I would like to build on my hon. and learned Friend’s well made argument. I thank the Regional Asylum Activism Project for Yorkshire and Humberside for their help.
Despite often arriving in the UK with a host of skills and experiences gained in their country of origin, hardly any asylum seekers are allowed to work while their claim is being assessed by the Home Office. Only asylum seekers who have waited over 12 months for an initial decision on their case are eligible to apply for permission to work, but even those granted permission to work are not allowed to work in a self-employed capacity, set up a business, or take up a job that is not included on the highly specialised shortage occupation list. The current restrictions on accessing employment for people seeking refugee protection stops many highly skilled, experienced and educated individuals from contributing to the UK’s economy and society. For example, refugees started Marks & Spencer and brought us fish and chips and the Mini. People seeking refugee protection today will include, among many others, entrepreneurs, doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers, scientists and solicitors. Fundamentally, allowing asylum seekers to work will make economic, social and political sense.
First, on economics, if asylum seekers were granted permission to work, they would be able to contribute to the UK economy immediately through income tax, adding directly to the UK’s coffers. Equally, amounts spent on asylum support would decline, resulting in a net benefit to the economy. That has been recognised by the European Commission, which states:
“Mandatory unemployment… imposes costs on the State through the payment of additional social welfare payments.”
Government research has also recognised that delayed entry to the labour market, loss of skills and confidence, and difficulty getting qualifications recognised in this country can cause problems even when status is granted, leading to high levels of unemployment and underemployment. Allowing people to work while waiting for their asylum claim decision will not only allow them to start rebuilding their lives free from persecution, but allow them to start the journey towards meaningful employment as soon as possible.
Secondly, the indirect costs of enforced poverty are significant. Without the right to work, people in the asylum system are forced to rely on Government support to survive, but with asylum support rates set at £5.28 a day—barely 50% of the income support equivalent—many in the asylum system are forced into institutionalised poverty. As I and other hon. Members have said, extended periods living in poverty have huge impacts on physical and mental health and self-esteem. For some, a reliance on Government support is considered shameful, as they are unable to support themselves and their families; that concern has been raised by the cross-party parliamentary inquiry into asylum support for children and young people. Research from the University of Leeds and the University of Salford found that the experience of poverty was a key factor in pushing many individuals in the asylum process into exploitative and precarious working conditions. I suggest that providing those in the asylum process with the legal permission to work is in line with the Government’s commitment to ending modern day slavery.
Thirdly, the rationale for the current policy does not hold up. The reasons for restricting permission to work for asylum seekers hinge on the idea that it will act as pull factor, but it is important to remember the conclusions of research the Home Office commissioned in 2002:
“There was very little evidence that the sample respondents had a detailed knowledge of: UK immigration or asylum procedures; entitlements to benefits in the UK; or the availability of work in the UK.”
That was confirmed by a review of the 19 main recipient countries for asylum applications in the OECD in 2011, which concluded that policies that relate to the welfare of asylum seekers did not impact on the number of applications made in destination countries. All but one of the countries that granted permission to work to people seeking asylum received fewer asylum applications than the UK in 2012 and 2013.
A change of policy to allow asylum seekers the permission to work is long overdue. In 2007, the Joint Committee on Human Rights described the denial of the right to work for asylum seekers as part of a “deliberate policy of destitution”, which was breaching human rights. In 2013, the cross-party parliamentary inquiry into asylum support for children and young people called for parents and young people to be given permission to work while their claims were being decided. Thirteen local authorities have passed motions condemning the destitution of people seeking asylum. To date, 71 current Members of this House, of all political persuasions, have signed Still Human Still Here’s declaration on permission to work. They join the Trades Union Congress and a broad coalition of organisations, from Refugee Council to Crisis, Doctors of the World to The Children’s Society, in their call for people seeking refugee protection to be allowed to live in dignity, not destitution.
Allowing asylum seekers permission to work will enable many to support themselves through the asylum process. We should grant permission to work to all asylum seekers if they have been waiting more than six months for an initial decision, up until their protection needs are recognised or a safe route back to their country of origin has been negotiated. For this reason, I urge the Minister to support the amendment.