Daniel Pryor is Head of Programmes at the Adam Smith Institute.
Just over a year ago, former Home Secretary Sajid Javid told Parliament that “it is time for reform” of the outdated ban on asylum seekers working in the UK.
The world has hugely changed since then. But there remains an urgent need to allow asylum seekers to become less dependent on taxpayers, contribute to our economy, and support integration.
That’s why we at the Adam Smith Institute are proud members of the Lift the Ban Coalition: a group of over 200 businesses, trade unions, charities, think tanks and faith groups that campaign for the right to seek work for people seeking asylum.
In a new report, the coalition is calling for the Government to lower the waiting period before asylum seekers can work from one year to six months, as well as letting them apply for jobs outside the highly restrictive Shortage Occupation List (which includes classical ballet dancers and hydrogeologists).
Giving those seeking asylum the right to seek work – unconstrained by bureaucrats who think they understand the labour market better than British businesses – is common sense. Relaxing our current year-long work ban would promote integration with local communities, protect vulnerable people from forced labour, save the taxpayer money, and give asylum seekers the dignity of providing for themselves and their families.
The Home Office announced a review of the current policy 18 months ago, but have been silent since. Unfortunately, Home Office delays are a big part of the problem with our asylum system. By March 2020, the majority of people (31,516) waiting for a decision on an asylum claim were doing so for more than six months: the highest number since public records began. Those awaiting the results are left struggling to support themselves and their families on just £5.66 a day.
Conservatives pride themselves on championing the dignity of work: the sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging that comes from gainful employment. This is something that many millions of us have come to appreciate the value of even more as vast swathes of the United Kingdom remain furloughed.
Frankly, it is cruel and counterproductive to deny that opportunity to asylum seekers who want to use their skills to help rebuild our economy. Sitting at home all day with no job and a meagre government-granted allowance – all in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic – is a challenge for anyone’s mental well-being.
It also makes it more difficult to successfully integrate into their local communities. Work would give asylum seekers the opportunity to meet and socialise with people, as well as a strong incentive to improve English language skills.
The economic case for reform is equally compelling. Our latest estimates show that lifting the work ban could save taxpayers £98 million through more income tax receipts and less asylum support payments. Previous research on the effects of work bans also points to a potential reduction in crime from lifting the ban: hardly a surprise for conservatives who recognise the link between labour market opportunities and crime.
Other developed countries seem to recognise the benefits, and the UK remains an international outlier on its waiting periods: Australia, Canada and many European countries have far less restrictive rules.
Critics raise concerns that allowing asylum seekers to work would encourage more to come to Britain. But worries about creating such a ‘pull factor’ are not based on real-world experience. A systematic review of research into the relationship between labour market access for asylum seekers and overall numbers failed to find a single study showing a long-term relationship. This should hardly be surprising – most asylum seekers aren’t even aware that they are banned from working upon arrival in the UK, never mind the idea that they base their decision on such information.
Most Brits are rightly unconvinced by the ‘pull factor’ argument. Reform has proven to be consistently popular with the electorate and UK businesses. Survation polling has found that a remarkable 71 per cent of the public believe lifting the ban would help integration, while more than two-thirds of business leaders are supportive of the change.
Lifting the ban is also in keeping with this Government’s wider approach to immigration policy. The Prime Minister has already scrapped the notorious ‘tens of thousands’ target, revived the post-study work visa, and mandated lower, looser salary thresholds in our post-Brexit immigration system. Following these sensible changes with asylum working reform would be a welcome instance of consistency from the Government.
If we’re serious about rebooting Britain post-Covid, we should let asylum seekers work. People from many different political backgrounds support reform, but the key arguments in favour are most familiar to Conservatives. If this Government continually denies access to paid work in favour of state handouts, maintains barriers to integration, and hobbles our vulnerable economy with unnecessary red tape – what is the point of the Conservative Party?