Consequential etc provision

Part of Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 26th February 2019.

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Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee of Privileges, Chair, Committee of Privileges, Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards 2:15 pm, 26th February 2019

If peace and cross-party good will broke out in relation to my last amendment, I hope that we may find similar cross-party enthusiasm for this one. I know that many colleagues around the House have paid careful attention to campaigns for legal asylum seekers to have the right to work in certain circumstances. This amendment would offer the right to work to EEA nationals who may become asylum seekers in future if a decision on their case has not been taken after a period of six months.

People seeking asylum in the UK are effectively prohibited from working, which means that they are forced on to asylum support at the meagre level of £5.39 a day while they wait for a decision on their asylum claim. Current immigration rules dictate that those people can apply for permission to work only if they have been waiting for a decision for over 12 months, and only for jobs that are on the shortage occupation list, which we were discussing a few moments ago. Those constraints could apply to EEA nationals seeking asylum in this country post Brexit, and we have to assume that in at least a small number of cases, such individuals will be looking for refuge here in the years to come.

The White Paper published on 20 December has already recognised the importance of work when it comes to the physical and mental wellbeing, the sense of building a wider contribution to society, and the community integration of people in the asylum system. It states that

“the Government has committed to listening carefully to the complex arguments around permitting asylum seekers to work.”

I know that both the Minister and the Home Secretary have been actively engaging with me and with other colleagues around the House, and I place on record my thanks for their interest in and engagement with this subject. It is much appreciated.

As I have said, the amendment calls for asylum seekers who are EEA nationals and their adult dependants to have a right to work, unconstrained by the shortage occupation list, after six months of having lodged an asylum claim or made a further submission in relation to their case. Of course, I would like the right to work to extend to all asylum seekers, not just those who are EEA nationals. There is a measure of support for that proposal around the House, and I hope that in due course—if not under the scope of this Bill—we will have the opportunity to debate it further in this Parliament. It would represent a return to UK policy as it existed under previous Governments, both Labour and Conservative.

Up until July 2002, people seeking asylum could seek permission to work if they had been waiting for an initial decision on their claim for six months or more. That rule was withdrawn in July 2002 on the basis—which, with the benefit of hindsight, was perhaps rather optimistic—that faster asylum decision making was going to make that provision irrelevant. However, the Government’s most recent immigration statistics show that 49% of all people waiting for a decision on their initial claim have been waiting for more than six months, and I think that if we started to see numbers increase from the EEA in future years, we could only expect that waiting time to become worse.

In February 2005, a new immigration rule was introduced to comply with the 2003 European directive on reception conditions for asylum seekers, which the Government had opted into. That rule allowed people seeking asylum to apply for permission to work in the UK if they had been waiting for more than 12 months for an initial decision on their claim. In July 2010, the right to work after 12 months was extended to those who had made further submissions on their claim, but at the same time the right to work was restricted to jobs on the shortage occupation list.

This Bill is an opportunity to make a modest reform to the rules, and there is very good reason to do so. My amendment would increase the chances of smooth economic and social integration by allowing refugees to improve their English, to acquire new skills and to make new friends and social contacts in the wider community. Crucially, it would enable refugees to be self-sufficient. A study from Germany found that the longer the employment ban, the worse the subsequent employment trajectories of refugees. Enabling people to work provides a route out of poverty. As I have said, asylum support is a meagre £5.39 a day to meet all essential living costs, including food, clothing, toiletries, transport and, often, the cost of the asylum application. Forcing people to live in poverty for months or even years at a time while they seek safety from persecution is inhumane and has a detrimental impact on their physical and mental health. By contrast, enabling people to work provides them with the human dignity of providing for themselves and their families if they are able to do so.

The current system wastes talents. The vast majority of people seeking asylum in this country are very anxious to work and many of them are very highly qualified and skilled. I think we can expect that that would certainly be pattern among EEA nationals, too. Of course, if we could incentivise and enable EEA national asylum seekers to work, that would reduce the cost to the public purse and provide an economic boost to the country. It would mean that, rather than having the current cost of National Asylum Support Service support and accommodation, which is a £5,563 debit to the public purse, we could have tax and national insurance contributions from asylum seekers in employment going into the public purse; and even at national minimum wage levels, if they were working full time, that would be a contribution of £1,400 a year.

I can say, including from experience in my own constituency, that enabling asylum seekers to work after a period of six months would command popular public support. A recent study by British Future found that 71% of the public support the right to work after six months, and that majority exists among not only people who voted in 2016 to leave the EU but those who voted to remain. It would bring the UK’s policy in line with policy in all comparable countries. The restrictive approach that the UK takes to the right to work makes us an outlier. For example, in the USA, Spain and the Netherlands, asylum seekers can work after six months. In Germany and Switzerland, it is after three months, while Canada allows work from day one. Those countries all place greater emphasis on helping people to support themselves.

I know that the Minister will have concerns about my amendment. The Government say that they want their new system to operate as a level playing field for EEA and non-EEA nationals. Had it been possible to bring within the scope of the amendment non-EEA as well as EEA national asylum seekers and to invite the Committee to support their having a right to work, I can assure you, Mr Stringer, that I would have done so. I hope that the Minister might be able to welcome this proposal as an early first step.

There have been concerns about a perceived pull factor. The idea is that a less restrictive system would attract people who might not otherwise have chosen to come to the UK to claim asylum. There is absolutely no evidence, however, that such a pull factor exists. A recent study of 29 different academic papers has found no correlation between countries that offer asylum seekers a more generous right to work and countries in which people choose to seek protection. Nor is it likely that people would make false claims in order to have a right to work, because that would simply draw attention to their presence in the country. A six-month waiting period would provide a strong safeguard against that. I also think we can assume that, certainly as regards EEA nationals—who come under the scope of this amendment—the impact on the UK workforce would be minimal. I very much doubt that these are substantial numbers in the context of the current UK labour force of 32.4 million people.

As I have said, both the Minister and the Home Secretary have expressed interest in looking at the current rules in relation to the existing policy. I very much welcome that open-minded approach to an issue in which the House has taken a considerable interest. Just last week, my hon. Friend Catherine West, who is a co-signatory to the amendment, promoted a ten-minute rule Bill that would extend further the right of asylum seekers to work. It has considerable cross-party support.

I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to set out the Government’s thinking, and say whether, as a first step, she would be prepared to consider the impact of a relaxation of the policy in relation to EEA nationals. I look forward to hearing her response.