27 April 2022

We should copy Denmark’s approach and let asylum seekers work

By Robert Buckland MP

After a marathon two months of back and forth with Peers in the House of Lords, the Government sits on the cusp of finally guiding its Nationality and Borders Bill through Parliament.

An amendment to give people seeking asylum the right to work – opposed by the Government – continues to be a major sticking point.

The current ban on work makes no sense – no political sense, no economic sense and no sense to the people in our asylum system stuck on state benefits, often for years on end. What’s worse, there’s no evidence of any benefit.

That’s why I and 10 of my fellow Conservative MPs rebelled and voted for the amendment to be included in the bill.

The Government has firmly opposed change, arguing that to give people seeking asylum the right to work will attract more arrivals, more boats, more bad headlines.

But there is simply no evidence that this will happen. The so-call “pull factor argument” has been called into question by immigration experts, not least the Government’s own Migration Advisory Committee.

In its 2021 report, MAC even challenged the Home Office to present any evidence that the right to work would attract more asylum seekers to come to the UK so it can be reviewed and scrutinised, adding: ‘That is how good policy is made.’

As the ban on people seeking asylum working costs the taxpayer £210m a year in lost taxes, national insurance and increased expenditure on asylum support, the Home Office has to be 100% sure a pull factor exists.

The Government would do well to compare us to Denmark. They used the Danes for inspiration when they drew up plans to send people to Rwanda, so why doesn’t it for the right to work?

In 2021, 2,000 people seeking asylum applied for refugee status in Denmark, where people seeking asylum are allowed to work after six months.

However, in the UK, which effectively bans asylum seekers from working, 42,000 people applied for asylum here last year.

If being able to work was as big a pull factor for asylum seekers as the Home Office claims, we would expect fewer people to risk their lives coming to the UK and instead make the easier journey to Denmark.

Finland lets people seeking asylum work after just three months – so a less restrictive approach than Denmark. However, the Finns received far fewer applications than Denmark, just 1,300.

In fact, figures from countries across Europe show the same lack of relationship between access to employment and number of asylum applications. If the pull factor was a reality, there would be a correlation. There is none.

But the argument on the right to work for people seeking asylum is not just one about evidencing a pull factor. The ban makes no sense ideologically, economically or politically.

Many of my colleagues in the Conservative Party have already made the point that to ban people from working and force them onto state support is possibly the most unconservative policy imaginable. It holds back individual prosperity so in turn holds back national prosperity. It’s lose-lose.

Economically it’s incredibly short-sighted. Businesses up and down the country are crying out for an extra pair of hands. The ONS reported that April was another record month for job vacancies. There are now 1.3 million empty jobs in the UK. It beggars belief we’re forcing people to sit on their hands while we are trying to build back better.

And we’d be naïve to ignore the popularity of change among the public. YouGov polling carried out in March revealed that four in five people – whether Conservative, Labour or Lib Dem voters – said asylum seekers should be allowed to get a job.

Legislation is not needed for change. The campaign to let people seeking asylum work does not die if my colleagues in Parliament vote down this amendment.

But in a bill that includes plans to be firm with people who come to the UK to seek asylum, the right to work is a fair concession that would help the tens of thousands of asylum seekers in the system.

Common sense policies backed by evidence will always shine through eventually.

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Sir Robert Buckland is the Conservative MP for South Swindon.

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