Asylum Seekers (Permission to Work) (No. 2)

– in the House of Commons at 2:35 pm on 20th February 2019.

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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Labour, Hornsey and Wood Green 2:41 pm, 20th February 2019

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for certain asylum seekers to be granted permission to work;
and for connected purposes.

Prior to my election as an MP, I worked for a number of years with refugees and asylum seekers who had fled violence and genocide in the former Yugoslavia. Those people left behind their homes, their friends and in most cases their wider families as they searched for safety upon our shores and, crucially, a chance to rebuild their lives. In my own constituency, we have a long history of welcoming refugees. At a meeting in Muswell Hill led by Lord Alf Dubs—himself a refugee from Czechoslovakia who was brought to the UK in 1939 by the Quaker-led Kindertransport train—the audience was asked who among them had a family connection with refugees. Nearly everyone raised their hand.

A group of my constituents runs Haringey Welcomes Refugees to provide a warm welcome for Syrian refugee families and to help with practical support and friendship. As we marked Holocaust Memorial Day in Haringey last month, my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy and I gathered with our communities to hear the personal stories of survivors of totalitarianism. We also heard the stories of survivors of the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, and of many others who have found sanctuary here in the UK. As I remember and reflect on the stories of those families, I am immensely proud that my first ever ten-minute rule Bill seeks to support asylum seekers by empowering them to rebuild their lives by allowing them to work and contribute to society.

I am pleased to have cross-party support for the Bill. I pay tribute to Dame Caroline Spelman, who has been making the case to lift the work ban for some time, as well as to Mr Mitchell for his work, most notably on the Syrian refugee crisis, and of course to Christine Jardine, who presented her Bill on asylum seekers’ work rights on 10 January. I also pay tribute to the excellent work of the all-party parliamentary group on refugees, under the fantastic chairmanship of my hon. Friend Thangam Debbonaire, who leads a great coalition of supporters, as well as to the many charities and stakeholders who have really pushed on this issue.

Under the current rules, asylum seekers are able to apply for the right to work only after they have been waiting for a decision on their claim for over a year. Even then, the few people who are granted such permission are rarely able to work in practice because their employment is restricted to the narrow list of highly skilled professions included on the Government’s shortage occupation list. We have an effective ban on asylum seekers working. I am sure that all hon. Members present today will have their own experiences of people attending their advice surgeries to express their deep frustration at this reality. Just before Christmas, an old gentleman attended my surgery who had been waiting for a decision on his asylum application for over 12 years. He is desperate to work, but he has now been referred to mental health services to be treated for depression. He is in utter despair at a system that has forced him out of employment and into poverty for so many years.

Comparatively, the UK receives far fewer asylum applications than our European neighbours. We know that the total number of UK applicants represents a very small fraction of our national population—just 0.03% of the current UK labour force. In lieu of the right to work, asylum seekers can access a support payment of £5.39 per day. That allowance needs to cover clothing, transport, food, personal hygiene and often the cost of their asylum application. It is inhumane to force people who are seeking safety from persecution into poverty. It also reduces the chances of smooth economic and social integration and, in doing so, causes longer-term problems.

The OECD has found that legal barriers to employment create the risk of people resorting to informal and sometimes illegal work, which can manifest itself in the form of modern slavery. A change in the law would help to strengthen the Government’s strategy on tackling modern slavery. It is our duty to ensure that our asylum system is morally sound. Whether an asylum application is successful or whether it is ultimately rejected, we must remember throughout the process that the applicants are human beings with needs. There is strong public support for a change that provides refugees with the human dignity of being able to provide for themselves and their families.

Beyond the strong moral case, there is an equally compelling economic argument. Currently, we have around 11,000 adults who have waited more than six months for a decision on their asylum application. The average annual cost of supporting one such person is approximately £5,563, including support payments and accommodation costs. In a scenario in which we extended the right to work to this relatively small group of people, the financial picture would be quite different. Assuming that an individual worked full time on the national minimum wage, they would pay a total tax and national insurance contribution of £1,400 into the Treasury.

In reality, we know that many asylum seekers are highly educated, with university degrees in the fields of law, pharmacy and optometry to name but a few, but those associated professions often fall outside the occupation shortage lists. Lifting the ban would provide an opportunity for the Government to generate larger tax revenues, given that the average UK earner pays £5,745 in tax and national insurance into the Treasury. Estimates indicate an annual economic gain of £42.4 million for the Government as a result of benefit savings and additional tax revenues. This concept has fiscal and moral merit.

I now appeal directly to Government Front Benchers as I quote the words of the then Secretary of State at the former Department for Communities and Local Government—now the Home Secretary—from his “Integrated Communities Strategy” Green Paper. He stated that it was the Government’s ambition

“to build strong integrated communities where people—whatever their background—live, work, learn and socialise together, based on shared rights, responsibilities and opportunities.”

That is an important statement of intent, which we can all agree to. The Home Secretary also indicated his desire to review asylum policy when he responded to my oral question in December 2018, and I hope that the Government will take forward my Bill’s proposal at the earliest opportunity.

Before concluding, as I still have a tiny bit of time on the clock and as it is half term, even though one would not think this was supposed to be a recess week with all the goings on, I thought that I would briefly read from a poem called “Changed” by Miss Grace Barry, a student at Our Lady of Muswell Hill Catholic Primary School, from the “Welcome to Haringey! Poems from our schools” competition. She wrote:

“I watch her step off the bus on the 1st of May,

A permanent scowl etched on her face,

Eyes of coldness looking around,

Knotted, rough hard and a worn-out suitcase…

I watched her step off the bus on the 1st of September,

A permanent grin etched on her face,

Eyes of warmth looking around,

Brushed, silky hair and a brand new suitcase,

Her healthy figure prancing towards me,

As she laughs and jokes, ‘What are you looking at?’

Her accent light and her tone friendly,

Her light footsteps skipping away,

With friends by her side,

Changed by a Haringey welcome.”

I hope that we can all go forward with the spirit of Miss Grace Barry from the constituency of Hornsey and Wood Green and be hopeful and positive. Instead of bigotry being emboldened, perhaps we can be positive about the newly arrived in our communities and think about making this Bill law.

Question put and agreed to.


That Catherine West, Mr Andrew Mitchell, Dame Caroline Spelman, Anna Soubry, Christine Jardine, Kate Green, Mr David Lammy, Alex Sobel, Deidre Brock, Alex Cunningham, Janet Daby and Caroline Lucas present the Bill.

Catherine West accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 March, and to be presented (Bill 338).