Amendment 30

Nationality and Borders Bill - Report (1st Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 9:45 pm on 28 February 2022.

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Votes in this debate

  • Division number 5
    A majority of Members of the House of Lords voted to add a clause introducing the right to work for asylum seekers who have been resident in the UK for more than six months.

Baroness Stroud:

Moved by Baroness Stroud

30: After Clause 12, insert the following new Clause—“Changes to the Immigration Act 1971(1) The Immigration Act 1971 is amended as follows.(2) After section 3(2) (general provisions for regulation and control) insert—“(2A) Regulations under subsection (2) must provide that persons, and adult dependants of persons who are applying for asylum in the United Kingdom are granted permission by the Secretary of State to take up employment if—(a) a decision at first instance has not been taken on the applicant’s asylum application within six months of the date on which the application was made, or(b) a person makes an application or a further application which raises asylum grounds, and a decision on that new application, or a decision on whether to treat such further asylum grounds as a new application, has not been taken within six months of the date on which the further application was made. (2B) For the purposes of subsection (2A), regulations must ensure that permission granted allowing people applying for asylum in the UK, and their adult dependants to take up employment, are on terms no less favourable than the terms granted to a person with recognised refugee status.(2C) This permission is to be valid until the claim is determined and all appeal rights have been exhausted and individuals granted permission to work will be issued with physical proof of the right to work.””

Photo of Baroness Stroud Baroness Stroud Conservative

My Lords, Amendment 30 in my name aims to introduce the right to work for asylum seekers who have been resident in the UK for more than six months. The arguments for the right to work have been well articulated in Committee and earlier, but I will summarise them so that we are clear.

I will begin with the economic arguments. The latest figures show that 125,000 people are waiting for an asylum decision. Every study shows that the net benefit to the state would be tens or hundreds of millions of pounds every year in improved tax-take. The UK economy is recovering after Covid and a lot of jobs have been created, but this has, in turn, created labour shortages. It makes no sense that asylum seekers who can drive HGVs or serve in our NHS are forced to sit around doing nothing for more than a year while they await a decision from the Home Office.

The second argument is one of integration. There is considerable evidence that the right to work has a large, positive impact on the integration of asylum seekers. The Government’s Migration Advisory Committee itself recently underlined that shorter waiting times had a large, positive impact on long-term employment outcomes for asylum seekers. Indeed, discussing refugees’ access to the UK labour market, one leading academic in asylum and refugee policy refers to what she calls the

“inherent contradiction between UK refugee integration strategies that focus on employment, and restrictive government policies that negatively affect access to the labour market.”

There is also the argument of public support for this policy. The policy is overwhelmingly popular with the public: 73% of red wall voters support the right to work, according to recent polling. Business leaders back easing the ban on the right to work, with the Survation poll showing that two-thirds of business leaders back it. It is rare to find a policy that has these three characteristics: economically advantageous, socially advantageous and politically advantageous.

There is one final reason why this is an amendment that the Government should accept. There is also a basic human dignity argument for this policy. We believe that every individual should be able to support themselves and their family. In fact, we would go further and say that, as Conservatives, we believe that every family has a personal responsibility to do so where they can. We have repeatedly, as a party, made the argument that work is the best route out of poverty, so the intention of this amendment is to ensure precisely that. Let people support themselves and create their own pathway from poverty to prosperity while they await a decision. The lack of the right to work makes people vulnerable to exploitation, declining mental health, poverty and modern slavery.

If the human dignity arguments do not convince Ministers, this amendment should also be viewed as purely pragmatic. Reforms to the asylum system proposed through the Nationality and Borders Bill will take time to come fully into effect. In the interim, while asylum cases are being processed, the asylum system continues to be under considerable strain. By offering asylum seekers the right to work, the Government will take pressure off themselves. I anticipate, however, that the Minister and other colleagues might be inclined to dismiss this amendment, using the argument that the right to work could be a so-called pull factor. So, before I finish, I want to address the reasons I believe this is not the case.

First, push factors, such as war and famine, as we are seeing in Ukraine, drive refugee flows far more than pull factors do. Secondly, as I have said before in this House, the real pull factors are our language, our culture, the rule of law, democracy, historical ties through the Commonwealth, family connections and liberty—and we are not about to sacrifice any of these, thank goodness. Thirdly, it is worth noting that the UK is currently an outlier in enforcing a 12-month wait period for work and then placing strong restrictions on which employment can be taken up. No other nation, whether any across Europe, the States, Australia or Canada, has such stringent requirements. It is worth asking why they have not considered the right to work to be a pull factor. Finally, this view is backed up by the experts. The Government’s own Migration Advisory Committee underlined that there is no evidence in academic research that people decide to claim asylum based on these kinds of factors. The Home Office itself commissioned a study that showed little evidence of a link between economic rights and the destination choices of those seeking asylum, and, to my knowledge, it has never produced evidence to the contrary.

All of this is to say that I believe that the Government could quite legitimately, without any nervousness and in line with their own poverty strategy of families working their way out of poverty, adopt this amendment that allows asylum seekers to work after six months of being in the UK. I will be listening carefully to the Minister’s response. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Lister of Burtersett Baroness Lister of Burtersett Labour

My Lords, I strongly support Amendment 30. In Committee, the Minister said that the Government’s opposition to the right to work was based less on the pull factor argument than on the impact on the integrity of the labour market. That is just as well. As the noble Baroness said, we have yet to see convincing evidence of the pull factor any better than the selective and somewhat misleading quote from a study that the Minister offered in Committee. She mentioned an impact assessment on that, which I believe is yet to materialise. When can we expect it?

If we consider the numbers involved, it is difficult to see how labour market integrity will be compromised. Indeed, the combination of the effects of the Bill and the welcome promised speeding up of applications, to which Amendment 53 in the name of my noble friend Lord Coaker should add some teeth, should reduce the numbers affected significantly. I imagine that the Migration Advisory Committee will have considered the integrity of the labour market before recommending the right to work after six months and in any occupation. Yet the Minister did not even mention the MAC report raised by a number of noble Lords in Committee.

Neither did she mention the MAC’s argument, and one central to the case I made, concerning the impact of the ban on working on integration, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, which supposedly remains a government goal. Nor did she acknowledge the statement I read out from MIN Voices, made up of asylum seekers, who said that not being able to work made them feel less than human and corroded their self-respect and dignity—again, echoing what the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, said. As the chair of Surrey Heath Conservatives pointed out on ConservativeHome —my new favourite reading—this very much chimes with Conservative values, so that in his view the ban is “fundamentally un-Conservative”.

I conclude by repeating the plea of MIN Voices’ plea to

“see us as human beings not a number. Let us build our life and future and not waste our time and skills”.

I should also mention the article by Sarah O’Connor of the Financial Times, who ended her recent analysis of the labour market implications of the ban by saying that

“if people want to work, we should let them”.

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench

My Lords, I very strongly support this amendment, to which I have added my name.

In Committee, the Minister referred to the integrity of the labour market as a route being one reason to reject this amendment and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, dealt with that very well, so I will not repeat her comments. The only other real argument against reducing the UK’s exceptional period before asylum seekers can apply for permission to work was, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, said, the so-called pull factor encouraging asylum seekers to come to this country. I want to say a bit more about that because it really is very difficult to take seriously under the circumstances. When Germany allows asylum seekers to work after three months, Italy after two months, Portugal after just one week, can our Government really justify the current one-year ban and argue that if we changed it, there would be this serious pull factor problem?

If the Minister accepts this amendment, we will have the same employment restriction as France, Spain, Denmark, Poland, the Netherlands, Ireland and Greece, and we would remain more restrictive than all other western European countries. Ireland was the only other western European outlier until it recently reduced its nine months restriction down to six months in 2021. This amendment would do no more than Ireland did to bring it into line with the list of countries I have already referred to.

The fact is, the UK has a longer employment restriction for asylum seekers than any other comparable country. I just feel ashamed of us, to be honest—I think it is disgraceful. Moreover, it seems the Government have no grounds to argue that enabling asylum seekers to work will, in fact, act as a pull factor. A recent review of 29 academic papers on this subject found that there was no correlation between the right to work and where people seeking asylum chose to seek protection; the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, explained that perfectly clearly so, again, I do not need to repeat her words.

The other very important reform in this amendment is to end the iniquitous limitation on asylum seekers, even after the 12-month ban, to jobs on an extremely limited shortage occupation list—I seem to remember one of them was a ballerina or something. How many asylum seekers can really take up ballet? This renders employment impossible for the vast majority of asylum seekers until their application is finally approved.

The assumption behind this amendment is that asylum seekers would, after six months, become automatically eligible for a work permit, enabling them to become self-employed or to take up any job, to pay taxes and national insurance, and so on. It will be very difficult to justify not accepting this amendment.

In summary, I do not accept the arguments put by the Minister in Committee. I just hope that she and her colleagues have reconsidered their position. On 8 December 2021, I understand that the Home Office said in a Written Statement that it had concluded its review of the current policy. This is surely a perfect moment to introduce reform.

Photo of The Earl of Dundee The Earl of Dundee Conservative

My Lords, I join my noble friend Lady Stroud and others in strongly supporting this amendment. The proposition is that asylum seekers who have waited six months for an initial decision should be allowed the right to work.

Clearly, and as has already been said, this measure can provide important safeguards. Not being held up from work assists motivation, attitude of mind and mental health, as it also preserves dignity and protects against the danger of modern slavery. Yet it might be alleged, or wrongly assumed, that such benefits to the applicant come at a high price—even at an unacceptable price—to the host country: that the workforce would thereby become top-heavy causing much national resentment and attracting too many to come here from other countries. Yet, on all these three counts, the truth is the complete opposite.

As my noble friend Lady Stroud pointed out, 125,000 people await an asylum decision. With our current labour shortages these numbers, if allowed to work, would considerably boost our economy; that is also well recognised. Far from fear and resentment, there is wide national approval, with over 70% believing that asylum seekers in the system longer than six months should have the right to work.

Thirdly, there is the specious claim that the right to work after six months might lead to an unmanageable intake of asylum seekers in the first place. Yet, not least as stressed by the Government’s Migration Advisory Committee, these is little evidence to back up that assertion. Instead, the main reason for asylum seekers coming here is the need to escape from intolerable circumstances in their own countries, as we are now witnessing through the thousands of Ukrainians fleeing from war. For all these reasons I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to accept this amendment.

Photo of Baroness Ludford Baroness Ludford Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union) 10:00, 28 February 2022

My Lords, the arguments have been put very well and very strongly. I am very pleased to co-sign the excellent amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud. Her speech was really excellent. Others have demolished the pull factor argument and I do not wish to say any more on that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said in Committee:

“To relax the policy would be totally to undermine everything that the British people voted for in 2019”.—[Official Report, 3/2/22; col. 1062.]

This has really nothing to do with Brexit, but the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, just quoted a statistic of 70% of people supporting asylum seekers being able to work. That is quite similar to a YouGov poll today which says that 77% of the British public support relaxing visa restrictions on Ukrainian refugees, refuting the idea that the public do not appreciate these arguments, whether it is about refugees or, in this case, asylum seekers.

This is not a partisan proposal; it has been said that it is thoroughly Conservative—I would like to say it is thoroughly Liberal Democrat or Labour as well—but it is not of itself party political. To us, its proponents, it is a win-win. It enables asylum seekers to stand on their own two feet, support their families, pay tax—that is the economic side—and to help them integrate. I cannot remember whether I quoted it in Committee, but I saw a statistic that said that if asylum seekers do not get that sort of flying start—and of course those who do not qualify for refugee status will have to be removed in the normal way, whether they have been working or not—it can take 10 years to recover from a period of initial deterioration. People’s mental and physical health, their self-regard and ability to mesh with their community is so damaged by not being able to work in an initial period that it takes a very long time for them to recover, and that harms the host society.

I do not believe that the Government are on the same page as public opinion on this one. It really it not logical. If the Government were able to meet the target, which they are failing at horribly, to make an initial decision within six months, then this proposed new clause would not come into effect, because the right to work comes into effect after six months. There is nothing to fear if the Government actually put their resources into frontloading the system—as so many of us have argued for ad infinitum.

Accepting this amendment is a no-brainer, and the noble Baroness has got a considerable brain, so she is going to find it quite difficult to refute the truly heavy arguments for this amendment.

Photo of The Bishop of Chelmsford The Bishop of Chelmsford Bishop

My Lords, I give my strong support to Amendment 30 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud. She has eloquently made the case for this amendment, so I do not intend to take a great deal of the House’s time, but I wish to add a few brief remarks in support.

At Second Reading, I raised the question of how different our migration policy might be if we stopped looking at asylum seekers as either victims without agency or criminals seeking to exploit us and instead as future citizens and neighbours. In this light, the right to work for asylum seekers who have waited six months or more for a decision represents an excellent opportunity. It would be good for asylum seekers and for the soul of this nation. Such people are often left without agency or dignity. Their identity becomes limited to a sort of victim status. Being unable to work leaves them dependent on the state or at risk of falling in with illegal labour exportation.

Legal employment represents a chance for people to contribute to their own welfare and that of the common good. It is a way for them to bring their skill and efforts to their new communities, to make friends and to integrate. It provides an opportunity for others to meet and understand these newcomers, and to see them as willing contributors rather than chancers or criminals.

Work is not just a means to a wage or an economic benefit to a business and a community—although, as we have heard, it might be all these things—but innately social. It is activity done with and for others. It is a contribution to common life. That is something we should look to foster and encourage, as it is a means of building stronger ties of fellowship, stronger communities and stronger citizens.

This argument has been advanced before in this place and has been rejected. However, with new recommendations from the Migration Advisory Committee and the sense of momentum we can hear in the House this evening, I hope we might be able to make some progress.

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell Conservative

My Lords, I support Amendment 30. My noble friend Lady Stroud has put extremely well the reasons why this was never a good policy. On basic Conservative principles—that the route out of poverty and into prosperity is through work—this measure fails dismally. It was never good even when it was first brought in. I concede that maybe the people who brought it in thought it would give them some kind of credibility in the public eye that they were being tough on migration, and that maybe 20 years ago it looked like we faced the end of history. But both those things are no longer true, and if we look just a little down the line to the future they will be emphatically not true. As a number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, pointed out, the public are strongly with us on this. The sight of Ukrainian refugees coming to Britain looking for sanctuary will only increase that.

We have not seen the end of history. I am afraid we are going into a very turbulent period of history where refuge and asylum will be sought by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. We will we face an enormous debt to our neighbours to try to provide them some form of sanctuary. We already have 125,000 people waiting over six months for a determination. What kind of number do we need to get to before we change the system? I hope the Minister will use this opportunity to review a bad policy, to move on and to develop a better policy that is suited to the future.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Chair, Communications and Digital Committee, Chair, Communications and Digital Committee

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Stroud makes some very strong and compelling arguments in favour of her amendment. I certainly take the view that asylum seekers should indeed be allowed to work as soon as possible once a decision has been made about their application. I think the citizens of this country would support that and want that very much. However, a matter that would raise concern for people would be if we introduced a law that allowed asylum seekers to start work before a decision on their appeal—or rather their application for asylum—had been decided.

Rather than support my noble friend’s amendment, I ask my noble friend the Minister what the Home Office is doing to deal with the backlog of applications for asylum currently sat in the system. My noble friend Lady Stroud referred to the number: 125,000. What more resources is the Home Office applying to become much more efficient and effective in processing those applications? To me, that is where we should focus our effort—not on introducing a law that would mean that asylum seekers are automatically allowed to work before a decision has been made on their status in this country.

Photo of Lord Marlesford Lord Marlesford Conservative

My Lords, I strongly support my noble friend Lady Stroud’s amendment for one simple, overriding reason. One of the big problems of handling the big numbers involved—125,000, as we have been told—is morale. One of the crucial elements of morale is hope. If people do not have hope, they really do deteriorate. The loss of hope for a long time is a terrible thing to inflict on anybody.

As to whether their employment can be accommodated, there is one obvious area where there are limitless opportunities to do something that would make people really feel part of the country and would remain for ever: the whole field of conservation. An enormous number of projects could be carried out; they would be exciting to do and very fulfilling. I certainly hope the Government accept my noble friend’s amendment.

Photo of Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Crossbench

I hope the Government accept the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, which clearly is supported all around the House. I believe it is supported in the higher ranks of the governing party. I quote from no less an expert than Mr Dominic Raab in the Spectator from 2 October:

“If they learn the language and they can work, they integrate much better and they make a positive contribution.”

Correct.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, said it is a win-win. No less an authority than the Adam Smith Institute and Bright Blue said that asylum seekers pay increased tax and national insurance revenue and we pay them a lower asylum support payment, and that it is a win for the Exchequer. These are very Conservative arguments, and they happen to be true. It is a win for them and a win for us. I hope the Government accept the amendment.

Photo of Baroness Hollins Baroness Hollins Crossbench

My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendments 30A and 84A, but I also support the amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, and I will explain why as I introduce these two amendments.

I first thank representatives from the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Helen Bamber Foundation for their support of these amendments. The proposed new clause in Amendment 30A would make provision for the Secretary of State to

“commission a review of the processes and services” that will be in place and their impact on

“the well-being of refugees and asylum seekers.”

We know a great deal more about the long-term impact of trauma on people’s mental and physical health, their memory and their ability to make sense of their experiences, adjust to a new situation, engage productively in work, advocate for themselves and avoid being retraumatised. The very system designed to protect them, whether by poor design or by poor execution, risks worsening the health of refugees and people seeking asylum, and increasing their vulnerability.

With respect to work, there is evidence that people with mental health problems of any sort who are out of work for more than six months have real difficulty getting back into work—ever. This is a really key, important point. Research by the Royal College of Psychiatrists has evidenced that people with significant mental illness, as well as those with evidence of torture or sexual or gender-based violence, are being detained despite their mental health-related vulnerabilities, and that their mental health is deteriorating further in immigration detention. This remains the case, despite the statutory guidance on adults at risk and associated caseworker guidance introduced by the Government in response to the highly critical Shaw report.

The health needs of refugees and those seeking asylum require close multidisciplinary working, continuity of care and a regular review of these processes to ensure that, unlike what happened in Napier barracks, these systems are working in the way intended. I urge the Minister to commit to a review of the processes and services in place with regard to the well-being of refugees and asylum seekers, carried out by a body with the necessary expertise.

Amendment 84A proposes the need for a code of practice for professionals involved in the assessment and care of people seeking asylum, which ultimately aims to provide fairness, consistency and protection for people in these vulnerable situations. In seeking to require the Secretary of State to prepare and issue one or more codes of practice for the guidance of immigration officers, medical inspectors and other persons involved in the assessment and care of people seeking asylum, the objective is to regularise a process that at the moment displays somewhat haphazard approaches to the health and well-being of people in such vulnerable situations. Given the numerous agencies—public, independent and third sector—and a variety of sources of guidance, perhaps this is not surprising. The Home Office has a role in providing and maintaining a framework to ensure that its various agent bodies do not fail to assess and address the health and care needs of people arriving here, by whatever means, nor fail to assess, prevent or delay the development of health and care needs after their arrival.

Mental illness can influence the ability of asylum seekers to present their claims in a coherent way. The assessment of credibility is a fundamental aspect of the asylum decision-making process, whereby people seeking asylum are required to prove the existence of a well-founded fear of persecution if returned to their country of origin, based on any of the grounds prescribed by law. The decision-making immigration officer needs information to make their decision, but they may be faced with a person with symptoms associated with mental health disorders and the mental health effects of trauma, such as memory loss, inability to express or even feel emotions, or profound guilt and shame at what they have experienced. It is vital that those interviewing them have a sufficient understanding of the effects of trauma on memory and disclosure and how to consider this when deciding the outcome of an asylum claim.

As I said in Committee, these are people with complex health needs. They are not just like any other patient in the NHS; they have had very difficult experiences and have difficult mental health needs. It is difficult for them to try to explain their trauma to the first interpreter or the first person assessing them that they meet. It can take years for people to be able to trust sufficiently. This is not just about having an assessment and a conversation; it is about a relationship of trust. It is intended through this amendment that the mental health, mental capacity and physical health of asylum seekers and refugees are assessed and considered properly on arrival and throughout the asylum claim processes, and that the treatment and care of asylum seekers and refugees is sufficient to ensure their health and well-being. Through this, they will be in a better position to engage with the asylum processes and later, if their claim is successful, to integrate.

The assessment and identification of mental health problems requires appropriately trained staff, as well as close multidisciplinary working. The treatment of mental illness requires multidisciplinary, holistic approaches and continuity of care. A code of practice would be of benefit both to professionals and to those seeking asylum, and I urge the Minister to accept this amendment.

Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee 10:15, 28 February 2022

In following my noble friend Lady Stroud, I shall plough a lonely and, I fear, unpopular furrow by suggesting to the Minister that we ought to reject this amendment. I greatly admire my noble friend Lady Stroud for her commitment and the work that she has done in these areas, but I still think that her amendment should be rejected. As my noble friend Lady Stowell pointed out, of course these are asylum seekers whose cases have not been determined. Some of them will be asylum seekers, and some of them will not find their case, and they will become in effect economic migrants. I absolutely accept that the time that it is taking to determine the cases is very long and debilitating to all parties concerned, but I am concerned because, if we allow people to use the asylum route as a means to move forward faster, it is at the expense of those who wish to come here as economic migrants from the beginning.

Secondly, I do not accept the argument that forum shopping—looking around for the best place to make your future—is not a factor. Of course, it is not in every case, but it is a factor. I will not weary the House at 10.20 pm with the list of things, which run from the diasporas to the respect for individuals, the chance to learn English, flexible labour markets, and so on, but they are undoubtedly factors that encourage people to come here.

Nearly every case that I have heard being made now is based on the economy, and the economic prism is undoubtedly an important one, but there are prisms other than that. The impact of each one of us—whether we have just arrived here, seek to come here or have been here for some time—is not just about our economic performance. We make demands on our society of a house, a school, a hospital and a place for our children to play. We have an impact on the green belt, the availability of open space and our future food and water security in an increasingly uncertain world. We expect, overall, that between now and 2040 there will be another 4 million people in this country.

Members of your Lordships’ House have talked about public opinion and where it stands on the issue, but I can tell your Lordships that 71% of people believe that this country is already too crowded and that the Government do not have any plans to deal with the challenges that that causes. If you reset that polling so that it just asks the minority communities, 61% are still equally concerned about the prospects that lie ahead not for us in this House but for our children and grandchildren, if we do not take steps, wherever we reasonably can, to ensure that the growth of population in this country is limited as far as possible. With the best will in the world—I accept the good intentions of my noble friend—her amendment does not tick that box. It encourages the growth of population; it does not discourage it.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I point out to the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, that the whole point of the amendment is to ensure that people who may be making demands on houses, schools and hospitals can also build those houses, staff those schools and provide care in those hospitals. Briefly, I want to add “Green” to the list of of parties mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, that support the right to work for asylum seekers. Indeed, I can date that back to at least 2006, when I joined the Green Party. Pretty well the first event I went to was one hearing from refugee women who expressed their desire for the right to work and were very pleased that that was Green Party policy.

I am well aware that the Minister is far more likely to listen to voices behind her—and I urge her to do so—then she is to me, but I point out that the six-month restriction on the right to work was brought in by the Labour Party in 2002 and strengthened in 2005, so the Government would be reversing a Labour policy.

Finally, as I often seek to do in your Lordships’ House, I reflect the voices of the people most affected, who are calling, as the hashtag goes, to “Lift the Ban”. A man called Mahmoud was recorded by Asylum Matters. He said: “It would make our lives meaningful and useful at the same time if we could work.” Please listen to that voice.

Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop

My Lords, I fully support the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, and my noble and right reverend friend behind me here supports it as well. I will speak to the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and the two amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, which I fully support.

We may have 125,000 asylum seekers but let me focus on two. This is why I support both amendments. One is an asylum seeker who lives in my area who heard from the Home Office within the first three weeks of arrival then heard nothing for 12 months, in spite of inquiry after inquiry. That is why we need a code of practice. That is why we need better ways of working. It beggars belief what that says to him about how he is seen in our society and by our society. That is, of course, told time and again.

The second case is an Afghan who came out last summer on the planes and whose family is still in hiding in Afghanistan. Last week they were hunted by the Taliban; they escaped. He sent me through last week the letter he had just received from a Home Office official. It is four lines long, giving him the number that he has been allocated, with not one jot of sympathy about what he might be facing.

I accept that the official will not know or be able to verify the story that I have heard but the processes themselves do not treat people as people. They treat them as case numbers. We need the kinds of provisions that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, has proposed and we need to deal with these cases much faster. That means we employ more people and we upskill them. That is why I support the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Coaker. The right to work falls away, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, noted. That is not going to happen in a hurry, so we need the right to work now but we also need the other provisions.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee

My Lords, the argument from the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, seemed to be addressed more to refugees than asylum seekers and I think that almost everyone who has spoken about the right to work of asylum seekers has urged faster decision- making. I want to speak to the two amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, to which I have added my name.

The House has heard many noble Lords stress the importance of a trauma-informed approach and the difficulties of almost every asylum seeker, I would have thought, in telling their story almost as soon as they get here after dreadful experiences. It must be dreadful, even if the journey is quite straightforward, to tell the story coherently and fully. I fear the Home Office has not yet got it.

The Minister wrote to me last week on the interpretation of “without delay” and I thank her for that. She has had an awful lot of letters to write during the course of the Bill. The official who wrote this one said that

“if someone was fearful of acknowledging their homosexuality to the authorities, then it may be reasonably practicable for them to make a claim some time after arrival, as we recognise the extremely difficult process of coming to terms with one’s own sexuality.”

If an asylum seeker has experienced what we know in some countries people experience because of their sexuality, I do not think that “coming to terms with one’s own sexuality” begins to describe it. That is why these amendments are needed.

Photo of Lord Green of Deddington Lord Green of Deddington Crossbench

My Lords, I will very briefly speak to Amendment 30 and say that I very strongly agree with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, who I thought said some very valuable things.

I would like to say and make it clear that I am actually in favour of asylum. I believe that it is absolutely right in principle but I find in this debate and more generally that there is something of an assumption that all asylum seekers are genuine and, frankly, they are not. Indeed, the very careful process that they go through finds that nearly half of them are not accepted as asylum seekers.

The risk of moving this to 12 months is that some applicants—those who are not genuine, of course—would have an incentive to spin out their cases until they reach the six-month point, which would not be too difficult, and then they are here and that is it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, hit the nail on the head. First, what we must avoid is the possibility of work before acceptance as a genuine refugee. Secondly, that points to the need to speed up the process, which is what is causing all this difficulty. If we could get the cases resolved in a reasonable time, those who really deserve it would get it—and good on them—and those who do not would be in a queue to be removed.

Photo of Lord Coaker Lord Coaker Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Opposition Whip (Lords) 10:30, 28 February 2022

It is good to see the Chamber filling up, despite the fact that it is me speaking.

I speak in support of all the amendments in this group. I am interested in supporting the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud—I am going to be a Conservative—but I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, and the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, clearly speaking in support of my amendment. It is good to see them supporting a Labour amendment, so it is interesting here.

The really serious point about the amendment was made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. I apologise to the Chamber because I really should have put this down in Committee. It is more of an amendment for Committee than for Report, but it goes to the heart of the problem that we are trying to deal with. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Green, on much, but he often makes the point that, until the administration of the asylum system is sorted out, we are trying to knit fog. That is the basic problem. The Government are chasing this, as the previous Labour Government did, and there is a real problem with respect to it.

The example that the right reverend Prelate gave could have been given by most people in this House. As a Member of Parliament, I could have given example after example of people who have come here and claimed asylum and the system has lost them. Then they reappear a few years later, having been to school. It is unbelievable quite how the system has allowed them to operate and work within it, yet officially they are not supposed to be here; their claim is still supposed to be being sorted out.

My Amendment 53 is simply a way of trying to say that, unless we get a grip on this, in the next year there will be another asylum Bill and in two years there will be another. And then the Labour Government will come in with another asylum Bill. The reality is that, while each and every one of us is motivated by the desire to do the best thing by those fleeing persecution, in the way we have seen with refugees, the system simply cannot find a way of dealing humanely and properly with people who seek asylum in our country. You get euphemisms about accommodation centres, et cetera, and people having to report on a regular basis—all those sorts of things. That is why the business of being able to sort out whether people have a legitimate claim and are accepted by the system as asylum seekers or refugees, or not, is so important. That goes to the heart of it.

I apologise to the Minister because, as I say, this is a debate for Committee rather than for Report. I have no intention of voting on it; I just got frustrated with the fact that each and every one of us was chasing our tail trying to deal with a system which, by the Government’s own admission, is broken. They are trying to fix it but in a way which makes many of us say “We understand there are problems, but the way you are trying to fix it won’t work and we will be left with the same situation”. That is why I support the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud. She very articulately and powerfully argued the point as to why it is important to give the right to work to people who are still awaiting their decision after six months.

I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham: you could say that, if the Government adopted Amendment 53, it would be a real incentive for them to get their act together, so that they did not have the situation where people had the right to work even though their decision had not been made, in the way that the noble Baroness’s amendment would indicate. I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, who pointed out that country after country has different arrangements with respect to the right to work and does not have the same problems as we do. I very much support that.

I want to highlight one aspect rather than repeat everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, has put so ably—and other Members have supported her amendment. My point is this: the Government will oppose this amendment on the basis of the pull factor; they have no evidence for it, but that is exactly what they will do. The last Labour Government did exactly the same thing in 2002 and 2005 because they were persuaded by the argument that there must be a pull factor—there just must be. As the argument went, asylum seekers will come here, they will be able to work, they will tell all their friends and family and they will all pile over here, as it is easy to get in, they will be able to work and do the jobs and they will be well paid, whereas, actually, they will be in the hidden economy and half the time people will not even know that they are working. That will be the argument. They will put it in much better English, much more articulately, much more in civil servant speak—but that is what they mean.

I do not know what the politically correct term is any more, but the Government set up these false windows, where they put up their hands or palms, and say, “This is what we are having to go through: the Government are having to stand up to a middle-class establishment elite”—as represented by your Lordships, including me—“and we are battling through this because, in doing so, we are representing public opinion as evidenced by the fact that we won the 2019 election. Public opinion is on our side, so this is a necessary pain we have to go through.” That may be right on one or two things, but on this it is fundamentally wrong. That is not where the public are on this.

There is only one thing on which I slightly disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud: I think it is not about integration but, more importantly, about social solidarity. As it has been articulated, it is a belief that when people have been here a certain amount of time, they should work. That is what people think; that is the general view of the public. If the system has not sorted out whether they should be here but they are living in our country and our housing and things are being provided for them, they should work. That is what people think. I do not care whether it is a car mechanic, a brain surgeon, somebody who is out of work, somebody in the north or the west of the country—whoever; that is what they think, and it is what I think.

It is reasonable for people to expect that. People do not say, “I tell you what, they shouldn’t work because there’s a pull factor.” That would be ridiculous—it is just not true—but I do think that people look down their road, or across the road, or in the village next to them, or on the farm or in the supermarket and, when there is a problem, they say, “Why don’t those people who have come from wherever, who are awaiting a decision—why can’t they work? Why can’t they do it?” I have never heard anybody say, “They can’t do it: it’s a pull factor.” It is just nonsense; it beggars belief.

I wanted to highlight that because, for me, it goes to the absolute heart of it. People would expect those people to work. I agree that it is good for asylum seekers themselves and their family to contribute to a country in which they hope to have permanent residency, providing they go through the necessary checks, but the community around them expects that as well; and that social solidarity and human dignity is everything. That is why I support the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud. Alongside that, I think that Amendment 53 is important, and the Government will have to get this sorted out. Otherwise, we will be knitting fog again in another year or two.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken to this group of amendments. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Stroud for bringing Amendment 30. The issue has been much debated and it hinges on two issues really: the integrity of our immigration system and pull factors. I want to correct a figure that has been mooted a couple of times this evening: there are actually 81,000 people awaiting an initial decision, not 125,000, but it is a large number nevertheless.

A more relaxed asylum seeker right to work policy creates a back door into our labour market. We have just set up a world-leading economic migration scheme, which provides ample opportunity for people of varying skill and educational levels to apply to come and work in the UK. In fact, this scheme was a core manifesto commitment; it was not about Brexit. However, we cannot afford to turn around and offer people the opportunity to undercut it through simply lodging an asylum claim. Our policy is a constituent part of a whole; it does not operate in isolation. As my noble friend Lady Stowell said, someone who comes to the UK and is found working illegally can claim asylum as a way to prevent removal and then get the right to work. That does not seem logical to me.

I will repeat that, where reasons for coming to the UK include family or economic considerations, applications should be made via the relevant route: either the points-based immigration system or our various family reunion routes. We know that people want to work in the UK. Why would they not? We have a strong economy and labour market. That is why we cannot discount the risk of even more channel crossings if we relaxed our asylum seeker right-to-work policy. This issue has been debated at length in the past. However, I want to be clear that the motivations for fleeing one’s country of origin—of which noble Lords are well aware—and the motivations for moving from one safe country to another are not the same.

According to a 2009 article by Norwegian academics Jan-Paul Brekke and Monica Aarset, there is a hierarchy of considerations which migrants make when choosing a particular country. The first is, of course, that it is safe. The second—more important even than family networks—is the existence of future opportunities, which include:

“the welfare state, education, the jobs market and good conditions for bringing up children.”

These are things which are shared by all northern European countries, including France. This importance of future opportunities is clear through similar academic literature on secondary movements, in which economic considerations, including the ability to work, are consistently cited as a primary factor in choices about moving from one safe country to another. I am afraid that noble Lords continue to conflate reasons for leaving countries of origin with reasons for making those secondary movements, which is misleading and unhelpful for the purposes of this debate.

Noble Lords will be aware that the French cite the ability to work as a pull for those making channel crossings. Whether that is about the availability of work in the shadow economy or not is actually quite irrelevant. The point that we are being told by senior French Ministers is that these people are motivated to move from one safe country to another because they want to work. This was reiterated in a sobering BBC World Service investigation into the tragedy in the channel last November. Through deep research into the lives and families of the victims, the journalists ultimately found that they were all motivated to come to the UK from France for economic reasons. The solution here is to decide cases more quickly, and that is what we are doing through the wider new plan for immigration. I hope that this has been a good explainer of the background.

My noble friend Lady Stroud said that 71% of people think that the right to work is a good idea if people are waiting for a decision for six months or more. I would counter this with a YouGov poll from October of last year which showed that only 45% thought that the right to work was a good idea. This takes the issue completely out of context and ignores the bigger picture concerns. In light of the fact that 73% of people thought that illegal channel crossings were a serious issue, 50% of people thought that the UK does not have a responsibility to protect people—against 35% who thought that they did. In addition, 65% of people thought that Britain should refuse to accept asylum applications, and 55% thought that the current approach of the Government to small boats was too soft. I say that this Government have a clear mandate to ensure that there is no incentive for people to make secondary movements across the channel where academic evidence suggests that many do it for primarily economic reasons.

The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford talked about addressing the integration needs of asylum seekers. Of course, that is absolutely true, but not all of those who seek asylum are found to need international protection. As the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, said, 50% of asylum seekers are refused even after appeal, so that spells that out.

A right to work would start to cause further delays in the system by adding further requirements, as we would have to issue new paperwork to determine whether the person had completed all the way through, and then remove the right if they were subsequently refused. Also, individuals would have to provide their own accommodation and meet utilities et cetera, and then we would need to remove them from asylum-supported accommodation for obvious reasons.

My noble friend Lady Stroud made the point that allowing asylum seekers to work prevents them resorting to illegal working. Asylum seekers can receive support until their claim and any appeal is determined. They are also allowed to undertake volunteering activities, but these must not amount to job substitution. My noble friend also asked whether we are considering any policy change to support the ongoing worker crisis in the UK. We are offering time-limited visas to certain cohorts, such as HGV drivers, poultry workers and butchers, but it is a temporary emergency measure which recognises the extraordinary set of circumstances facing the UK food supply chain.

My noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, talked about us running the toughest policy in Europe. Looking more closely at European countries is instructive: Austria allows asylum seekers to work after three months, but they are restricted to seasonal roles on a six-month visa in forestry, tourism and agriculture. In France, the right to work is permitted after six months, but is contingent on having a work permit, which itself requires a job offer, meaning in practice that many asylum seekers in France cannot work.

On Amendments 30A and 84A, in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Hollins and Lady Hamwee, I could not agree more that the well-being of asylum seekers is an important issue. I agree that, undoubtedly, some refugees and asylum seekers will have medical needs or, indeed, issues around social care, and that it is important to ensure that they are not at risk of abuse or neglect. But these basic health and care needs are no different from those experienced by many UK citizens and, because of that, asylum seekers and refugees are entitled to access medical services, including those related to mental health, trauma or medical assessment that are provided by the NHS, in the same way as British citizens and other permanent residents.

It is already open to the Secretary of State to commission a review of any part of the immigration system. I can point to recent examples of this: the UNHCR carried out an audit of Home Office procedures around the issue of statelessness in December 2020, some of the findings from which helped to shape changes to things such as training and the quality assurance framework that we operate. Noble Lords will also be aware of the role of the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration.

Finally, turning to Amendment 53—noble Lords will be delighted to hear that I am about to wind up—I remain entirely sympathetic to the intention behind this proposed new clause, which aims to reduce the time individuals spend waiting for the outcome of their asylum claim, which is what we all seek.

We are clearly at a time of change to our asylum system. This goes to my noble friend Lady Stowell of Beeston’s point. The new plan for immigration brings about a suite of measures designed to reduce abuse of the asylum system, improve efficiency within the system and focus resources on those most in need of support. At this time of change, we cannot commit to a particularly restrictive limit on determining asylum claims, which could rush decision-makers as they come to grips with new policies and inevitably lead to an increase in legal challenges, which take decision-makers away from determining claims and increase costs for taxpayers.

There are, of course, justifiable reasons why deciding claims might take longer than six months. These include, but are not limited to, modern slavery considerations, and mental and physical vulnerabilities. There is, of course, also a cohort of people whose very purpose is to frustrate the asylum system. This causes delay to the system and is one of the things we are trying to address through the Bill.

I am sorry to have given such a long-winded response, but I hope that, with my explanation, noble Lords will feel happy not to press their amendments.

Photo of Baroness Stroud Baroness Stroud Conservative 10:45, 28 February 2022

My Lords, I thank everyone who has contributed to this cross-party debate for their insightful and well-argued remarks. The comment of the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, that ConservativeHome is her new favourite reading, was the revelation of the evening. I felt that the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, on social solidarity hit the nail on the head.

I heard the Minister’s response. She used the twin argument of the integrity of our Immigration Service and pull factors to dismiss Amendment 30. Across the House, I thought we were able to pretty much rebut the right to work being a pull factor. The integrity of our Immigration Service is questionable too, when other European nations, Canada, Australia and all the other nations mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, can maintain the integrity of their immigration services and not reject the right to work for asylum seekers.

Like all of us across the House, I believe that if we are to become the nation I know we are meant to be, with well-managed borders but a respectful and compassionate asylum system, this amendment can contribute much to creating such an environment. As we have heard in the contributions this evening, the right to work for asylum seekers after six months is a policy that is economically, socially and politically advantageous. It confers dignity on those who have sought safety here and, as we have heard, there is little to no evidence that it creates pull factors. It would also help the Home Office with pressure on its claims system.

I believe that there is support in the House for the amendment and that, even at this hour of the night, it would be appropriate to test the will of the House.

Ayes 112, Noes 89.

Division number 5 Nationality and Borders Bill - Report (1st Day) (Continued) — Amendment 30

A majority of Members of the House of Lords voted to add a clause introducing the right to work for asylum seekers who have been resident in the UK for more than six months.

Aye: 112 Members of the House of Lords

No: 89 Members of the House of Lords

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Amendment 30 agreed.

Amendment 30A not moved.

Consideration on Report adjourned.

House adjourned at 11.06 pm.