“(1) The Immigration Act 1971 is amended as follows.
(2) After section 3(2) (general provisions for regulation and control) insert—
‘(2A) In making rules under subsection (2), the Secretary of State must make provision for persons seeking asylum, within the meaning of the rules, and their adult dependants to have the right to apply to the Secretary of State for permission to take up employment, including self-employment and voluntary work.
(2B) Permission to work for persons seeking asylum and their adult dependants must be granted if—
(a) a decision has not been taken on the person’s asylum application within six months of the date of that application, or
(b) a person makes 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.
(2C) Permission for a person seeking asylum and their adult dependants to take up employment shall be on terms no less favourable than the terms granted to a person recognised as a refugee.’”—
This new clause amends the Immigration Act 1971 to allow people seeking asylum to be granted permission to work after 6 months.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
I will try to be brief in the interests of time. I thank the Lift the Ban campaign for its sterling work on why this new clause is so necessary and why it would be so beneficial. Current immigration rules dictate that asylum seekers 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 Government’s highly restrictive shortage occupation list, which includes professions such as classical ballet dancer and geophysicist. That has not always been the case. Until 2002, people were able to apply for permission to work if they had been waiting for a decision for more than six months. Only in 2010 was the right to work restricted to jobs on the shortage occupation list.
Today, 76% of people waiting for a decision on their asylum claim have been waiting for more than six months, according to the Government’s latest immigration statistics. During the long waits for claims to be processed, people seeking asylum are unable safely to protect themselves and provide for their families. They are forced to depend on the pitifully low asylum support payments of £5.66 a day, and people must often choose between essential items of food, medicine and cleaning products while being prohibited from using their skills and experience.
Work provides a route out of poverty, and there would be a big economic benefit from lifting the ban. The Lift the Ban coalition has calculated that, if 50% of those currently waiting more than six months for a decision on their claim found work, the net economic benefit from increased tax and national insurance contributions and from lower asylum support payments would be £178 million per year. Lifting the ban also has widespread business backing. In 2019, the Lift the Ban coalition polled 1,000 businesses for their views on whether people seeking asylum should have the right to work, and 67% of the businesses polled agreed.
In addition, lifting the ban would bring the UK into line with policy in all other comparable countries. Lifting the ban also makes sense in the covid-19 pandemic or post-pandemic context in which we find ourselves. The skills and desire to work possessed by many stuck in the asylum system could have been invaluable during the recent covid-19 crisis. Very importantly, lifting the ban would support integration. It stands to reason that early access to employment increases the chances of smooth economic and social integration by allowing people to improve their English, acquire new skills, and make new friends and social contacts in the wider community. Crucially, it enables them to be self-sufficient. The policy is also popular with the public. According to Lift the Ban coalition’s research conducted in 2018, 71% of the public support lifting the ban.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. I intended to speak in full in favour of new clause 46, but I will just make an intervention. On that 71% figure, he will be aware that Lift the Ban conducted research in every constituency across the country. Bearing in mind that 73% of the people of Eastleigh, 72% of the people of Calder Valley and 66% of the people in the constituency of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North support ending the ban on the right to work, does my hon. Friend share my hope that the hon. Members for those areas will reflect on the public’s support for new clause 46?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and I hope beyond hope that hon. Members will support our new clause.
In December 2018, the then Home Secretary stated that a Home Office review of the policy would be taking place. Subsequent contributions in 2019 from the Prime Minister and Home Office Ministers confirmed that the review would continue under the new Government, but to date no detail has been provided regarding the content or methodology of that review. The Government have appeared divided in their own ranks on the issue. In recent months, senior Cabinet Ministers have expressed disquiet about the Government’s position. Surely, it is therefore time that the Government listen to voices from across the political spectrum on this issue and do the right thing by adopting our clause on lifting the ban on work for people seeking asylum.
I should start by noting that, as hon. Members know, the Government’s current policy does allow asylum seekers to work in the UK if their claim has been outstanding for 12 months, where the delay was caused through no fault of their own. 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.
I should like to set out the rationale for that policy position. The policy is designed to protect the resident labour market by prioritising access to employment for British citizens and others who are lawfully resident, including those granted refugee status, who are given full access to the labour market. That is in line with wider changes we have made through the points-based immigration system. We consider it crucial to distinguish between those who need protection and those seeking to come here to work, who can apply for a work visa under the immigration rules. Our wider immigration policy would be undermined if individuals could bypass the work visa rules by lodging unfounded asylum claims in the UK.
I have been very generous throughout the duration of the Committee, but I am afraid I need to make some progress at this point.
It is also the case that unrestricted access to employment opportunities may act as an incentive for more migrants to choose to come here illegally, rather than claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. While pull factors are complex, we cannot ignore that access to the UK labour market is among the reasons that an unprecedented number of people are taking extremely dangerous journeys by small boat to the UK. I trust that hon. Members would agree with me that the UK cannot have a policy that raises those risks, and that we must do everything in our power to put a stop to those journeys.
Relaxing our asylum seeker right-to-work policy is not the right approach in this respect. Indeed, in an article earlier this month, the French newspaper Le Figaro noted the perspective in France that the “economic attractiveness” of the UK is a reason migrants attempt to cross the channel in small boats. In addition, removing restrictions on work for asylum seekers could increase the number of unfounded claims for asylum, reducing our capacity to take decisions quickly and support genuine refugees.
I would like to take this opportunity to make it clear that I do acknowledge the concerns of hon. Members. The Government are committed to ensuring that asylum claims are considered without unnecessary delay to ensure that individuals who need protection are granted asylum as soon as possible and can start to integrate and rebuild their lives. It is important to note that those granted asylum are given immediate and unrestricted access to the labour market.
I absolutely agree with hon. Members that asylum seekers should be allowed to volunteer. That is why we strongly encourage all asylum seekers to consider volunteering, so long as it does not amount to unpaid work. Volunteering provides a valuable contribution to their local community and may help them to integrate into society if they ultimately qualify for protection.
We have been clear that asylum seekers who wish to come to the UK must do so through safe and legal routes. Where reasons for coming to the UK include family or economic considerations, applications should be made via the relevant route: either the new points-based immigration system or the refugee family reunion rules. We absolutely must discourage those risking their lives and coming here illegally.
The Nationality and Borders Bill will deliver the most comprehensive reform in decades to fix the broken asylum and illegal migration system, and our asylum seeker right-to-work policy must uphold that wider approach. There is, of course, a review of the 2018 report currently under way and I reassure hon. Members that the findings of the updated recent report will be built into this. For all those reasons, I invite the hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate and for Halifax to withdraw the new clause.