Asylum seekers in the UK: Let them work and let them eat

open democracyROGER ROBERTS AND RUTH LISTER 19 March 2014

A new Bill would remove most grounds of appeal for immigration decisions, turn landlords into immigration police and extend charges for NHS care. On Monday Peers challenged the government to exercise some humanity.
  • The Immigration Bill, having passed through the Commons,¬†is being scrutinised in the House of Lords again (Clare Sambrook writes).¬†On Monday 17 March the Liberal Democrat Roger Roberts (Lord Roberts of Llandudno)¬†and¬†Labour’s Peer Ruth Lister (Baroness Lister of Burtersett)¬†were among those urging amendments that would give¬†asylum seekers the right to work (if the Home Office took more than six months to decide upon their asylum claim), and¬†end the policy of enforced destitution for failed asylum seekers.¬†
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  • Lord Roberts of Llandudno¬†Our progress as humanity has always been a continuous struggle to overcome discrimination and inequality. One can name Wilberforce, Lincoln, Pankhurst, Gandhi, Mandela and so many others who have contributed to ensuring that nobody suffers because of discrimination. All people are of equal value. The struggle continues. People are people wherever they are, and should be treated with respect and dignity.

However, there are some failed asylum seekers who cannot be returned home. . .about 3,000 such people living in the United Kingdom. They cannot work. They have no access to benefits and would, in many cases, be destitute were it not for support from government and voluntary agencies. This Section 4 support from the Government is entirely separate from normal asylum support for people whose claims are pending. Under Section 4, a person will receive £5 per day, or about £36 per week. Out of this, they must pay for food, clothing, toiletries and other essential living needs. We are glad that housing and utilities are provided separately. [Technicalities explained in the end note].

In April 2012, 779 of these 3,000 people were children and they are discriminated against in certain ways. For instance, the use of the¬†Azure cardis restricted to a list of certain shops and these are often the most expensive. So many of the smaller and less expensive stores, such as Aldi and Lidl, which could provide far more for those with Azure cards, are not included in the list. Whatever happens to my amendment, I hope that the¬†Minister¬†will at least tackle that issue, so that those places where people can get better value or a greater quantity for their money‚ÄĒincluding corner shops as well‚ÄĒcan be considered.

Amendment 72 would allow for people totally trapped in the UK to survive. They would escape the absolute poverty to which Section 4 condemns them. It would also save taxpayers millions of pounds. To deny a person the right to work is to deny ourselves the contribution that that individual can make to our society.

Our coalition partners speak of hard-working families. I would urge the inclusion of those whose one aim is to be a hard-working family. Last December, there were 23,000 of them who had the ability to earn a living. Can anything be more demoralising than having skills that you are not allowed to use, a family you are not allowed to support, or a country to which you would willingly pay your taxes, if only you were allowed?

What evidence does the Minister have that the period before an asylum seeker can apply for a job would in any way be a threat if it were reduced from 12 to six months? What conversations have been taking place with the 12 European Union countries that have much lower limits than the UK? Why have we not signed up to the EU reception conditions, which reduce to nine months the period for which asylum seekers can be excluded from the labour market? That is not quite six months, but it is coming down.

Amendment 71 would allow those who have been waiting six months for a decision to claim the right to work. In December last year, the number of those waiting was 6,249, excluding dependants. We have a real opportunity here. We could reduce the burden on the taxpayer because asylum seekers who are able to work will no longer need to be supported by the benefits system. After all, we are living in times of austerity. Instead of being dependent, these people could contribute to the economy through taxes and consumer spending.

There is an understandable worry here in Parliament that allowing asylum seekers to work will blur the boundaries between asylum and economic migration. However, I suggest that a strong asylum system, which makes the right decisions the first time around, need have no fear of such a blurring of boundaries. I am sure that economic migrants making a spurious claim in order to access the UK jobs market would not be able to put in a claim credible enough to have the UKBA scratching its head for six months. An asylum claim with no real basis should not take six months to be rejected.

History shows that when new arrivals come to the UK, they contribute substantially to job creation in our country. A week ago tomorrow, the Centre for Entrepreneurs published a report entitled Building our Businesses, Creating our Jobs. Here, as in the United States, 60% of the top technology businesses were started by migrants. The next figure really astounded me: in the UK, 456,073 migrant entrepreneurs, representing 155 countries, started many of our industries.

Daily Mail, Saturday 20 August 1938Our economy owes so much to migrants who are misunderstood and even reviled in some quarters‚ÄĒand it has always been so. In 1938 the¬†Daily Express¬†[correction: Daily Mail]¬†ran the headline: ‚ÄúGerman Jews¬†Pouring into Britain‚ÄĚ. These folk, who were escaping the Holocaust, were responsible for more than 50% of the new industries that helped the south Wales valleys to defeat the great depression at that time. We shall miss out in 2014 by denying their successors the right to work.

I should like an assurance from the Minister that the Government support the idea of the equality of all people. I should also like to see the evidence, if it exists, that other nations suffer because they allow asylum seekers to work after six months or sooner. Lastly, does he accept the fact that nearly 500,000 immigrants have been responsible for new businesses in the United Kingdom? The Bill can either continue the progress that I mentioned previously‚ÄĒhelping a person to find his feet and grasp his opportunities‚ÄĒor it can be a backward step by keeping those who would enrich our communities idle and hopeless. When the time comes, I urge the Minister to support this amendment.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Labour)

I thank . . . Lord Roberts, for tabling these amendments. I was pleased to add my name to them, not least because I was a member of the parliamentary inquiry into asylum support for children and young people, and I helped to launch a Freedom from Torture report called The Poverty Barrier: The Right to Rehabilitation for Survivors of Torture in the UK. Also, on a personal note, the noble Lord referred to the Express [correction: Daily Mail] headline about German Jews pouring into this country. My father was one of those German Jews.

I shall start with the right to work. It is a human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and incorporated into human rights law as part of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which recognises,

‚Äúthe right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work‚ÄĚ.

After the Second World War, TH Marshall wrote that in the economic field, the basic civil right is the right to work. The importance of this right, or rather the lack of it, for individual asylum seekers is brought out movingly in the report to which I have referred. The parliamentary inquiry talked about how asylum seekers who are not able to undertake paid work lose skills, how they are not able to provide a role model for their children, and the impact on their self-esteem, self-confidence and mental health. All this has a damaging effect on their children. According to the Freedom from Torture report: [PDF here]

‚ÄúMany questionnaire respondents, and most participants in client focus groups, highlighted the importance to them of having permission to work while their asylum claim is decided as a means of supporting themselves and being self-reliant. Indeed, the lack of permission to work for asylum seekers was a major theme of¬†discussion and the key change that focus group respondents called for, although they also recognised that many torture survivors are not well enough to work.”

The weekend before last, noble Lords may have read in the Guardian an interview with six refugees or asylum seekers with professional backgrounds. One of them was a senior government adviser from the Ivory Coast now living destitute in Birmingham. The article [by Amelia Gentleman] says:

‚ÄúBut for the moment, what makes her unhappy is the enforced idleness: the¬†UK Border Agency¬†stipulates, in emphatic capitals, in correspondence with her, ‚ÄėYou are¬†NOT¬†allowed to work‚Äô‚ÄĚ.

It goes on:

‚Äú‚ÄėWork is health,‚Äô she says, taking off her glasses and rubbing her eyes. ‚ÄėI started working when I was 21. I am an active person. When you have nothing to do, you look on your situation and start to think. You say to yourself: ‚ÄúWhat am I doing? What will become of me?‚ÄĚ‚Äô‚ÄĚ.

If we were professional people who were forced to leave our home and seek asylum in another country, how would we feel if we were not allowed to contribute to the country that we wanted to make our new home?

Ruth Lister, House of Lords, Monday 17 March 2014Much of government social policy, whichever party is in power, is premised on the principle that paid work is the primary responsibility and the most important contribution that people make to society, summed up . . . in the mantra of ‚Äúhard-working families‚ÄĚ. However, successive Governments deny asylum seekers the opportunity to make such a contribution for a whole year, even though the evidence shows that it helps integration.

Home Office research shows that delayed entry to the labour market can cause problems even when refugee status is then granted, leading to high levels of unemployment and underemployment. It would appear, therefore, that the Government work on the assumption that asylum seekers will not be granted refugee status, so it does not matter to this society what the long-term effects of enforced idleness are. I hope I am wrong, and would be grateful if the Minister could disabuse me, but that is how it comes across.

As . . .Lord Roberts, said, the Government argue that to allow asylum seekers the right to work would blur the distinction between economic migrants and asylum seekers, and act as a pull factor. However, we are not calling for an immediate right to work: there would still be a six-month delay. In 11 other European Union countries, in both northern and southern Europe, asylum seekers are permitted access to the labour market after six months, or sometimes even less, of waiting for a decision. In all of those countries, except Sweden, fewer applications for asylum were received than in the UK, which does not suggest that it acts as a pull factor. The lack of impact on the number of applicants is confirmed by a recent study of OECD countries. If we do not allow the right to work, the danger is that asylum seekers who end up in the shadow labour market will face the kind of exploitation referred to earlier by my noble friend Lord Rosser.

I fear that Governments are often timid with regard to the rights of asylum seekers for fear of public opinion. However, surveys by the IPPR and the British Social Attitudes survey show that there is public support for allowing asylum seekers the right to work. The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, in an inquiry into destitution among asylum seekers a few years ago, said:

‚ÄúOverwhelmingly, giving asylum seekers the right to work was the favoured solution identified‚Ä̬†by those who gave evidence.

On the question of destitution, the parliamentary inquiry of which I was a member found that the current asylum support system is forcing thousands of children and young people who are seeking safety in the UK into severe poverty. We were shocked to hear of instances where children were left destitute and homeless, entirely without institutional support and forced to rely on food parcels or charitable donations. This cannot be right.

The Freedom from Torture report. . .  shed light on this:

‚ÄúSeveral clinicians interviewed for the research said that in their experience when survivors of torture are made effectively destitute, this can lead to deterioration in their mental health and/or to an increased risk of suicide. It can also have a long term impact on their ability to recover from their past trauma, even after they are no longer in destitute circumstances. One clinician said: ‚ÄėI think it‚Äôs profoundly exhausting to survive destitution, and if you‚Äôre in that situation for a long time‚ÄĒwhen there‚Äôs no hope, there‚Äôs no certainty, there‚Äôs no activity that‚Äôs meaningful‚ÄĒit‚Äôs then very hard to believe that you have a right to contribute to society, that you‚Äôve got something you can offer‚Äô.¬†When asked to comment on how they have felt in their own words, people described feeling desperate about the lack of control over their lives, knowing that their difficulties are exacerbated by inadequate diet and consequent weakness, chronic pain and poor sleep‚ÄĚ.

I will quote from one person in the study, who said:

‚ÄúThere is one animal that I envy so much in this country and it‚Äôs the pet dog. When I see people with pet dogs and see how they are taken care of in homes, fed and everything, I compare myself with them and cannot measure up. I lose hope in living. I envy the dog.”

All parties are committed to the eradication of child poverty, yet somehow the children of asylum seekers do not seem to be part of this commitment and no one seems to care about the poverty that they experience. Common humanity and human decency must make us question this situation, but also, as . . . Lord Roberts, explained, Still Human Still Here estimates that it would actually save money to abolish the parallel support structure of the Azure card system. This point was made by Julian Huppert MP in the Public Bill Committee, and the Minister agreed to look into it and report on his conclusions. Can the Minister report to this House the Minister’s conclusions after looking at the question of whether money could be saved by abolishing this parallel support structure?

Finally, I would like to turn again to the Joint Committee on Human Rights report and its inquiry into the treatment of asylum seekers back in 2006-07. [PDF here] It said:

‚ÄúWe consider that by refusing permission for most asylum seekers to work and operating a system of support which results in widespread destitution, the treatment of asylum seekers in a number of cases reaches the Article 3¬†ECHR¬†threshold of inhuman¬†and degrading treatment. ‚Ķ We have seen instances in all cases where the Government‚Äôs treatment of asylum seekers and refused asylum seekers falls below the requirements of the common law of humanity and of international human rights law.”

Before I joined the Committee, it said:

‚ÄúThe policy of enforced destitution must cease. The system of asylum seeker support is a confusing mess. We have seen no justification for providing varying standards of support and recommend the introduction of a coherent, unified, simplified and accessible system of support for asylum seekers, from arrival until voluntary departure or compulsory removal from the¬†UK.”

The policy has not ceased, but these amendments are an attempt to end this shameful state of affairs.


Editor’s note:¬†Neither amendment went forward.¬†The full debate is¬†on¬†Hansard. Video¬†here.

The Guardian’s Zoe Williams unpicks the technicalities like this: “While their claims are pending, asylum seekers are on¬†section 95, which¬†was set at 70% of income support (since utilities are covered, as part of housing), and is paid in cash. If¬†their claim is refused, but they can’t be repatriated because the country is too dangerous (I know, it sounds illogical ‚Äď but the criteria for asylum are far stricter¬†than “my country is too dangerous to live in”), they go on to section 4, which is lower and paid on a card . . .I hadn’t heard of the¬†Azure card, or any of the mean-minded hassles that went along with it ‚Äď that your benefits, such as they are, come in vouchers rather than cash, so you can’t get a bus or make a phone call, can’t post a letter or buy a pint of milk from your corner shop. You have to be housed three miles from a shop that takes your Azure card; that can mean a six-mile walk every time you want to buy something.”¬†(from Zoe Williams:¬†For failed asylum seekers, life on section 4 is a nightmare worse than Kafka. Whether the motivation is malicious or politically manipulative, government cannot continue to treat failed asylum seekers like this.)

Evidence cited by Baroness Lister includes:
Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. Freedom from Torture:
The Poverty Barrier: The Right to Rehabilitation for Survivors of Torture in the UK
(foreword by Juan E. Méndez, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment)
July 2013 PDF here.
Refugee Council:
Social Exclusion, Refugee Integration, and the Right to Work for Asylum Seekers
Setpember 2006 PDF here
Report of the Parliamentary inquiry into asylum support for children and young people (chair Sarah Teather MP)
January 2013 here
Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR):
A fair deal on migration for the UK
March 2014
PDF here
Reports from Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust’s 2006-2009 inquiry into destitution among asylum seekers in the UK can be accessed¬†here.
Still Human Still Here:
Written evidence on asylum support system to the Home Affairs Committee
October 2013  here.