My Lords, this is an important and complex issue, which we need to consider in detail. As the Prime Minister has said, the Home Office is currently reviewing the matter, and we are continuing productive discussions with partners, listening carefully to the arguments and considering the evidence put forward on the issue.
Can I ask the Minister why, when other countries manage to hold their asylum seekers only for three months or perhaps for six months without being able to work, we keep them for 12 months before we allow them to work? What is the reason? These are people of great skills, and I meet many of them in different ways; some are ministers, there are teachers and there are engineers. They have many skills that we could use to our advantage here in the UK.
My Lords, I do not doubt that asylum seekers have a range of skills; just because they are asylum seekers, it does not mean they do not possess skills. But it is important to distinguish those who need protection from those who want to work and not to blur the two.
My Lords, surely it is in the interests of the economy, as well as those seeking asylum, to enable them to work. All the evidence, from other countries and here, suggests that is important to their mental health and future integration. It is supported by the general public and a majority of the senior managers who were recently surveyed on this.
My Lords, can I ask the Minister how many of those waiting in the system are healthcare professionals at any level? While they are waiting, are they being provided with English language skills and tuition to enable them to take the examinations they need in order to work subsequently in their own profession?
I do not have disaggregated figures on what types of skills people claiming asylum possess, but I agree with the noble Baroness that anyone settling in this country should have English language proficiency. It is the best route to economic empowerment.
My Lords, is it not important for us to differentiate between the sanctuary that we have been proud to offer over a long time—we are one of the leading countries in that sense—for those who are in terrible danger and comply with the 1951 United Nations convention criteria for granting asylum, from those who come to this country under ordinary Immigration Rules and meet those rules to benefit economically? Surely the two things should not be mixed.
My Lords, I do not for one moment underestimate the difficult complexities here, particularly in distinguishing, as has been said, between genuine asylum seekers and those who come for other reasons, but can the Minister tell us whether the extended and elongated period of requirement prior to being allowed to work, as compared with other nations, is a matter of process? In other words, to what extent is the elongation the result of a lack of personnel, resources or procedures for these processes?
By the elongated period, I assume that the noble Lord means 12 months. Actually, the best system of all would be for people’s asylum claims to be determined quickly and work towards our new service standard of four months. It is not a good thing if someone waits for 12 months for their asylum claim to be heard, so I agree with the noble Lord in that sense.
My Lords, can the Minister give an assurance that the current position whereby the children of asylum seekers do not receive free school meals is going to be reconsidered? This seems to be extremely unfair, especially when parents are unable to work.
I will have to get back to the noble Baroness on that point, because off the top of my head I am not certain whether the children of asylum seekers can receive school meals. Local authorities have a duty of care and a safeguarding duty for children, and therefore I think that there will be certain circumstances where they can have free school meals.
My Lords, I think I am right in saying that the then Home Secretary said last December that he was reviewing the right for asylum seekers to work, and in June of this year he confirmed that that was the case and that he would update Parliament in due course. I know that the Minister has said on behalf of the Government that this is a complex issue, but it is now quite a long time since the then Home Secretary said that he was looking at the matter. Does that mean that, with a change of Home Secretary, there is now less enthusiasm for doing anything? If that is not the case—let us assume that there is no imminent general election—when do the Government expect to complete this review?
It was the Prime Minister who said that the Home Office was reviewing the matter, and therefore I do not assume that there is a change in the position. I hesitate to say this to the noble Lord, but I am sure that it will be done in due course.
My Lords, while the application is being processed, the Government give some seekers of sanctuary no support at all—they can stay but with no recourse to public funds—or they provide them with such low subsistence that it is impossible for them to buy essentials such as clothes or shoes. Either they have a legitimate claim to be here or they should be deported, but why should they be made destitute while their application is being considered?
The noble Lord is absolutely right that either their claims should be considered or not, and that should be done swiftly, which is what I was saying to the noble Lord, Lord Reid. The sooner that people’s applications are considered, the sooner these things can be determined.
I do not know the exact figure, but at the last count we had brought something like 26,000 children over here. Of course, the situation in Syria is dire, the caliphate is collapsing, and therefore those children might be even more in need now than ever before.