are caused when someone cannot find a job, which sometimes lead to suicide? Will he consider that asylum seekers, who are not allowed even to apply for a job for 12 months, face stress even worse than that faced by others? We know that there have been cases of suicide because of the prohibition against allowing them to work for that first 12 months. Would it not be a humanitarian gesture for us to reduce that 12 months to six months, so that asylum seekers have less time to wait until they can apply for work?

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It is a very difficult situation. Of course, we have every sympathy with the people who come here. However, the reality is that, if they are allowed to work while they are not here legally, we are saying that they are able to compete in the labour market with people who are here legally. That would be unfair. It is not the case that they cannot work; they are able to volunteer in the community and they are getting support, with all their accommodation covered and access to education and health care, including mental health care if they need it.

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My Lords, the denial of the right to paid work, as well as the inadequate asylum support system, can lead to severe poverty or even destitution. Last week, the Joint Committee on Human Rights heard evidence that women, many of whom have fled violence, are thereby made vulnerable to further violence and sexual exploitation. What steps are the Government taking to prevent this as part of their strategy to end violence against women and girls?

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I accept the point that the noble Baroness is making about the importance of providing that protection. Of course, asylum seekers have accommodation with all utility bills and council tax paid, access to legal aid, safety and protection and a liaison officer allocated to them. However, in providing the care, we need to reach a decision on their asylum claims as quickly as possible so that they can get on and rebuild their lives.

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My Lords, of course one wants quick decisions because it is not fair to keep people hanging on month after month after month. However, does the Minister accept that it is humiliating and frustrating to want to work and not to be allowed to? Would it save the country money if these people were allowed to work and contribute more to our society?

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The six-month period applies broadly across Europe. We have arrived at the figure of 12 months but the key is to speed up the decision-making process. However, during that time we encourage people to undertake volunteering, learn the English language and take IT courses. They can get support with those types of initiative.

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My Lords, I have heard concerns expressed by the BMA and others about the desperate need to train doctors and other workers who deal with people in immigration detention, including, particularly, to train them in awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions from which asylum seekers and some other immigrants are likely to suffer. Is there better training provision outside detention?

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The numbers going into detention on what is called a fast-track process are relatively small—about 15% of the total. We contract with Migrant Help, which does excellent work in providing advice to asylum seekers during their application process—for example, helping them register with a GP or getting their children enrolled in school. Progress is being made but I accept that we are talking about very vulnerable people.

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My Lords, will my noble friend clarify what he said in reply to my noble friend Lord Roberts? I thought I heard him refer to people who are here illegally. However, the Question is about asylum seekers who are here perfectly legally, waiting for their case to be heard and a decision to be made, which, as he will know, sometimes takes years. In the mean time, they are not allowed to work. Will he clarify what he said earlier about illegality?

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Absolutely; I am happy to clarify that. I was talking about people who had a legal right to seek employment in this country. They should be protected and be able to apply for jobs in the first instance.

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The Government have to date not allowed retired NHS doctors who volunteer to work with asylum seekers to set against tax the cost of their General Medical Council and defence union payments. Will the Government undertake to look at this again? These doctors are acting as volunteers to meet the health needs of this group but are incurring huge expense in so doing.

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I am very happy to look at this but doctors are in one of the shortage occupations and would be eligible to apply for work after the 12-month period.

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My Lords, it is very hard for any of us to imagine the tragedy and fear that drive somebody to leave their home and travel many miles—thousands of miles in many cases—to seek sanctuary and asylum. They have often suffered considerably. The Minister said that he is concerned about mental health issues. May I ask him two questions? What measures do the Government take to assess someone’s mental health while they are seeking asylum? He also said that it is important to speed up the asylum application process. What evidence does he have that the Government have speeded up that process?

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The process is genuinely speeding up. We have given a commitment that everybody who applied before 2012 will have their case decided by the end of this calendar year. Seventy per cent of applications are decided within six months, and 35% of those people are given the right to stay, so there is speed in the system. We have recruited extra people to help. As for mental health needs, that is clearly a clinical decision. When someone is registered with a GP and in contact with the NHS, their condition can be assessed.

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My Lords, will the Minister answer the noble Baroness who raised a question a few minutes ago?

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Judging by the general murmurings, I think that I may have misheard the noble Baroness. I thought the question was about whether asylum seekers would be able to work if they were doctors, but I gather that it must have been about something else—in which case I apologise, and I will be happy to write and clarify the matter.