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My Lords, the consequences for children of the hostile environment created in a cold and calculated manner by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary are laid out in Project 17’s powerful report, and they are deeply concerning. We should all be grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for securing this timely debate. The report provides a stark insight into how the current immigration system is impacting on the lives of children and forcing them into poverty and towards destitution. I commend the author’s research methods and presentation of these findings, which provide a powerful platform for the voices of children so often silenced and overlooked. I very much hope that as many local authorities as possible will sign up to the charter, as advocated in the report.
Not Seen, Not Heard highlights that, lacking a legal right to work, many families are pushed towards homelessness and made highly vulnerable to exploitation. I want to draw attention to the common experiences of families with no recourse to public funds, who are the focus of the report. People seeking asylum in the UK are effectively prohibited from working and, until recently, the Home Office’s target time for decisions on asylum cases was six months. Yet immigration statistics released in May revealed that the number of main applicants waiting over six months for a decision on their claim had reached 46%. The system is certainly not working—at least, not for asylum seekers.
A large number have good qualifications but are banned from working, making it all but impossible to provide adequate care for their families. Research by the Lift the Ban coalition suggests that the current system is wasteful, as it fails to harness the skills and talents of often well-educated people. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has recognised this failing, stating that allowing asylum seekers in the UK greater access to the labour market would not only increase individuals’ self-reliance but help to provide skills that the economy needs.
The UK has the lengthiest restrictions in Europe on people seeking asylum gaining the right to work. Spain, the Netherlands and even the USA allow work after six months; in Germany and Switzerland, it is three months; in Canada, asylum seekers can find work from day one. In this country, asylum seekers must wait a minimum of 12 months before they are given the right to work. There is public support for looking at asylum seekers’ right to work more holistically and in a way that better respects their human dignity. Will the Minister commit to a review of government policy and allow all people seeking asylum and their adult dependants the right to find a job and support themselves?
The Not Seen, Not Heard report illustrates the effects on women of being left in poverty. They are often forced to stay in situations of domestic abuse as they do not have the resources to support themselves or their children independently. A significant longer-term barrier to work for many people seeking asylum, and another which disproportionately affects women, is a dearth of free and accessible classes in English for speakers of other languages, commonly referred to as ESOL provision. Even where it is available, too often women are unable to access it due to inadequate or non-existent childcare.
According to recent research carried out by Refugee Action for its report Turning Words into Action, more than 75% of parents said that lack of childcare had prevented them attending English lessons. Resources must be made available to address such impediments to learning. How can we expect people to integrate if we fail to support them to learn English? The Refugee Action report showed that in England government funding for ESOL suffered a shocking real-terms cut of almost 60% in a decade. More comprehensive strategies for ESOL exist in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It is entirely unacceptable for the quality of English language teaching for refugees and asylum seekers to depend on what part of the UK they happen to be in.
The Government’s 2018 Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper contained welcome proposals and acknowledged the vital importance of English for integration, while last year’s immigration White Paper committed to,
“an ambitious and well-funded English language strategy to ensure that everyone in this country, especially those with newly recognised refugee status, are supported to speak the same language”.
Someone should tell that to Boris Johnson who, only three days ago, demanded that immigrants should learn English to integrate better. His ignorance would be amusing if this was not such a serious issue. Mr Johnson should look no further than the Governments he has been part of, who have presided over a cut in ESOL funding from £212 million in 2008 to just £105 million last year. If he does realise his life’s ambition to be Prime Minister, it will be instructive to discover whether he remembers his demand and whether he will put money where his mouth was to help bring it about.
Leaving people isolated without the ability to speak English can have a detrimental effect on their mental health and well-being. Preventing them taking up employment forces them closer to destitution and towards the shocking living conditions laid out so starkly in Project 17’s report. As that report makes clear, because families are offered insufficient financial support due to their immigration status, children are bearing the brunt, too often living in abject levels of poverty. By their inaction, the Government are flouting their commitments to children under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
I have highlighted two areas that could improve the lives of many people: granting asylum seekers the right to work and increased and accessible provision of ESOL and childcare. However, these issues are part and parcel of the same policies that are punishing children from families with no recourse to public funds. Urgent action is needed from the Government to reform our inhumane immigration system. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what steps are to be taken to achieve the crucial changes that would improve the lives of so many. Adopting the recommendations of Project 17’s excellent report would be an effective start.