31 July 2020

Lifting the ban on asylum seekers working is common sense – and good economics

By Mariam Kemple Hardy

It seems perverse that a Government of any colour, red or blue, would rather people living in the UK and physically able to work were forced to accept state support instead of having a job.

The Conservative Party particularly has long regarded itself as the custodian of good economics and common-sense policy, guided by the goals of reducing state dependency and encouraging people to be financially independent.

So you have to wonder why it continues to stand by rules that create the opposite reality – rules that force people to live on a pathetically small government allowance and bans them from working.

That is the situation faced by asylum seekers who, as things stand, are barred from looking for work when they arrive in the UK.

The Government will argue that people can apply for a job after 12 months. While this is true, few are given permission and, when they are, they must satisfy the highly restrictive Shortage Occupation List, which features roles such as classical ballet dancer and hydrogeologist.

To be clear, banning people seeking asylum from working was not a Conservative Party idea. However, by refusing to lift that ban, it has become Conservative Party policy.

The nonsensical nature of this rule was meticulously exposed on Thursday in a report signed off by a coalition of 240 organisations, from thinktanks to businesses, recruiters to trade unions, refugee campaigners and faith groups.

The ‘Lift the Ban’ report revealed that giving people seeking asylum is likely to save the taxpayer about £100 million in increased income tax and National Insurance contributions, and reduced asylum support payments.

And this was a relatively moderate scenario. If employment rates reached that of the UK’s resident population then a rule change could be worth as much as £350 million.

But this is only the most measurable return we’d see from investing in the people who seek refuge in our country. There are so many other benefits to lifting this pointless ban.

A skills survey of people seeking asylum carried out for the new report reveals almost one in two respondents had experience in roles that would classify them as critical workers, including one in seven with expertise in health or social care.

According to the Recruitment & Employment Confederation (REC), there were critical skill shortages in these roles even before coronavirus hobbled the nation. That many people in the UK were not allowed to support the UK’s response to Covid when the rest of the nation was pulling together to help each other was not just absurd, but demoralising.

We cannot make the same mistake as the country now tries to build back better and support the economy through the impending economic slowdown. Red tape that prevents employment and policy that forces people to depend on state handouts won’t pull the country out of a recession.

Many of those going through the asylum system are experienced businesspeople and entrepreneurs, restaurant owners and fashion designers, tech experts and beauticians. These are people who help create jobs and wealth, who can help navigate the country through the economic turbulence.

Importantly, work not only benefits the economy and the Exchequer, but also the finances and wellbeing of asylum seekers themselves. When it improves their lives it has a positive knock-on effect with on their families, and communities. 

While people seeking asylum wait for a decision on their claim – and 32,000 had been waiting more than six months at the end of March this year – they must live on a pitifully low allowance of £5.66 a day. People struggle to afford three meals a day when they must also pay for transport, clothes, communication, over-the-counter medication, toiletries and more.

The combination of trauma from their home country, poverty while living in the UK and the psychological torture of not knowing how long it will go on for leads to declining mental health, isolation and low self-esteem.

Asylum seekers tell us that work would improve their mental and physical wellbeing, give them purpose, occupy their days and their minds and, crucially, aid integration. This can only lead to a reduction in use of services and save the state more money. An increased income would also allow them to be active players in the economy, buying goods, using services, and paying VAT.

The Government cannot continue to stick its fingers in its ears while such a large and diverse cross-section of organisations – from the TUC to the Adam Smith Institute, the CBI, the REC and Oxfam and more – call on them to lift the ban. It would be a politically popular move too, given that 71% of the public and 67% of business owners support a change in the rules.

It’s worth noting too that the UK is an outlier when it comes to employment rights for asylum seekers. Australia, the United States, Canada and much of Europe are all streets ahead, with many countries allowing people seeking asylum to work immediately and with few restrictions.

Lifting the ban to let people work after six months, unrestricted by occupation lists, is common sense. It’s common sense socially and economically. It’s common sense morally and financially. It helps not only asylum seekers and their families, but their communities and our country.

These were all things the Conservatives – and all major political parties – used to claim to stand for. 

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Mariam Kemple Hardy is Head of Campaigns at Refugee Action.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.