Moved by Baroness Hamwee
22: Clause 4, page 3, line 8, at end insert—“(5A) Regulations under subsection (1) must provide that any EEA or Swiss national, and any adult dependant of any EEA or Swiss national, who has applied for asylum in the United Kingdom may apply to the Secretary of State for permission to take up employment (without limitation as to the type of employment) if a decision at first instance has not been taken on the application within 3 months of the date on which it was recorded.”Member’s explanatory statement This amendment would require the Secretary of State to make regulations enabling asylum seekers to work once they have been waiting for a decision on their claim for 3 months or more.
My Lords, Amendment 22 is the first in a group that also includes Amendments 24, 29 and 31, all relating to asylum seekers’ right to work. On the first day of Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, on a very different amendment, talked about the purposes of work. I noted them down as being to earn money, for self-actualisation and as a matter of reputation. These all apply not just to you and me but to asylum seekers.
All the amendments in this group are variations on a theme. Our Amendment 22 would give an asylum seeker the right to work after three months if there has been no decision on his or her case. It will not escape noble Lords that the “if there has been no decision” is an important part of this.
The amendments are expressed to relate to EEA and Swiss nationals, to bring them within the scope of the Bill, but it is not beyond the scope of one’s imagination to think that there may be people seeking asylum in the UK from EU countries—Poland and Hungary might spring to mind—so it is not irrelevant. This is not just straining to debate a matter that I know has concerned many noble Lords for a long time.
The Minister may tell us that we will soon see a Bill about asylum, which the Home Office is currently reviewing. That is, it is reviewing the issue of asylum rather than a particular Bill. The Committee will be glad of any news not just about the Bill but about the consultation that the Home Office is undertaking with stakeholders about these issues. There are many stakeholders.
I see that the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, has moved to the position from which he will respond—at least it looks that way; I am looking at him on a rather small screen—and I hope he will be able to give some assurances about consultation with stakeholders with regard to the changes in our asylum provisions.
The great majority of asylum seekers are keen to work. Persistence is probably part of the make-up of many of them by definition, their having managed to get to this country. They want to pay tax and to contribute to their new society. They are often very skilled; that will be the subject of the right reverend Prelate’s Amendment 31.
It is very harsh not only to provide such a low daily allowance—I know the noble Lord would be required to disagree with that—but to take a long time in determining claims. In a way, that is the real issue. We picked three months because that gives time for an individual to settle. An asylum seeker may need longer to become comfortable with the English language if he is not already an English speaker, though I am constantly impressed by people’s facility with English. It puts me to shame.
There is also the issue of preventing working. I referred to self-actualisation and reputation, the terms used by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. We all know the value of work to each of us as individuals: the sense of self-worth and of achievement with a job well done, or at least attempted. We know what it does for our well-being and for good mental health, and how important it is to be able to support one’s family.
I know the Committee will be interested in the right reverend Prelate’s proposal for the displaced talent visa, which recognises the skills that refugees bring with them, but Amendment 31 is not an alternative to the other amendments in this group. It is about a visa and about refugees, not asylum seekers whose status is not yet recognised. It is imaginative, and the Government may consider it something to be pursued. I am sure the right reverend Prelate would be the first to agree that his amendment should not be a sop to distract us from the other issues to which I have referred. I beg to move.
My Lords, Amendment 29 seeks to ensure that asylum seekers from the EEA and Switzerland will be granted permission to take a job from six months of their application for asylum if a decision at first instance has not yet been taken at that point. It is fairly obvious that I support the three-month amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, which is a little more radical than this one, and hope the Government may accept it.
The Minister will be aware that people often wait months, if not years, for a decision. These individuals, having escaped fear of torture or death, are left to live on a pittance of £5.66 per day. As I considered what to say today, I found myself thinking that, of course, six months in this situation is far too long. What are we as a nation doing impoverishing people in our community? Frankly, £5.66 is a disgrace.
The plea for the right to work after six months is endorsed by no fewer than 200 non-profit organisations. This is a very modest and widely supported proposal. Even Sajid Javid recognised in 2019 that it is time for reform. The coalition of these 200 organisations wants the six-month reform combined with the ending of the restriction on asylum seekers from applying for jobs not on the incredibly narrow and restrictive list of highly skilled professions on the Government’s shortage occupations list. I strongly support the abolition of this restriction, which was introduced only in 2010. That is telling; we seemed to manage pretty well before that.
Now, in effect, asylum seekers are rarely enabled to work. Does the Minister really believe that this is morally right and economically sensible? As Sajid Javid recognised, reform should no longer be delayed. Reform would enable asylum seekers to begin to integrate, to support themselves and live with dignity, to support their children to lead healthy, productive lives and, very importantly, to avoid the very real risk of exploitation and modern slavery.
We would all benefit too. The coalition of 200 organisations calculates that taxpayers would save £97.8 million if asylum seekers were enabled to work from six months. In 2019 it polled over 1,000 businesses for their view on whether asylum seekers should have the right to work. Some 67% of those employers agreed that they should, and a similar number believed it would ease the UK’s skills shortages. There is also huge public support for the right to work after six months. The Government would really have a great political benefit if they would only accept this amendment.
Can the Minister give the House an update on the Home Office review of the right- to-work policy initiated in 2018? Our current policy is frankly embarrassing; we are an outlier compared with 23 comparable countries. Sweden, I understand, requires asylum seekers to wait only one day before they are entitled to work; in Portugal it is seven days. In Germany and other countries, it is three months, and in France and the US six months, which is right on the upper end. The UK is alone among these countries is keeping asylum seekers idle for a year.
At Second Reading the Minister said:
“We will continue to provide protection to those who need it”.
Can the Minister say whether £5.66 per day is really “protection” against modern slavery? I could not survive on such a sum; I would be looking for some way out. Could any of us survive on that sum?
Why are asylum seekers not permitted to become self-employed? This is an extraordinary situation. If the Government are worried about asylum seekers taking jobs from local people, surely self-employment increases job opportunities and would not adversely affect, in any way, the employment prospects of local people. I really would be grateful if the Minister could clarify why for me.
The other reason given by Ministers for restricting the rights of asylum seekers to work is the so-called pull factor. Therefore, it is important to note that there is little, if any, evidence for this. Instead, we understand that asylum seekers, in so far as they make any real choice about the country they are going to at all, are influenced by knowledge of the language, the availability of a friend or family member in that country and some confidence that the country is tolerant. We only have to think about ourselves; if any one of us were to move from the UK to a foreign country, surely we would use exactly the same criteria: knowledge of the language—we would want them to speak English there—availability of a friend or family member, and so on.
“we are incredibly generous to those who need our help.”
Really? Maybe the Minister can explain whether preventing people from working and requiring them to live in abject poverty is “incredibly generous”. The Minister also said that
“we are committed to fortifying our immigration system”—[
My Lords, I declare my interests as laid out in the register, in receiving support from the RAMP project on immigration policy, and as a trustee of Reset.
I shall speak to Amendment 29 and Amendment 31. They are different in substance: Amendment 29 and others in this group relate to asylum seekers, while Amendment 31 relates to refugees currently living elsewhere. However, they both address the question of work.
In the Hebrew Bible, there is a story about a widow named Ruth, who travels with her mother-in-law to a foreign land, the family having been displaced by famine. On arrival, she gets to work, picking grain with the landowners’ permission, and she enjoys his protection and generosity. She receives not a handout but the freedom to work in the fields—her dignity is upheld.
The freedom to work, for those able to do so, is an important part of our humanity. It is how we support ourselves and our families, how we contribute to the common good and how we share, through taxation, the financial burdens of our common life. Yet for those who have come to this country fleeing persecution or conflict and are stuck too long in the administrative purgatory of the Home Office’s processes, the Government deny this freedom.
Many people seeking asylum want to work. They have skills that the UK needs, and are highly motivated to provide for themselves and their families. Instead of allowing them to do so, currently the Government force their reliance on minimal taxpayer-funded benefits.
Employment helps with smooth integration into the UK, allowing people to improve their English, acquire new skills and build relationships in the community. Work restores dignity while reducing reliance on public funds. I endorse all that the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has just said in speaking to Amendment 29.
Amendment 29 does not argue for an immediate right to work, as Canada, for example, allows. Lifting the ban on working after six months—the point at which the Home Office should have determined their case, but too often has not—is a reasonable compromise. I might prefer three months, as proposed in Amendment 22, but I see six months as a reasonable compromise. I am not alone in thinking this: British Future found that 71% of the public support the right to work after six months.
I note that both Amendment 29 and Amendment 31 focus on the rights of EEA and Swiss nationals, because those rights are before us in the Bill. While the Spanish protocol might appear to obviate the need for Amendment 29, we have learned this year that the future is hardly secure and predictable. Moreover, in both cases, the underlying principle demands that we take these steps for the benefit of some now, and to move towards restoring the dignity of all those seeking the UK’s protection by allowing them to contribute through work.
I thank my noble friends Lady Lister and Lord Alton for supporting me on Amendment 31. The UN estimates that there are 79.5 million forcibly displaced people globally, who are desperate to rebuild their lives. Refugee resettlement schemes are vital, and ours must restart urgently. However, we must think creatively about ways to help the many forcibly displaced people, in need of international protection, to rebuild their lives somewhere safe.
In places like Lebanon, people fleeing the Syrian conflict are not permitted to work legally. They are dependent on handouts; their lives are on hold. Many of these people have God-given talents which are going to waste. Meanwhile, employers in the UK face critical skills shortages. Ending free movement for EEA and Swiss nationals will only make it more challenging for them to recruit people with the skills they require. Is it beyond our imagination to connect the two, for the benefit of all?
“allowing us to attract the very best talent from right around the globe.”—[
Displaced people, including refugees, have skills, talents and motivations, and dream of building a new life in a new land. What if we saw such people as a gift as well as a responsibility? To do that, I urge the Government to look at what this amendment seeks to achieve for skilled forcibly displaced people. I acknowledge and thank the Minister for her help so far, pursuing conversations with her colleagues to that end.
Amendment 31, conforming to the Bill’s scope, addresses the potential situation of displaced people who are EEA or Swiss nationals. Yet, even in doing so, it addresses the need for a displaced talent visa in the new Immigration Rules, to level up access globally to labour market mobility for all those who should be able to apply for skilled jobs at UK companies. It would remove barriers, such as the need for specific documentation or proof of their English language ability which cannot be accessed because of their situation in being displaced from home.
To be clear, this is not a new humanitarian route; instead, it is about enabling fair access to work visas for skilled forcibly displaced people. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, this is not an alternative to the asylum amendments. This is a completely different point. This approach has been successfully piloted in Australia and Canada, and would complement, not compete with, the vital routes of humanitarian resettlement and community sponsorship.
In his letter to them, St Paul reminded the church in Thessaloniki of a common saying: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” Far from undercutting support for providing for the vulnerable and unemployed —as has occasionally been suggested—St Paul was urging that those in the community free and able to work should do so, for the good of all.
I find myself reflecting on this saying as I think about how we might help those fleeing persecution and conflict to access employment, that they might use their God-given talents and skills to support their families and rebuild their lives with dignity for the benefit of all, and that they might be seen as a gift to us. I would like to move Amendment 31.
It may be helpful to the Committee if I remind noble Lords that we are debating a group of amendments in which Amendment 22 is the lead. It is of course possible to speak to the other amendments in the group, but at this stage it is not possible to move them individually.
My Lords, the ban on working before a whole year has passed, and then only in professions such as classical ballet dancer and geophysicist, is bad on all counts. I am aware that we have a trained classical ballet dancer in the Chamber and she is a very valued Member, but she would probably agree that it takes rather a long time to train as such. We are not asking for a radical policy like Sweden’s, which the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, reminded us allows asylum seekers to work after one day, or like Portugal’s, where the period is seven days, but, if you like, a middle way of three months or even six months. Six months is, if I recall correctly, the threshold in EU asylum law—I think it is the reception conditions directive—but the UK Government declined to opt into that provision.
It is detrimental to the well-being, dignity and self-respect of those seeking asylum to be refused the opportunity to work and to be kept in poverty on £5.66 a day. The longer that they are out of work, the more that their skills and motivation deteriorate. When I was a Member of the European Parliament, I dealt with various individuals whose physical and mental health, sometimes after years of waiting, not just for 12 months but for three, four or five years for determination of their asylum claim—maybe the Government will tell me that the situation is much better now, but I am not sure that it is—had of course deteriorated; they had shrivelled as people and were unable to provide for their families. Their status, whether in their family or in their community, was completely undermined as their skills and motivation deteriorated.
Working boosts the chances of social and economic integration. Being banned from working also feeds into the prejudice that asylum seekers are “scroungers”, which not only is not true but is galling and aggravating when in fact they are prevented from working by government fiat, policy or law, which a lot of the public do not understand. As the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has quoted, they would contribute to the Exchequer. Rather than taking from the taxpayer, they would be able to contribute if they were allowed to.
So, frankly, it is win-win. No wonder two-thirds of businesses support people seeking asylum having permission to work and 71% of the public, in the study by British Future, support the right to work. One would have thought that this was a bit of a no-brainer, and I look forward to the Minister explaining to us why it is impossible for the Government to change their policy.
I believe that there was an announcement in December 2018 by the Home Office that it would be launching a review into the merits of restoring the right to work to people seeking asylum. I do not know whether there is any news on how that review is getting on and when it might come to a conclusion.
Lastly, I speak in support of the amendment in the name of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham about a work visa for displaced people. Refugees, displaced people and people who for humanitarian reasons are unable to stay in their home country have many skills that are going unused. Banning people seeking asylum from working is a moral question as well as an economic and social one. Again, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher: the idea that this would operate as a pole of attraction for people is unsubstantiated, and in any case that is hugely outweighed by the benefits of allowing asylum seekers to keep going and keep up their physical and mental health. If they do not succeed in their asylum claim then they have to leave, but in the meantime they will have been able to support themselves, keep up their skills and maybe, wherever they have to go or return to, have a better view of this country than they might otherwise have.
My Lords, I am pleased to be able to advise the Committee that we seem to be back to normal with the emailing of the clerk, so Members who wish to speak after the Minister should use what they thought was the correct route at the beginning.
My Lords, I strongly support this group of amendments. I have added my name to Amendments 24 and 31. I see these amendments as being not just in the interests of asylum seekers and refugees, although we have already heard strong arguments for why they are so, but also in the country’s economic and social interests and in the interests of overall social integration, which is supposedly a government policy goal.
A recent paper from the Institute of Labor Economics throws some light on the issues raised by Amendment 24 and others, using cross-European data for a period of nearly 30 years. It concluded that
“imposing temporary employment bans on asylum seekers has large negative consequences for their subsequent labour market integration − an effect that may remain sizable for up to 10 years”.
The authors recommend that
“host country governments should carefully weigh the (alleged) benefits of such bans against their longer term costs for both refugees and the host country economy.”
They found the sooner the access to the labour market, the better, and that when access is allowed it is not helpful to restrict it according to job type or employment sector in the way that our ludicrous shortage occupation list, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, does.
The paper also found that the existence of a ban has no impact on the numbers seeking asylum, which is one of the arguments that Ministers have used to justify it. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, will not come out with that argument, because there is no evidence for it. If he is going to do so, could he please tell us what the evidence is?
Nearly a year ago, I had an exchange with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, about the economic benefits of lifting the ban. As well as the survey of business leaders mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, a group of business leaders wrote to the Financial Times to make the case, and the FT quoted the CBI chief economist, who said that
“despite being keen to earn a living and participate in the society where they live, many of those displaced are prevented from using their skills to contribute to the economy.”
In a letter to me, the Minister questioned how many asylum seekers would in fact be skilled, and suggested that the priority should be speeding up decision-making and then supporting granted refugees into employment more quickly. No one would dispute the need to speed up decision-making and support refugees into employment but, nearly a year on from that exchange, the Immigration Minister acknowledged to the House of Commons committee that the asylum decision-making timeframe remains a concern. This is not an either/or situation. Worse, at present it seems to be neither: we have neither speeded up decision-making nor do we have the right to work. I accept that the assumptions about the proportion of asylum seekers who are skilled may be optimistic, as the Minister said, but that does not invalidate the case, not least because many of those deemed to be unskilled may in fact have very real skills to contribute, including to the care sector, which we heard about on Monday.
This May, the Lift the Ban campaign carried out a skills audit of people seeking asylum. Nearly half of those audited reported previous occupations that would fall into the Government’s definition of “critical workers”, with one in seven having worked in health or social care. Have the Government carried out such a skills audit on which to base their position?
In Amendment 31, which I was very pleased to be able to support, we are talking about a group of displaced refugees who would be recognised as skilled under any definition. The right reverend Prelate has already made a strong case for what I believe is a very helpful and, as he put it, creative idea that is well worth exploring. I hope the Government will explore it. I understand that there have been pilots to see how it might work. It worked rather well in other countries but unfortunately has floundered in this country because the Immigration Rules have meant that it is not practical or scalable. If nothing else, I hope there might be a way of seeing whether we can have a proper pilot in this country.
All I will add to the case already made so well by the right reverend Prelate is to emphasise a point that has already been made in a sense: we do not see this as a substitute for fulfilling our obligation to provide a safe haven to asylum seekers and refugees or for positive reforms to the asylum system, including the more general right to work after at most six months that we have been talking about.
The Government have dragged their heels over the right to work issue, as we have already heard, for nearly two years, yet suddenly it is all speed ahead with what we are told will be the new asylum Bill, designed not to help asylum seekers, as it would seem from what the media has said about it, but to make it harder for them to come here. Suddenly it has become an urgent matter, whereas there has been no urgency at all to do something for asylum seekers here.
If the Government want to dispel the fears about this forthcoming Bill—that it is all about how we keep asylum seekers out and nothing to do with how we make life better for them when they are here—I hope at the very least they will commit today to finish their review of the right to work and include it in this forthcoming Bill.
My Lords, it was my pleasure to attach my name to Amendment 24 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Kennedy of Southwark, and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister. I express my support for all the amendments in this group, including, as has been said, the very creative Amendment 31 in the name of the right reverend Prelate.
I am following five eloquent and powerful speeches, so I do not feel the need to add a great deal. Those speeches, collectively and individually, have utterly put paid to any suggestion that the UK is generous to people who come to our shores fleeing war or repression and desperately in need of sanctuary. As other speakers have made clear, we are an international outlier in our restrictions on work, to which these amendments refer. I am sure the Minister will recall that she very kindly took the time to hear from me about the circumstances of the asylum seekers in Urban House in Wakefield and the conditions in which people are living.
We all know that the hostile environment of the Home Office is very often chaotic. People are trapped, often for years, living in inadequate privatised housing with the desperately limited sum of £37.75 a week to try to get by on and denied the opportunity—which so many of them are desperate to take—to work. I cite a young woman I spoke to some years ago who made a huge impact on me, so eloquent was she about the situation she found herself in. She was, you might say, an extreme case, but sadly a not at all uncommon one. She had come to Britain as a young woman of 18 or 19, having been a political activist in Zimbabwe— I have no doubt that she was a victim of torture. Some 10 years later, we have still not given her status. She was studying for a degree through funding and support from a voluntary organisation, but she told me what her situation was like:
“I feel like I’m in a cage. I can see the door, and people keep walking back and forth in front of that door with a key in their hand, but they never stick the key in the lock and let me out.”
Leaving people in that situation is torture. We are talking about people who are often already victims of torture. Any of these amendments would be a significant improvement. The three-month amendment is obviously the best one. The current situation cannot continue; it is damaging to all British society as well as to individuals. I commend these amendments to the House.
My Lords, I support all these amendments very happily. I appreciate that the Bill is concerned with EEA and Swiss people, but there is a point of principle which goes wider than the limited scope of the Bill. Some of the arguments we are using apply to that wider point of principle. The first three, Amendments 22, 24 and 29, are all similar, except that they vary on the length of period necessary before permission to work is granted and/or whether one needs to apply separately and additionally to the Secretary of State or whether the right to work is automatic.
We hear the arguments about pull factors. I think every time I have been involved in debates on immigration, asylum seekers or refugees, I have heard the phrase “pull factor” used to rebut any argument used. It is a stock response from the Government and I am not convinced that it is all that powerful an argument. Sometimes it does not apply at all. I have on occasions met people desperate to work. I was in south Wales not quite a year ago and met some asylum seekers. They had two requests: first, could they be helped to learn English because, secondly, they wanted to apply for work. Work was the key thing for them.
There is another group of people who are victims of lacking the right to work: children who come here and reach the age of 18 without having had their status confirmed. There is a later amendment which will give me the chance to develop this argument further. Such people are then in a very vulnerable position. Not only do they not have a full right to stay in this country but, as I discovered from some social workers who begged me to say that they have got these young people, they are not allowed to work and are stuck in complete limbo. I am sure we can all produce other examples of people we have met who are desperate to have the right to work. I think that, statistically, 61% of all asylum seekers have waited over six months to get their status determined. That is a higher proportion than any since records began. Reference has already been made to the Home Office review, allegedly started in 2018; I hope we can learn more about what has happened to it.
I will mention briefly some of the benefits of people being allowed to work, many of which have been referred to already. Above all, there is self-respect. We want people in this country to have a sense of their own worth and self-respect. To deny that to our fellow human beings is pretty appalling. It is a matter of integrity that people should be allowed to work. It is a way out of poverty. Public opinion is overwhelmingly in support of having people here who work rather than eking their existence out of virtually no benefits—even if they were on larger benefits, public opinion would still support the right to work. We are dragging well behind comparable countries. If there is a pull factor, it is those countries that will attract people rather than this one. Above all, people want to contribute to society. Talk to any asylum seeker and they will say that they want to contribute to this country and our society.
These amendments are really important. They add to the dignity of our fellow human beings. I hope that the Government will see their way to being supportive of them.
My Lords, I speak against the backdrop of a story I read over the weekend in the Universe newspaper. It concerned a Ugandan refugee, Mercy Baguma, who in August was left to die in a Glasgow flat. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that the account left her “consumed with sadness and anger”. A representative of the Positive Action in Housing charity said that Ms Baguma’s one year-old son was found crying beside his mother’s body, weakened from several days of starvation. I know that my support for Amendments 29 and 31 would not have saved her life, and I know, too, that if these amendments are passed, they will not help everyone who is a refugee or seeking asylum. However, we must do what we can to help whoever we can whenever we can; that is surely our job and I do not think anyone in the Chamber would disagree with that.
I will speak in favour of Amendment 29 on work rights, tabled by my noble friend Lady Meacher, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. I support also Amendment 31 on the displaced talent visa, tabled by the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and to which I am a signatory. It addresses the widely held view that, whatever our differences about the nature of migration and the humanitarian duty, as some of us see it—and I do—to respond to people forcibly displaced from their homes and countries, this country will always have a need of skilled labour, and that where sponsorship is available from an employer, this win-win situation should at least be provided for by the creation of a new visa. The Government have said that they intend that this legislation and the new immigration system to be set out in subsequent Immigration Rules will attract the “brightest and the best” from overseas to work here.
The United Nations estimates that there are over 70 million forcibly displaced people in the world. While we clearly cannot help them all, an amendment such as this would enable us to help some of them. Many people displaced by conflict or persecution have valuable professional skills in areas such as medicine and engineering, but they are stuck in refugee camps like the one I visited a few months ago in northern Iraq, and I know that my noble friend Lord Hylton, who is in his place, has visited camps in Syria. These people have been displaced and are unable to use their skills to support their families and rebuild their lives. At the same time, for this country to fulfil the Prime Minister’s ambition to be “Global Britain”, we require an immigration system that is open, fair and allows those with much-needed skills to come here with their families to work and to build a future with us. It is easy to make slogans about attracting the brightest and the best, but how can we ensure that those with skills whose lives have been blown off course by conflict or persecution can still access labour market mobility?
Through its work in Jordan and Lebanon especially, Talent Beyond Boundaries has found that there are particular barriers under the current UK tier 2 regime that make it difficult for a displaced Syrian in Jordan, for example, to have the same opportunity to come to the UK to work as someone with the same skills from Australia, India or the United States. They are required to provide the identity documents specified by the Home Office when these can be provided only by a hostile regime. We all know that that would be an impossibility. Amendment 31 therefore urges the Government to create a displaced talent visa specifically to address such barriers and pave the way to eventually put in place a global scheme.
Events in this pandemic year have once again underlined the necessity to deal with the fragile and unsustainable nature of the world in which we live. In considering what a new immigration system for the UK should look like, we have a duty to construct models that take account of the complexities caused by conflict and persecution and to devise an immigration system that genuinely enables those who want to offer us their skills to do so, and to do much more to tackle the root causes that lead to 37,000 people being forced to flee their homes every day due to conflict or persecution, joining 70 million others. None of this should close our eyes to the importance of constructing, along with other nations, a humane and fair system for resettling refugees and others who need a place of sanctuary.
Turning to Amendment 29, I begin by saying that it is substantively different from the displaced talent visa being proposed in Amendment 31, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, pointed out. It and others in the group address the right of asylum seekers already in the UK to work after a certain period while they are waiting for their cases to be decided. In contrast, the displaced talent visa facilitates the arrival of forcibly displaced persons through labour market mobility; that is, they will have a sponsoring employer and a job offer already in place, and they are not seeking humanitarian protection as UNHCR-defined refugees. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, who said that the Government should not offer the same argument in response to these very different amendments. When he comes to reply, I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, will differentiate between them.
The displaced talent visa is concerned with widening access to labour market mobility, not substituting for humanitarian resettlement or as an alternative to enabling access to asylum for those who require it. Where there are similarities between the amendments, they involve the freedom to work to support yourself and your family, and the dignity, alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, of being allowed to do so, as well as providing benefits to the UK through meeting labour shortages, tax revenue, avoiding reliance on public funds and the better integration of people into the community. Research has shown that bans on working result in poorer integration outcomes because work helps people to learn English and meet other people.
Amendment 29 returns to an issue I have repeatedly raised with Ministers and in your Lordships’ House: the right to work. Indeed, it was the subject of a meeting some years ago that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and I attended with the then Minister, Brandon Lewis. I hope that the Minister will see this as a precedent for reforming the current work-banning arrangements. It would be good to know what stage the review we were told about at Second Reading, which was begun in 2018, has reached, and when we might see the outcome.
As the Minister has been told, the Lift the Ban coalition, which supports the amendment, is made up of over 240 organisations and individuals across the country calling for the restoration of the right to work for people seeking asylum and their adult dependants, if they have been waiting for a decision on their asylum claim for six months. That broad coalition includes the CBI, the Adam Smith Institute, the TUC, UNISON and the Church of England, and is supported by grass-roots organisations, national charities, think tanks, faith groups and businesses, demonstrating wide- spread support for this common-sense proposal.
I am a patron of Asylum Link Merseyside. Through its wonderful work, and that of groups in Lancashire with whom my wife volunteers as an English language teacher, as well as organisations such as Refugee Action, I have heard first-hand accounts of asylum seekers who, having been effectively prohibited from working, must subsist, as my noble friend Lady Meacher told us earlier on the derisory sum of £5.56 per day in asylum support. I repeat: £5.56 per day. Imagine for a moment trying to make ends meet on that and the effect on your human dignity and self-respect, especially when you are then denied the fundamental right to work. This is a right enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 23 insists:
“We all have the right to employment, to be free to choose our work, and to be paid a fair salary that allows us to live and support our family.”
We have heard about the benefits to the economy of allowing people to work. We were told about the survey showing that businesses overwhelmingly support this call. In denying the right to work, we damage people personally, we impede social integration, we deny the value of the work ethic, we entrench poverty and we emasculate self-sufficiency. The contribution that work makes to social integration is spelled out in terms in the Government’s own immigration White Paper, and I applaud that.
I end by saying this. The coalition has drawn my attention to the story of one young Afghan woman denied the right to work. She says, “I want to work because it gives me the feeling of being someone. I want to work because I don’t want to look back after five or 10 years and realise that I did little except sit in a room and wait for a decision on my asylum claim. I could have been doing something positive for people’s health by putting my knowledge and expertise into practice.” Those words and the story of Mercy Baguma, which I referred to at the outset of my remarks, should stir us into taking action in this Bill. I hope that the noble Lord will agree to meet representatives of the Lift the Ban coalition and consider these amendments carefully between now and Report so that it will not be necessary to call a Division.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a vice-chair of the Human Trafficking Foundation.
We have heard some excellent speeches so far, and I find that I cannot disagree with anything that has been said. Although many identified victims of modern slavery are also asylum seekers—and those numbers may be swelled by EU citizens after freedom of movement has ended—these amendments, which I support, relate to potential asylum seekers from EEA countries or Switzerland. Of course, they will be in scope of the Bill, but it does not cover those from other countries. I guess that they will be the overriding majority, and while I would welcome the relaxation of the regulations regarding paid work for asylum seekers, I am afraid that it would be invidious to discriminate between non-EEA and EEA countries.
I am aware that, just over 100 years ago, a large number of Belgian citizens arrived in this country as a result of the conflict in their own country during the First World War. I have seen historical documents that show how well they were received. For a relatively brief time, they made their home here, and many worked here. Indeed, the presence of so many Belgians became the norm, so much so that no one batted an eyelid when Agatha Christie created Monsieur Poirot, a Belgian detective, as one of her heroes.
As I understand it, the rules regarding paid work for asylum seekers were strengthened back in 2010. I can only guess why it was decided to implement them, but I suspect that the huge backlog of cases awaiting decision made the Home Office nervous that if an asylum seeker worked, they would inevitably become an integrated part of the local community, making ties and making friends with fellow workers. As cases took so long—regrettably they still do, to which I can attest from my previous experience as a constituency MP—there would inevitably be more complications if a negative decision was received and removal was initiated.
I understand that some will say that to allow those applying for asylum to work will act as a pull. However, I am not sure whether there are any figures or statistics to back that up. In fact, regularising work for these people would be beneficial, as we have heard. I also know that Her Majesty’s Government are currently renewing the regulations. I sincerely hope that this country will have the courage to fully utilise the undoubted skills of these people, which I suggest would be a huge economic benefit in many ways. In the meantime, I believe that we should be encouraging more asylum seekers to be able to undertake voluntary work, and if noble Lords will indulge me a short while, I will give an example of what can be achieved.
Through my work with the Human Trafficking Foundation—and with its indefatigable chairman, Anthony Steen, a long-serving and dedicated Member of the House of Commons—I have become involved with a scheme that is just getting started after Covid-19 somewhat delayed it getting off the ground. Action Asylum by the Task Force Trust is offering opportunities to asylum seekers to make life better by volunteering alongside local people, so that the community is made better with their help, particularly in environmental matters. Pioneering projects are advanced in Merseyside, where there are currently over 3,000 asylum seekers. One example is of Iranians, Sudanese and Syrians growing vegetables alongside local people on an allotments project. Another project has brought together a dozen or so local cyclists and invited asylum seekers to join them on a community cycle ride. Working in conjunction with the Marine Conservation Society, asylum seekers will undertake a beach clean shortly on two beaches, at Southport and Hoylake, all of course properly socially distanced and within Covid-19 rules. It is not just to clear the detritus on the beach after high tides but to collate the data on what they find. This follows a pilot earlier in the year. There is a huge opportunity, with many NGOs looking to take part.
I have seen at first hand the benefits of such schemes, not only for asylum seekers and their families but for the local people, who understand that these people are individuals. As we have heard, they are not scroungers; they want to work. In view of the fact that there are currently 40,000 asylum seekers in the UK, it is a drop in the ocean, but it could be an example of a nationwide operation involving the Home Office, where asylum seekers waiting for permissions and papers to come through could do something useful in the country in which they wish to settle, to relieve boredom and loneliness and to help with mental health issues, which is a great problem. When you see how keen they are to do work, you cannot but be convinced that we should change our rules for all asylum seekers.
I thank noble Lords for their patience. I am unashamedly passionate about this cause and I support the amendments that have been spoken to. However, the first matter we should address is that of processing these claims within the shortest practicable time, while allowing all asylum seekers to take up meaningful work after a shorter period—perhaps three or six months. It would be a mutually beneficial measure for those people and for this country.
The noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, has withdrawn from the debate, so I call the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of the Refugee Council, which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, ran for so long to such great effect. Sadly, it is still needed more than ever. A number of Members of your Lordships’ House are generous in their support for the Refugee Council, and I hope that I would not be out of order if I said that I would be happy to hear from anyone who wanted to join them.
I will speak in support of Amendment 29 in particular, and also of the other amendments in this group. The case for Amendment 29 was so powerfully made by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, that there is very little for me to add. It seems that the rule which we are trying to soften here, which stops asylum seekers from working, is—to put it politely—short-sighted. It does not match the national economic interest.
The citing by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, of the list of supporters of a reform of this kind, including the Adam Smith Institute, was striking. However, the evidence is that public opinion is on the side of those proposing these amendments—quite strongly so. Probably public opinion is not really concerned about the economic case, which is overwhelming; it is probably more concerned with the humanitarian effect. Not to allow people to work condemns them and their dependants to a precarious existence on the fringes of our society, which is a bit shaming. As the time taken to process their cases lengthens, so anomaly turns to inhumanity.
I am therefore strongly in favour of these three amendments, particularly Amendment 29, and I do not think we have heard any arguments in this debate against them. The degree of mitigation of the plight of these people which is offered by these amendments is very modest. Of course three months’ time limit would be better than six months, but six months is a lot better than eternity. I hope that the Government will recognise the feeling in the House today, and produce an amendment reflecting it on Report.
I crave the indulgence of the Committee to add one more point, which I admit hangs only rather tenuously on the four amendments we are debating. At lunchtime, the BBC reported on an appalling fire today in a refugee camp on Lesbos. Thousands of people there now have no roof over their head, including over 400 unaccompanied children, the BBC reported. The FCO, with its acquisition of DfID, has just acquired a remarkable capability and expertise in handling emergency help in the event of natural disasters and disasters like that one. I hope that it will spring into action. But I hope that the Home Office will spring into action too. We are talking about 400 unaccompanied children with no roof over their head, and we know that some of them will be seeking to join relatives in this country. In these exceptional circumstances it would surely be appropriate for the Home Office, as an exception to its normal practice, to seek to identify those children and to permit their admission.
Our international reputation has taken a bit of a knock this week, as a result of the introduction of a Bill in the other place. A speedy humanitarian response by the United Kingdom to the humanitarian disaster on Lesbos would do something to assist the recuperation of our reputation.
My Lords, I shall focus on Amendment 31, spoken to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool. This is an important amendment that brings a sensible and balanced approach to immigration in the commercial sector, to build up our economy—not just hospitals and care homes, but businesses, which also need to employ skilled and semi-skilled people. The amendment will help those fleeing conflict and persecution in their own country to build their lives in the UK.
Employers and businesses are interested and keen to take part in schemes to support such workers. I declare an interest: after running a fashion company in the UK for over 40 years and employing over 300 staff, before the pandemic, I know that the majority of businesses require all sorts of people, such as accountants, HR people, salespeople and cleaners, as well as warehouse staff.
I support the amendment because it has the foresight to do something positive for displaced people at a time in their life when they often have no one to turn to, and no means of supporting themselves and their family. This country has a long history of helping displaced people, and the humanitarian kindness it has shown countless refugees over the years is well known. Through this amendment we will do something truly remarkable—helping people in need while enhancing this country through the skilled workers who wish to make it their home. We will maintain our world-class image by helping refugees and displaced persons in their time of greatest need, while also filling skills gaps in this country.
However, the existing and future tier 2 general framework creates structural barriers, preventing applications from skilled refugees and other forcibly displaced people, due to issues such as stringent restrictions and the demand for documentary evidence. Fragomen, a leading immigration law firm in the City which conducted a survey of 500 corporates with operations in the United Kingdom of various sizes and in various sectors, found that 73% of respondents said that they would consider skilled displaced people with the required skills and experience, or would actively pursue the opportunity to employ displaced people. This level of demand is likely to grow, as businesses become more aware of the opportunity to hire displaced talent.
My Lords, I add my support for Amendment 31. Three tests must be met when a democracy considers the development of a robust immigration system that serves both its own citizens and those seeking to make the UK their new home. First, does the system serve the demands of business and the economy? Next, does it provide equity for those applying to work here, so that it is their skill set, not their passport, that determine eligibility? Finally, does it provide genuine asylum for vulnerable and displaced people, not only expressing Britain’s humanitarian commitments but reflecting the values of the British people?
The amendment, through the introduction of the tier 2 displaced talent visa stream, responds to all three of those questions affirmatively. In connection with the first test—the business test—the end of free movement will, as this House knows, impact on the availability of EEA and Swiss nationals, leading to a contraction in the number of skilled workers available to UK employers. This means that, after focusing on the development of UK workers, employers may still need to look overseas for suitable talent, where shortages exist.
This is particularly true of, say, the health and education sectors. It is estimated that the care sector requires 520,000 additional workers before 2035, just to support the UK’s ageing population. For the past decade, approximately one in six of the 1.5 million care workers in England have been non-UK nationals. Furthermore, previous recruitment drives have done little to alleviate the sector’s chronic labour shortages. Despite a 20% increase in advertised care roles in the first quarter of 2020, applications decreased by nearly 20%. This is just one example of the many sectors that would greatly benefit from the creation of a new displaced talent visa.
The second test is the equity test. The Government have been right to champion a points-based immigration agenda, with a focus on equity for applicants, by seeking out people’s skills set not their passport. But there must also be a recognition that there are significant structural barriers facing displaced people, which prevent them participating in that level playing field. These include, as we have heard, the payment of substantial government fees, charges, difficulties in securing official travel documents, and an inability to evidence English language competence.
According to Talent Beyond Boundaries, it can take over six months for a displaced person to access an English language test when applying for asylum from Lebanon. It has a ready-to-use programme with an extensive talent catalogue, and a model that has already been successful in Canada and Australia. It manages this talent catalogue of nearly 21,000 skilled forcibly displaced people living in Lebanon and Jordan, many of whom have fled the conflict in Syria. The registrants represent more than 150 occupations, most of which are included in the UK’s skills shortage list. A large proportion of registered candidates already fit the UK’s targeted profile of being the “best and brightest”.
That brings us to our third test—the humanitarian test. The amendment is not intended to replace our UN commitments to refugee settlement, but rather to answer the call of employers who are willing to support vulnerable people, while closing their own labour and skills gaps. As we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, in a survey of 500 corporates of varying size and sector conducted by Fragomen, 73% said that they would either seriously consider, or actively pursue, the opportunity to employ displaced people. The British people are instinctively responsive to those who are vulnerable but want to work hard to give their families a better future, and to contribute to the building of the nation that offers them safety. They want to be responsive.
I understand it is the Government’s intention with this Bill to streamline and simplify the visa application process as we end free movement with the EU. I support Amendment 31, my only concern being its narrowness of scope, imposed by the scope of the Bill, to limit the visa to EU and Swiss nationals. This is a starting point but does not maximise the potential benefit for the UK or for those with the skills we need. I strongly encourage the Government to consider a displaced talent stream as a dedicated pathway for skilled, vulnerable people to be part of our commitments to a level playing field and levelling up Britain.
The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Rosser.
It seems that the amendments in this group are similar in that they all relate to the right or ability to work. Amendment 24, to which my name is attached, requires that asylum seekers and their adult dependants be allowed to apply to the Secretary of State for the right to work if their application has not had a decision since six months of it being made. The reason the amendment only refers to EEA and Swiss nationals, not to those from other parts of the world as well, is to keep the amendment within the scope of the Bill.
Those seeking asylum in the UK can only apply for the right to work, whether as an employee or self-employed, once they have been waiting for a decision on their asylum claim for over a year, provided that the delay is not considered to have been caused by the applicants themselves. Adult dependants of people seeking asylum are not allowed to apply for permission to work at all, something which impacts women, in particular. Even then, there is a further significant hurdle for those seeking asylum, because employment is restricted to a limited list of skilled occupations on a government shortage occupation list—limited despite a change in skill levels that will mean the small numbers granted the right to work are more than likely to be unable to do so. It is not clear what the usefulness is of the shortage occupation list.
The reality is that those awaiting a decision on their asylum claim, as has been said, have to live on £5.66 per day to support themselves and, where applicable, their families and, as a result, are at serious risk of exploitation, including exploitative labour. No other European country has such a restrictive waiting period. The EU reception conditions directive of 2013, to which we did not opt in, set the maximum period for the right to work at, I think, nine months after an individual has lodged an asylum claim. Some three quarters of European countries, though, have a waiting period of six months or less, and many other countries do not place any restrictions on the type of employment that someone can take up.
When a person applies for asylum in the UK, the Home Office aims to make a decision on the case within six months, provided it is not classified as “non-straightforward”. In recent years, the number of people waiting for a decision on their asylum claim for more than six months—both main applicants and dependants—has grown considerably, to cover some 60% of all those waiting. This is the highest level, I believe, since public records began, as my noble friend Lord Dubs said.
It has been argued that opening up the labour market to people in the asylum system to a greater extent would only encourage more people to try to get to the UK and seek asylum simply as a means of getting to work in this country. But there is little or no evidence of such a link. Other factors, as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said, such as the ability to speak the language of the host country or the presence of relatives or friends in the host country, are the significant ones. Surveys have also suggested nearly three quarters of those arriving in the UK were not aware, prior to arriving, that they would not be allowed to work.
On Monday, we discussed the high numbers of vacancies in the care sector, but that is not the only sector where there are vacancies and skills shortages. Many of those seeking asylum in this country are well qualified with skills we need. A survey earlier this year showed that one in seven of those seeking asylum had worked in health or social care and that 45% of respondents’ previous occupations would have defined them as “critical workers” during the Covid-19 pandemic. As has already been said, easing the restrictions on the ability of those claiming asylum to work would not only reduce the cost to public funds of the minimal support payments but bring in extra money from the resultant income tax and national insurance contributions.
As I understand it, the Home Office began a review of the right to work policy in 2018, following the then Immigration Minister noting that there was “much merit in the arguments for reform”. What is the position with that review one year and nine months later? Has it been finalised? If so, what were the conclusions? It should not take one year and nine months to complete a review if that is the position.
Taking into account support rates of just under £40 a week and National Audit Office estimates that accommodation costs £560 per month, the approximate cost of supporting one person waiting for a decision on their asylum claim is just under £9,000 per annum. Even if such a person, once allowed to work, needed some accommodation support, the Government would still save a minimum of over £2,000 per annum for each person in employment and no longer requiring subsistence cash support.
The Government have normally argued that work is a route out of poverty. Apparently, though, that principle does not apply to those awaiting the outcome of their asylum claim, nearly all of whom, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said, want to work and support themselves and their families and offer their often much-needed skills to this country. Why do we leave them, then, in a potential or actual state of poverty, feeling a sense of hopelessness and despair for often lengthy periods of time?
There are long delays in processing asylum applications and appeals. The ban on asylum workers working provides little incentive for the Home Office to speed up the progress of these cases, and with 45% of appeals succeeding, we are delaying giving the chance to work to people who will ultimately obtain it. It is time for a change of approach, and that is what I trust we will hear from the Government in their response—a change of approach that hopefully would also indicate that we were moving away from the hostile environment through our actions, not just our words.
My Lords, I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, was withdrawn from the speakers’ list in error and is ready to speak now, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington.
Thank you very much. I am sorry there was some misunderstanding earlier.
I shall be brief, but I take a slightly different approach to many other noble Lords. Much of the discussion so far seems to have assumed that all or most asylum seekers are genuine, when in fact a significant proportion are not. If public support is to be maintained, the system must clearly and effectively make that distinction. The focus should be on getting quicker decisions rather than quicker access to work.
The problem with the first three of these amendments is that they could encourage asylum seekers, and, perhaps, their representatives, to draw out the process of consideration even further, so they can start to settle in Britain without their cases having been decided. We could be faced with many thousands of asylum seekers whose cases have ground to a halt but who would be perfectly ready to work in the lower-paid parts of the economy, often in competition with British workers and at a time of rising unemployment. Over time—and this is the longer-term problem—this could undermine public support for genuine asylum seekers, who deserve our protection.
More generally, we can see from the current events in the channel that Britain is becoming the country of choice, including for those who are already in a safe European country with a well-functioning asylum system. Surely they cannot be described as “fleeing persecution”. Nor would it seem that they regard conditions for asylum seekers in Britain to be unduly difficult. Unless we can reduce the incentives to get into Britain illegally, these pressures on our borders will continue and probably increase.
Finally, I understand and sympathise with the motives of the authors of Amendment 31, but we already face intense pressure from many parts of the world where, sadly, there are large numbers of forcibly displaced people, many with skills. We should surely focus our efforts on those who are in the most difficulty by taking refugees recommended by the UNHCR, which examines each case. I remind the Committee that since 2015 almost 20,000 refugees have been directly resettled from outside Europe. That surely is the right way to help those in real need, and of course I support it.
My Lords, this has been a powerful and moving debate. I begin by mentioning the tragic case of Mercy Baguma, as raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool. Like him, I was greatly distressed when I heard about her case. Indeed, the news came through when I was visiting my family for the first time since this pandemic began, and that really underlined for me how lucky we are if we can take for granted the prosperity and stability of a family home. Naturally, an investigation was launched immediately to understand what had happened in Ms Baguma’s case.
That investigation is ongoing, so I hope that the noble Lord will understand if I cannot comment on the specifics at this stage. However, I hope that I can reassure him and other noble Lords that the Government take the well-being of all those in our care extremely seriously. People who are worried about becoming destitute can apply for support, including financial support and accommodation. We are working with others, including, in the case of Ms Baguma, Police Scotland and the procurator fiscal to understand what went wrong, but also to ensure that people are aware of and can access the support they need to avoid that sort of tragedy.
I will respond, first, to Amendments 22, 24 and 29 on asylum seekers’ right to work. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, respectively for their contributions on this issue. All their amendments concern the right to work of EEA or Swiss asylum seekers and their adult dependants in the UK. The noble Lords differ slightly in what they propose, so it might be helpful if I briefly recapitulate the differences between each amendment. If I paraphrase them inaccurately, I am sure that they will correct me, either through the—I hope—now resuscitated email address or through other means. Like my noble friend the Minister, I am very happy to write to any noble Lords who, by being unable to get through, are unable to indicate that they wish to ask further questions.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, is proposing that asylum seekers who are EEA or Swiss citizens, and their adult dependants, should be allowed to apply for permission to take up employment if a decision on their asylum claim has not been made within three months of it being lodged. She is also proposing that, if granted, these citizens should be allowed unrestricted access to the labour market—that is, that they should be able to apply for any job, not just those on the shortage occupation list.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, is proposing that the same group should be allowed to apply for permission to take up employment within six months of their claim being lodged, and the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, proposes that the same group should automatically be granted permission to take up employment if a decision on their asylum claim has not been made within six months of it being lodged.
As noble Lords will be aware, and as many have mentioned, our current policy allows people seeking asylum to seek permission to work in the United Kingdom if, through no fault of their own, their claim has been outstanding for 12 months. At present, those permitted to work are restricted to jobs on the shortage occupation list, which is based on expert advice from the independent Migration Advisory Committee and is fully compliant with the rules laid out in the reception conditions directive 2003. This policy is primarily designed to protect the resident labour market by prioritising access to employment for British citizens and others who are lawfully resident here, including of course people who have already been granted refugee status, who are given full access to the labour market once granted. We believe that this is a proportionate way to achieve a legitimate aim.
Asylum claims from EEA citizens whose home countries are not part of the EU are considered but on the basis that they would be clearly unfounded. Notwithstanding the comments from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, about it not being beyond the scope of imagination to envisage a situation where that might otherwise be the case, member states of the European Union are prosperous, developed nations and signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights. Some of the arguments that she made did not seem to chime with some of those put forward on the virtues of the European Union during the referendum campaign, but those arguments are, rightly, long closed.
Under the Spanish protocol, mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, we would expect any asylum claims from EU citizens to be automatically inadmissible unless exceptional circumstances applied. Consideration of what would constitute those exceptional circumstances is detailed in the UK’s Immigration Rules. The vast majority of EEA citizens, including those from countries not in the EU, are generally considered to be from safe countries and are highly unlikely to suffer a well-founded fear of persecution or serious harm if returned there. Because, unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, we do not foresee a change in those circumstances, we intend to continue our policy of inadmissibility for EEA citizens after the end of the transition period.
During our debate today and at Second Reading, a number of noble Lords expressed concern and discontent at the current policy concerning the right of people seeking asylum to work and suggested that people should be allowed to seek employment sooner. It might therefore be helpful to set out some of the key rationales informing our current policy.
First, it is important to maintain a clear distinction between people who need our protection and those seeking to come here for work, who can apply for a work visa under the Immigration Rules. Our wider immigration policy, and indeed public support for our asylum system on which so many vulnerable people rely, could be undermined if people were seen to bypass the rules on work visas by lodging unfounded claims. When I started working on home affairs policy in the early 2000s, people seeking asylum and people seeking economic migration were sometimes unhelpfully mentioned in the same breath. One of the great advances of the last two decades is that, for many of those 20 years, we have rightly talked about those things as separate phenomena. That will be even more important over the coming years if we see uncertainty, particularly in the light of the current Covid pandemic.
Secondly, although pull factors are complex, we cannot ignore that access to the labour market is among the reasons that so many people currently undertake the extremely hazardous journey across the channel in small boats. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, asked for evidence. Some of the people coming across the channel are genuinely fleeing persecution and some are not, but none of them should undertake that perilous journey. When so many lives are put in danger in this way, we cannot have a policy that raises those risks, whatever the number affected.
Thirdly, we cannot dismiss the risk that relaxing the current restrictions would increase the number of unfounded claims, reducing our capacity to make decisions and support people who genuinely need our help and refuge.
I acknowledge the concerns raised by noble Lords. In particular, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, that the best way to approach the right to work for people seeking asylum is to determine their asylum claims more quickly. The Government are committed to ensuring that claims are considered without unnecessary delay to ensure that people who need our protection are granted asylum as soon as possible and can start to integrate and rebuild their lives. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said, this is a matter of humanity and dignity that applies whether we take our steer from scripture or elsewhere. It is worth reiterating that people granted asylum are given immediate and unrestricted access to the labour market.
We are working on a new service standard for asylum applications, which is intended to bring balance back to the system. The Home Office is engaging widely as part of that work, and learning from the insights we are being provided with as we work to shape that new service standard.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Ludford and Lady Meacher, and the noble Lords, Lord Dubs and Lord Rosser, asked for an update on the review of the wider right-to-work policy. In the time since it was first mooted, there has of course been a change of Administration and a general election. More pertinently, the Migration Advisory Committee has been commissioned to undertake a review of the shortage occupation list and the right-to-work coalition—which a number of noble Lords mentioned today—has provided an update on its 2018 report. We will want to take account of all of this in the review work. We will of course bring that review and its conclusions to your Lordships’ House when it is concluded.
I turn now to Amendment 31, tabled by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. In doing so, I acknowledge his considerable authority in these matters and thank him for his continued support for the Government’s work on refugee resettlement. His amendment seeks to put in place new visa arrangements to facilitate the entry of skilled, recognised-refugee, or forcibly displaced, EEA or Swiss citizens where they have a job offer from a sponsor employer. Once again, it is important to note that people granted refugee status or humanitarian protection in the UK have immediate and unrestricted access to our labour market and our benefits system. The UK has become one of the world’s leading refugee resettlement states and we are playing an important role in the global response to a number of humanitarian crises. Of course, we must continue to support refugees in the UK to find work and to regain the dignity of being self-sufficient.
The Government operate a number of refugee resettlement schemes and I had the privilege of working on some of them in their earlier years, when I was an adviser at the Home Office. Since I left in September 2015, over 25,000 people in need of protection have been resettled through these routes. The Government recognise that refugees often face additional barriers to participating in the labour market, some of which have been raised in our debate today, and we continue to work in partnership with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other global organisations to support refugee employees.
Our Integrated Communities Action Plan committed the Government to continuing to work with the Refugee Employment Network and the jobcentre network, as well as with employers, to understand the needs of refugees and to help them into work. It is right that we must overcome the structural barriers that prevent skilled people who have been forcibly displaced making applications to work in the UK. I reinforce the fact that our existing and future work routes are already open to refugees—a point that has not escaped the right reverend Prelate. It is an area in which he is rightly very interested, and I was struck by what he said about the need to see these people as a gift, as well as a responsibility. We already offer protection through several legal routes and will continue to provide support for those who often need it most desperately. These efforts should be something of which we can all be proud.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked about consultation. Ahead of outlining our proposals for the new points-based immigration system, the Government engaged extensively with our vulnerability advisory group, and we continue to do so. Anyone who has the necessary skills and experience, regardless of their nationality or their impetus for leaving the country they are leaving, will be able to qualify under our new system.
In future, all applicants who can demonstrate that they have a job offer from an approved sponsor, that the job is at the required skill level and meets the relevant salary threshold, and that they can speak English, will be able to benefit from the skilled worker route. In line with the recommendations of the Migration Advisory Committee, the general salary threshold will be reduced from £30,000 to £25,600, and the skills threshold will be expanded to include regulated qualifications framework level 3 and equivalent occupations. Bypassing these requirements would dilute the Government’s commitment to creating a high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity economy. Importantly, these requirements help to prevent unintentional pull factors that could lead to exploitation by criminal traffickers and unscrupulous employers. We therefore do not believe that we need to create additional routes, such as those proposed by this amendment.
Moreover, while I know that many noble Lords have spoken about the principle, rather than the narrow fact of the amendment tabled, this amendment would result in a two-tier system because of the EEA scope of the Bill, whereas I know that many of the people most in noble Lords’ minds today come from the world much more widely.
However, the Government support the intention behind the amendment. I want to put on record that we look forward to working with the right reverend Prelate to explore possible ways to connect highly skilled displaced people with employment opportunities in the UK. It is an important thing to do. In the meantime, for the reasons I have set out, I encourage him not to press his amendment and the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, the Minister talks about the existing 12-month wait before someone can apply to work—and then only in shortage occupations—as being to protect the resident workforce. Yet a House of Commons Library document published in January this year shows 100,000 vacancies in the social care sector, and rising. Can the Minister justify his statement that it is necessary in order to protect the resident workforce?
The Minister also said it was very unlikely that there would be refugees from an EU country. Is he not aware of the situation in Poland, where they are declaring LGBT-free zones in cities and provinces, with the Government ramping-up hate speech against LGBT people and the Law and Justice party leader saying that LGBT people are a
“threat to Polish identity, to our nation, to its existence and thus to the Polish state”?
Finally, the Minister talked about the pull factor of allowing refugees to work. A number of noble Lords said that there was no evidence of a pull factor. Indeed, the Minister was asked to provide evidence if he was going to deploy that argument. Perhaps he can comply with that request and provide the evidence to support his assertion.
I will deal with the third question first. I am afraid the evidence will flow from the review that I mentioned in my response, which will of course come to your Lordships’ House once it is done, taking into account the additional work of the Migration Advisory Committee and the review of the report by the Lift the Ban coalition.
On restricting the right to work to the shortage occupation list, as I said in my reply, it is right to restrict access to work to British citizens and others lawfully resident, including those already granted asylum. We do that under the reception conditions directive of 2003. The shortage occupation list is based on expert advice from the Migration Advisory Committee. I thought we had a useful debate yesterday on social care. If there are shortages in that sector, that is something that the Migration Advisory Committee is well placed to advise on and to dispassionately provide advice to government. The list can be updated accordingly.
Finally, on the point about Poland and LGBT rights, I do not want to reopen debates from the referendum, but I remember being told quite powerfully when I was campaigning to leave that it was the EU that somehow had created or guaranteed rights for LGBT people across Europe. I thought that was wrong then and I am surprised to hear the noble Lord raising it today. Poland is a prosperous, developed country. It is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights. If the EU is good at doing the job that campaigners said it was during the referendum, it will enforce those rights. Unless that changes, we do not see a reason to change our assessment of EU member states such as Poland.
I want to come back to the question of evidence—I was the one who asked for it. I thought the Minister was about to give it because he referred to my question; however, he then started talking about those coming in boats across the channel—what is the connection? We do not have the right to work, so why is that evidence in favour of the Government’s justification? Would he accept the widespread consensus that the best way to reduce the pull factor of the channel would be to increase the legal routes enabling asylum seekers to come to this country? Could I also respond to the point the Minister just made, that we will have to wait for evidence until this review is completed? The review has been going nearly two years. The Minister knew we would raise this question during the debate; I would have expected the Government to have some evidence in support of the case they are making now, rather than having to wait any longer.
I am sorry if I clumsily inserted the response to the question from the noble Baroness in my speech. We are understandably waiting for the review to finish its work; I do not want to pre-judge it. The one year and nine months it has taken has included a change of Administration, a general election and this pandemic. More pertinently, we are waiting for the Migration Advisory Committee, which is independent of government, to do its work and its assessment, so it can be taken into account as well. Campaign groups, such as the coalition that has been mentioned, have updated their arguments. We want to take those into account, so I do not want to anticipate our responses there. The point about the channel is that whatever the numbers and whatever the proportion, no one—whether genuinely fleeing persecution or seeking to migrate illegally into the UK for economic reasons—should be making that perilous journey. We do not want to create any incentives in the system in any place that encourage people to take that hazardous risk.
I thank the Minister for the warmth of his response, particularly at the end. Given the support from all sides of the House we have heard in the debate, and from business—business is saying there are still questions and is not convinced it does not need a new visa—I wonder if the Minister would meet me, perhaps some other Lords who supported the amendment and Talent Beyond Boundaries, to explore this—preferably before Report stage—to check whether I want to bring it back on Report.
We have had some useful discussions with the right reverend Prelate already and we would be very happy to continue those, particularly with my noble friend the Minister and our noble friend the immigration Minister in the other place, who would be well placed to engage in detail on the topics he raised.
My Lords, I begin with the so-called displaced talent visa—asylum seekers embody displaced talent in many cases but, as the right reverend Prelate says, refugees often demonstrate great talent. He referred to employment contributing to social cohesion; that is evidenced in the personal experience of people—friendships grow, which reduces the fear of others, the fear of strangers. When people see the benefits of immigration the contribution to social cohesion is very considerable. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, mentioned the importance of this to women. I should have made that point, and I am glad he reminded the Committee of it; he is absolutely right. The suggestion was hinted at that we might want to discriminate between members of the EEA and others; of course, that is not the case. We are constrained by the scope of the Bill in these amendments.
I am very glad that my noble friend Lord Paddick used the opportunity to remind the Committee of the problems in Poland. The fact that it is a member of the EU does not excuse them from what has been happening, which he explained to the Committee. It is important not to hold back from criticising one’s friends and one’s partners. This is a very real issue.
The noble Lord, Lord Randall, mentioned voluntary work. Again I am glad that he reminded the Committee of that because it is too often regarded as work rather than volunteering and reduces the possibilities of asylum seekers whose claims have not been determined to undertake activity which so often they are keen to do. It also means that a number of charities have to be extremely careful about the opportunities that they can offer because they are aware that what they must offer is volunteering and not voluntary work.
We have rightly been reminded of the importance of not seeing people reduced to getting into the black economy or becoming vulnerable to slavery, given the cash that is available to them, which I acknowledge is in addition to other support; many of us are not comfortable with that support, although it has recently been increased by the princely sum of 26p a day.
I am with the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, in the call for a response to the fire on Lesbos. We are in a position to respond to it. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Green, but only to the extent that the process needs to be speeded up. He will not be surprised that otherwise I take a very different view. That goes to some of the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson. One incentive to getting into Britain by very dangerous means is to join one’s family. The narrative that we hear too often is that most refugees in France try to cross the channel to the UK. That is not the case. Safe and legal routes would sort this problem out.
The Minister referred several times to the Migration Advisory Committee having been instructed to assist with the review being undertaken by the Home Office. Can he tell the Committee when it was instructed and what the likely timing of this review will be? Whatever the reasons for its delay, can we look forward to when we might receive it?
Along with my comments about crossing the channel, I should have said that to talk about unfounded claims is rather close to talking about illegal asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are not illegal until their claim has been determined. The strength of feeling on this is very evident, but I have no option at this moment but to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 22 withdrawn.