Asylum seekers and the right to work – Westminster Hall debate – 11th January 2017

Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP):

I beg to move,

That this House has considered asylum seekers and the right to work.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Bailey. I have taken an interest in the rights of asylum seekers for some years now. One of the very first events I attended as a councillor in Glasgow in 2007 was the opening of Refugee Week, the inspirational and ever-growing festival co-ordinated by the Scottish Refugee Council. That was the first time I heard directly the testimonies, experiences and views of those who had fled violence and persecution. They told their stories through music and dance as well as in words, because the trauma they were expressing was often beyond description.

The right to seek asylum is set out in the universal declaration on human rights, and it is one of the most important obligations in international law. However, it has become clear to me over the past few years that sadly in the UK we are not fulfilling our duties to asylum seekers. We often keep them in a situation of destitution and danger, with little acknowledgement of the difficulties that led them to flee. Worse still, we are devaluing these precious human beings. Asylum seekers have skills they could bring and talents they could share. These are people who have overcome everything and lost so much. The very least we should do as a nation is give them a means of living in dignity, and I believe, as I will lay out, that there are circumstances in which they should have the right to work. That is consistent with the position that the Scottish National party took, along with Labour Members, in proposing amendments to the Immigration Act 2016 to enable asylum seekers to work if they had been waiting more than six months for a decision. The UK Government sadly rejected the amendments.

With no permission to work, asylum seekers survive—it is barely survival in many cases—on £5 a day. That affects more than 8,000 asylum seekers in the UK. The right to work was withdrawn by the Labour Government in 2002. At present, asylum seekers can work only if they have been waiting for a decision for longer than one year and they have skills relevant to the occupations on the shortage occupation list, which covers only jobs that few or no UK nationals are able to perform. Those are often very specific jobs, such as various types of scientists and engineers, as well as trades such as professional dancer or musician, which require specific qualifications ​and experience, as well as an employer who is willing to take a person on when they do not know how long they may be in the UK.

Julian Knight (Solihull) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. I know she does a great deal of work in this area. I want to focus briefly on volunteering. In Solihull, many volunteers provide an outstanding service to our communities. Solihull Welcome, for example, supports new asylum seekers with great information, food and clothes. Does she agree that to integrate asylum seekers further into society, we must promote voluntary work?

Alison Thewliss: I agree, and I congratulate the organisation in Solihull on doing that. However, I have found in some of my casework that there are barriers even to volunteering. The Home Office has held that against one of my constituents, whom I had intended to mention later, who was volunteering for the British Red Cross. When he applied for naturalisation as a British citizen, that was held against him as a means of demonstrating bad character. It is bizarre, but his volunteering and his good work in an attempt to integrate into the community in Glasgow was held against him.

It can also be difficult for asylum seekers to prove that they have professional qualifications and so should have access to the shortage occupation list. Depending on the circumstances in which they fled, they may not have documentation, and it may cost to transfer or update their qualifications. That approach prohibits asylum seekers from offering their skills while they are still waiting on decisions. Many asylum seekers have been waiting for longer than six months. The latest figures that I can find suggest that more than 20% of asylum seekers wait longer than six months to have a decision made. During that time, they cannot bring in any money, and they find it difficult to support their family.

The recent working paper, “Restricting the economic rights of asylum seekers: cost implications,” published by Dr Lucy Mayblin and Poppy James at the University of Warwick, outlines the significant savings there would be to the public purse should asylum seekers be given the right to work. There would be a benefit to the UK if they were allowed to do so. Dr Mayblin’s research indicates that significant savings could be made on asylum support payments—both section 95 and section 4 —if asylum seekers were given the right to work. If just 25% of all asylum seekers currently receiving asylum support participated in the labour market, that would reduce the overall asylum support bill, both in cash and for accommodation, under sections 94 and 4, excluding staffing and admin costs, from more than £173.5 million to just over £130 million. That would save about—I rounded the figures up, because some of them are lengthy—£43 million in asylum support payments, without making asylum seekers destitute. If 25% of all asylum seekers were able to obtain employment, section 95 payments would decrease from about £63 million to £47 million, and section 4 cash payments would decrease from more than £9 million to just less than £7 million, based on 2014-15 figures.​
Even with increases in the asylum support rate to 70% of the jobseeker’s allowance rate, if we enabled 25% labour market participation, savings could be made to the asylum support bill. Estimates suggest that the total asylum support bill—again in cash and for accommodation, under sections 94 and 4, and excluding staffing and admin costs—could decrease from £173.5 million to £152 million, a saving of about £21 million. The Government are always looking to make savings, so I offer helpful suggestions for where those might be made.

Those figures, however, represent more than just money. Case studies available on a host of websites, such as that of the Scottish Refugee Council and the Regional Refugee Forum North East, speak of dignity, and of the impact on family life of not being able to work. I quote from one of the testimonies on the RRF website:

“It’s a degrading situation. You feel useless in a place that sings democracy. Not being able to work is degrading to me. It is something that has been taken away from me, something that I believe is a right that nobody should lose. It’s depressing because my background is feeding my own family. We have very strong family values. I have a big duty of care that has been stripped away. And not being able to do that for myself I feel a failure in life. I feel very much a failure in life. The kids, I would have loved to do anything that the children would ask me for. But this position is a crippled life.

As a volunteer with the refugee service and as a leader for my own community, which is the Zimbabwean Community in the North East, I have witnessed people who are so depressed, who I can say they are now mentally disturbed, people who had skills but cannot use them anymore. It’s like somebody taking a certain measure of power away from you. If you lose that something, it won’t just go, it will go with a part of yourself that makes the You inside you.”

That is a powerful statement. There is appalling waste of human potential during that time; people can wait for years without working and contributing as they would dearly like to do.

Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP): I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate. Is there not another problem, in that the shortage occupation list does not recognise degrees from countries such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, which many asylum seekers have come from? The Government should have a look at that situation so that they can allow asylum seekers to work.

Alison Thewliss: I agree. There are many ways in which verification becomes quite difficult when countries have been in a state of chaos.

I have one of the largest immigration case loads in Scotland in my constituency of Glasgow Central, and I regularly have asylum seekers at my surgery who are in dire straits as a direct result of Home Office policy. One constituent who came to me had fled political persecution in Sri Lanka in 2013. On claiming asylum in 2014, she was detained in Dungavel detention centre, where she was sexually assaulted by another detainee. She is now destitute and relies on charities for support. That bright young woman could be using the qualifications in business, which she gained, as it happens, from a UK further education college, to get a job and support herself. Instead, she has been so emotionally ground down by her experience of the system that she is deeply fearful for the future. Her heartbreaking case is part of a pattern of behaviour by the Home Office that in many cases treats those fleeing persecution with contempt.

​Simon Danczuk (Rochdale) (Ind): The hon. Lady is making a good and important speech. There are far too many asylum seekers in Rochdale—more than 1,000—which is unfair in terms of how they are shared out across the country, but I completely agree with the point that she makes about work. Does she agree that if more were allowed to work, it would help with community cohesion in places such as Rochdale?

Alison Thewliss: I agree. People often do not understand that asylum seekers are not allowed to work. Media perceptions can be hugely damaging, including, as I mentioned earlier, to asylum seekers’ mental health. Many are keen to contribute but also scared, as I described in the example of my constituent whose volunteering was held against him. That puts fear into organisations that might take volunteers: they do not want to be caught out by the Home Office and get into trouble. Some of them employ people via the visa process. However, volunteers also do not want to come forward; they say, “If it is going to count against me, I am not going to volunteer. I am not going to help with interpreting.” If an organisation such as the Red Cross is seen as giving someone a bad character, that is difficult, and it definitely puts people off.

Another of my constituents has endeavoured to learn English to a high standard, and has taken up volunteering, supporting elderly people at a community centre. She has a clear aptitude for community work, but is unable to develop it because of the ban on work for asylum seekers. My constituent has two children, who go to a local school, but she is held back. She would love to do that work but cannot.

I am lucky to have the organisation Radiant and Brighter, founded by Pheona and Micheal Matovu, in my constituency. They came from Uganda to the UK and were unable to work for years, because of immigration controls. They were a couple with a family, used to working for a living, and found it very hard to be dependent on help from churches, family and friends. Pheona once told me how determined the two of them were not to let their children know they did not have a job, even when they were not permitted to work. Their experiences led them to find others in similar situations, and to discover the support that some asylum seekers and refugees required to transfer the skills they brought from their home countries and take up UK opportunities when they could. Radiant and Brighter provides practical day-to-day support and assistance, including personal coaching, advice on legal and financial matters and help with CVs—something that people might not be familiar with in their own countries—and job applications.

Crucially, Radiant and Brighter recognises the skills, talents and potential of asylum seekers and refugees beyond the narrow bounds of the shortage occupation list, appreciating the fact that asylum seekers can be a bonus to the UK, not a burden; the Minister would do well to speak to Pheona and Micheal and see for herself the work that they do in Glasgow to integrate and support asylum seekers. They have a good model for allowing people to make the jump to being productive members of Scottish and British society, as they want to be, and for supporting them in that.

Allowing asylum seekers to work would enable them to integrate better into society, develop their English and make friends in what can be a lonely environment—and ​a strange one, depending on where they have come from. Many are professionals, with skills that they would love to put to use and which would benefit our economy. By making a modest change to the immigration rules, so that they are similar to those of other European countries, and by relaxing the restrictions on working, we can give asylum seekers back a sense of dignity and self-confidence, while saving money for the public purse in the long run.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) is sponsoring an exhibition by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants in the Upper Waiting Hall this week. That organisation has campaigned for fair asylum and immigration law since 1967. I urge the Minister and other hon. Members to see the exhibition, if they have not already. It clearly demonstrates the contribution of people who have sought asylum in the UK over the years. Examples include the co-founder of Marks & Spencer, Michael Marks. There is nothing more British than Marks & Spencer. Michael Marks was born in 1859 in Slonim in what is now Belarus, which was then part of the Russian empire, and fled to England in 1882. It cannot be argued that he did not make a lasting contribution to the UK.

The children’s author and illustrator Judith Kerr fled Germany with her family in 1933 aged nine, just days before the Nazi party came to power. It cannot be argued that she is not a beloved part of British society. The supermodel, designer and refugee campaigner Alek Wek was born in 1977 in what is now South Sudan. The singer and actress Rita Ora arrived in the UK in 1991 aboard the last plane to accept Kosovan refugees. There are so many people who have come to our shores seeking safety. We should take pride in that and treat them with the dignity and respect they so greatly deserve. I appeal to the Minister to see the human potential in those whom we have made a commitment to protect.