March 21st 2016: Government Defeated on Allowing 3,000 Unaccompanied Child Refugees to come to the UK:
The amendment states the Government must allow the children to come to Britain
as soon as possible after the Bill becomes law.
Lord Dubs, who was one of thousands of child refugees Britain rescued from Nazi
persecution under the Kindertransport operation in the late 1930s, insisted the
country needed to show the same compassion now.
“I would like other children who are in a desperate situation to be offered
safety in this country and be given the same opportunities that I had,” Lord
The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Rev Stephen Cottrell, said: “This is a small,
but beautiful thing that we can do.”
Lord Alton of Liverpool said if Britain turned its back on such children it
would be a “lasting stain” on its reputation.
The crossbencher said that the Government had done little since Europol
estimated last year that at least 10,000 children had disappeared in Europe and
were vulnerable to exploration and abuse.
“If thousands of child migrants have simply vanished in Europe while we have
argued about how many angels can sit on the top of a pin that will be a lasting
stain on our reputation,” Lord Alton said.
Crossbencher Baroness Neuberger said: “We could do it in 1930s, why can’t we
do it now?”
Baroness Butler-Sloss warned the children were vulnerable and in danger.
“We must do something to stop them becoming slaves,” the crossbench peer
Tory former cabinet minister Lord Lawson of Blaby said children above the age
of 12 should be excluded from the scheme.
Lib Dem Baroness Hamwee said with thousands of children going missing, abuse
was a real risk.
The peer dismissed claims such a move could act as a “pull factor” for
“There are so many push factors that we do not need to think about the pull
factor,” Lady Hamwee said.
Home Office Minister Lord Bates said the Government had pledged to take 20,000
Syrian refugees by 2020, and 51% of the 1,000 people who have arrived so far
have been children.
Lord Bates said the Government was concentrating its efforts on helping Syrian
refugees before they reach Europe.
The minister said the amendment was not targeting the people most in need of
“We have a principled objection. That the people most at risk are in the
“I question whether it identifies, or provides help, for the right people. We
believe we should not be doing anything that encourages one child to make that
“We are doing an incredible amount. Other countries are not doing a fraction
of what we are doing,” Lord Bates said.
The minister also questioned the practicalities of the move as he said their
was currently a need for 8,000 more foster parents.
Match 21st 2016 : Unaccompanied Child Refugees: Carried 306 to 204
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): My Lords, like the right reverend Prelate I am a signatory to this amendment. I am delighted to be able to offer my support to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who made a compelling and eloquent case in support of Amendment 116A.
In opposing this, the Government have used various arguments. One is that you cannot distinguish between groups that suffer, but all of us who think about that for very long know that it is at best a disingenuous argument and at worst an unworthy one. The noble Lord referred to the other argument that the Government use about so-called pull factors. In the case of children, surely that cannot outweigh all the points that the noble Lord has just advanced.
Then there is the question of numbers. I was looking today at the total number of refugees who have come to the United Kingdom and the total number who have come out of Syria. Some 4.8 million refugees have come out of Syria over the past five years. Turkey is currently hosting some 3 million refugees, and we will no doubt hear more about this later in the Statement that will be given to the House. Before anybody else suggests that this country is being swamped, just look at the numbers: 5,845 Syrians plus 1,337 under the vulnerable persons scheme is 0.15% of the total. So to ask just for 3,000 unaccompanied minors to come into this country is far from being unreasonable.
In Committee on 3 February, I asked the Minister about a report which had appeared in the Daily Telegraph and Observer newspapers which reported the comments of Brian Donald, Europol’s chief of staff. He said:
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“It’s not unreasonable to say that we’re looking at 10,000-plus children, who are unaccompanied and who have disappeared in Europe … Not all of them will be criminally exploited; some might have been passed on to family members. We just don’t know where they are, what they’re doing or whom they are with”.
He said that 10,000 was likely to be “a conservative estimate”.
Arising from those shocking and disturbing figures, I hope that the Minister will tell us when he comes to reply what discussions the Home Office has had since 3 February with Europol about the children who have disappeared and what percentage Europol believes to have been unaccompanied. If thousands of child migrants have simply vanished in Europe while we have argued about how many angels you can fit on the top of a pin, it will be a lasting stain on our collective reputations.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, also referred to foster parents. I hope that when he replies the Minister will tell us what discussions he has had with local authorities about promoting fostering arrangements for these children. For obvious reasons, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, also referred to the Kindertransport. The reputation of politicians and diplomats from that era is redeemed by the extraordinary bravery and determination of men such as Sir Nicholas Winton, the diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and Eleanor Rathbone, “the refugees’ MP”, as she was known. This year is the 70th anniversary of her death.
In 1938, after Kristallnacht, she established the Parliamentary Committee on Refugees. Two years later, on 10 July 1940 in a six-hour debate, she intervened on no fewer than 20 occasions to insist that Britain had a duty of care to the refugees being hunted down by the Nazis. She said that a nation had an obligation to give succour to those fleeing persecution—in her words,
“not only in the interests of humanity and of the refugees, but in the interests of security itself”.—[
, Commons, 10/7/40; col. 1212.]
In words that have an echo in the debates we have been having during the course of this Bill, she wrote that discussions about asylum seekers and refugees,
“always … begin with an acknowledgement of the terrible nature of the problem and expressions of sympathy with the victims. Then comes a tribute to the work of the voluntary organisations. Then some account of the small, leisurely steps taken by the Government. Next, a recital of the obstacles—fear of anti-Semitism, or the jealousy of the unemployed, or of encouraging other nations to offload their Jews on to us”.
It is hard not to see the parallels. The debates about the Kindertransport continued in Parliament until literally hours before war broke out. In 2016 we should do no less than those who preceded us.
The amendment would require the Secretary of States to relocate 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children in European Union countries to the United Kingdom. These vulnerable young people have already had traumatic experience of the chaos and violence of war, the abandonment of hearth and home, horrendous journeys and separation from families, with some placed into the hands of smugglers and people traffickers and some facing exploitation of every kind. They are entitled to international protection and to respect for their rights as refugees—even more so than adults. Surely the lifeboat rule must apply.
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Nelson Mandela once said:
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”.
Many of us will be dead when these children come to maturity, but they will never forget, as the noble Lord who moved this amendment has never forgotten, the values that made their futures possible. I am very happy to support an amendment that says the very best about the values of this country.
Subject: Government suffers two defeats in Lords on Immigration Bill – BBC News
Moved by Lord Alton of Liverpool
57: After Clause 36, insert the following new Clause—
“Asylum seekers: permission to work after six months
(1) The Immigration Act 1971 is amended as follows.
(2) After section 3(9) (general provisions for regulation and control) insert—
“(10) In making rules under subsection (2), the Secretary of State must provide for persons seeking asylum, within the meaning of the rules, to apply to the Secretary of State for permission to take up employment, including self-employment and voluntary work.
(11) Permission to work for persons seeking asylum must be granted if—
(a) a decision has not been taken on the applicant’s asylum application within six months of the date on which it was recorded, or
(b) an individual makes further submissions which raise asylum grounds and a decision on that new claim or to refuse to treat such further submissions as a new claim has not been taken within six months of the date on which the submissions were recorded.
(12) Permission for a person seeking asylum to take up employment shall be on terms no less favourable than those upon which permission is granted to a person recognised as a refugee to take up employment.””
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, in his reply to the previous group of amendments the Minister gave a trailer for Amendment 57. In this argument we are returning to an issue that some of us raised and spoke to in Committee. I thank the noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Paddick, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee,
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and others for supporting this amendment then, and again today. The amendment does precisely what it says on the package: it gives asylum seekers permission to work after six months. It was in Committee that the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, said—and I agree—that the other side of this coin is that an amendment of this kind would impose a duty to work, rather than simply leaving asylum seekers to eke out a pitiful existence on a monetary subvention by the state.
In his admirable book, The Home We Build Together, my noble friend Lord Sacks describes three groups of people who arrive as migrants in a foreign land. The first group are greeted by the local mayor and told that they will be given free accommodation, every possible benefit and that nothing will be required of them. They are told that they will be left to get on with it and that the community will have nothing to do with them and do not want to be troubled by them. The second group arrived and, this time, the mayor explained that there was no welcoming committee, no accommodation available and no financial support. However, if the strangers in their land had money, there was a brand new hotel in which they could stay for as long as they could pay. A third group arrived, and they were told that there was no accommodation, no benefits and nowhere to hire. But the mayor and the community provided bricks and mortar and a site where the strangers could make a home and earn a living. The mayor promised that the whole community would assist them and that they would build a home together. All of us know that the third response—a combination of generosity and self-help—is the approach that would work best. It is the approach that lies at the heart of this amendment. Amendment 57 would allow asylum seekers to be able to work if their claim is not determined by the Home Office in a timeframe of six months. Why would any Government oppose something that is based so clearly on common sense and on the principle of self-help and the removal of reliance on the state?
During our Committee debates, the Government said that they opposed the amendment because it would lead to an increase in unfounded applications. The noble Lord, Lord Ashton, who is in his place, responding for the Government, echoed what has become something of a mantra, saying:
“Earlier access to employment risks making asylum more attractive for those who are otherwise not eligible to work in the UK”.—[Official Report, 20/1/16; col. 851.]
But where is the empirical evidence for this assertion? The Government’s position is based on speculation. They previously conceded that,
“it may be broadly true”,
“there is little hard evidence that the change you propose (to allow asylum seekers to work after six months) would result in more asylum applications”.
So I agree with the Government’s earlier assertion and I wonder why they have changed their mind.
All the available evidence suggests that permission to work does not act as a pull factor for asylum seekers or economic migrants. That is reflected in the Home Office’s own research and was confirmed by a review
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of the 19 main recipient countries for asylum applications in the OECD in 2011, which concluded that policies which relate to the welfare of asylum seekers—for example, permission to work, support levels and access to healthcare—did not have any significant impact on the number of applications made in destination countries. Furthermore, 12 other European Union countries already allow asylum seekers access to the labour market after six months or less of waiting for a decision on their claims. These countries are Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. The vast majority of those countries have had such policies in place for many years, and none of them has had to change the policy because of any abuse of the asylum route by economic migrants.
In Committee, the Government noted that Germany has the largest number of asylum applications in the EU and a significant number of applications from countries in the Balkans which generally do not merit refugee status, and they sought to indicate that this was connected to its policy on permission to work. However, as the NGO, Still Human Still Here, has pointed out, “The reason Germany has the most asylum applications in the EU is because of its Government’s publicly stated willingness to keep its borders open and to provide protection to those refugees fleeing conflict and persecution”. Furthermore, the significant number of asylum applications from Balkan countries long predates Germany’s decision to reduce to three months the time that asylum seekers have to wait before being able to access the job market.
In reality, those motivated to come to the United Kingdom for economic reasons are unlikely to make an asylum application and bring themselves to the attention of the authorities on the basis that they might be able to apply for permission to work after six months. Even if this were the case, they would never have an opportunity to do so, as the Home Office decides all straightforward claims within six months—a point made repeatedly by the Government in Committee. In summary, the Government accept that there is no evidence that the policy change proposed by this amendment would lead to an increase in unfounded applications. It is also stated that all straightforward cases, which would clearly include unfounded asylum applications, would be dealt with within six months and that the individuals concerned would therefore not have an opportunity to apply for permission to work.
The Government have developed a second line of argument against the idea contained in this amendment. In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Ashton, told us:
“The Government believe that the current policy strikes the right balance. If a claim remains undecided after 12 months, for reasons outside their control, the person can apply for permission to work. That is a fair and reasonable policy and is consistent with our obligations under EU law. It also assists genuine refugees”.—[Official Report, 20/1/16; col. 851.]
What the House has to ask is whether, as the Government claim, the current policy is fair and proportionate, and strikes the right balance. Once again, the evidence suggests that it does not. Twenty-four other European Union countries allow asylum seekers to access their labour markets if an initial decision has not been
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taken on their claim after nine months, and half of those countries allow asylum seekers to work after six months or sooner. In contrast, the United Kingdom Government effectively prohibit asylum seekers from ever working, because, even after 12 months, they can apply only for jobs on the shortage occupation list, which is for skilled jobs where there is an identified national shortage. Even if an asylum seeker had the requisite skills for such a job, it is unlikely that they would be able to secure it, as they would have to have had their existing qualifications recognised and may well have become deskilled in the year or more that they had been unemployed.
Once again, this is not the policy in many other European countries. For example, Belgium, Latvia, Norway, Poland, Spain and Sweden all allow asylum seekers to work in any job, including being self-employed, once they are granted permission to work. Nor does the current policy assist genuine refugees. More than half of all asylum applications are currently provided with protection in the United Kingdom either after the initial decision or on appeal. The process of integration for these people begins when they arrive in the UK, not when the Government recognise them as refugees and give them permission to stay. An extended period of exclusion from the labour market can have only a long-term impact on refugees’ ability to find employment. The policy does nothing to encourage the principle of our duty to build a common home together.
Conversely, earlier access to employment increases the chance of smooth economic and social integration by allowing refugees to improve their English, acquire new skills and make new friends and social contacts in the wider community—all of which helps to promote community cohesion, which we should use every opportunity to nurture. I do not know how many asylum seekers Ministers have spoken to but, overwhelmingly, the vast majority of asylum seekers whom I have met want to work and contribute to society and they are frustrated at being forced to remain idle and dependent on benefits.
Finally, I return to the point I made in Committee when I referred to the experience of asylum seekers at Asylum Link on Merseyside, where I am a patron. I asked noble Lords to consider how on earth any of us would manage to subsist on just over £5 a day, which has to pay for food, clothing, toiletries, transport and any other essential living needs while an asylum application is being considered—housing and utility bills are paid for separately for those who need them. These support levels are set at rates that force asylum seekers to live way below the poverty line. In their shoes, I would probably try to find some form of income, inevitably driving some desperate people into the black economy and to act illegally—you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Where is the justice, fairness or decency in that?
Where, too, is the principle of self-help that should be cherished in every free society? What effect does this enforced destitution have on those who experience it? There is absolutely no doubt that asylum seekers who have to survive solely on this level of support for extended periods of time will generally suffer a negative impact on their mental and physical health. At the end
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of 2015, more than 3,500 asylum seekers had still been waiting for more than six months for an initial decision on their claims despite the assurance of the noble Lord, Lord Ashton, in Committee that,
“the delays that have happened before have been brought under control”.—[
, 20/1/16; col. 852.]
Indeed, the Refugee Council in a note sent to me says:
“According to the latest immigration statistics, over 3,600 applications had been without an initial decision for longer than six months. When the dependents of applicants are taken into account, that’s nearly 5,000 people living on little over £5 per day who are unable to work”.
The Home Affairs Committee stated in its most recent report into the work of the Immigration Directorates:
“We are concerned that the department may not be able to maintain the service levels it has set itself on initial decisions for new asylum claims within 6 months. To do so may require further funding and resources”.
In these circumstances, the current policy cannot be described as fair and reasonable. Nor is it sustainable. Those supporting this amendment include the General Synod of the Church of England, the Greater London Assembly, and many city councils including Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, Swansea, Coventry and Oxford, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, Still Human Still Here and the Refugee Council. Those of us who have pursued this argument from across the political divide and tabled this amendment passionately believe that Parliament should provide asylum seekers with a route out of poverty and an opportunity to restore their dignity by providing for themselves if their claims have not been decided within six months. It is underpinned by the belief that it is in the interests of both the individual and the community to build our house together. It asserts the principle of self-help, non-reliance on benefits, the duty to work, a removal of a burden on taxpayers and a repudiation of enforced workhouse destitution. In moving the amendment today, I hope that it will find favour with your Lordships and the Government. I beg to move.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, who was to speak next, is indicating that he would like me to follow. I am extremely happy to support the noble Lord, Lord Alton, as we all do on these Benches. My colleagues in the Commons tabled an amendment to similar effect, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, will be aware that this is a long-standing Liberal Democrat policy. Not so long ago my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno had a Private Member’s Bill to this effect and has made countless other attempts to change the policy, even on one occasion when I asked him not to because I did not see any prospect of our winning it at that time, and thought that perhaps we might not take the time of the House. But given the support of the Labour Front Bench for the amendment on this occasion, I am extremely optimistic.
I have been trying to work out what among the various briefings we have received has not been covered by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and of course most of it has. I do not want to weary noble Lords with too much repetition, but it is worth emphasising that if the decision-making process of the Home Office was as efficient and quick as we are often told it is or is about to become, this would not be an issue at all. I tabled a
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stand-alone amendment at the previous stage about the requirement for asylum seekers who currently can seek permission to work after 12 months being limited to the shortage occupation list. When I looked at the list, I was really concerned that it amounted to no sort of right at all, given that asylum seekers’ existing qualifications would not be recognised in those occupations.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned community cohesion, but I will use the word “integration” instead. Either as a society we say to people coming here, “We are putting up barriers against you”, or when we look at their claims for asylum—the word “asylum” is important in this context—we recognise that there are moral obligations regarding integration into our community. Seeking asylum is a two-way process—a contract, if you like. It is both an obligation on the part of the host country to provide asylum when properly sought and an obligation on the part of those who come here wanting sanctuary to become, in their particular way, a part of our society. Integration is therefore a hugely important aspect.
If people have the opportunity to work and if their English is not good, they will be able to practise their language skills. After all, language teaching is not easily available at the moment. However, it is remarkable how many of those seeking asylum are amazingly good at English. We should gather them up and get them working as quickly as possible using their skills both with language and in various sectors. In this way people can acquire new skills and social contacts. Looking around the House, every noble Lord taking part in this debate will be aware of how our opportunity to work after retirement age supports our own physical and mental health. I would apply that to asylum seekers as well.
I end by referring to the route out of poverty and the opportunity to regain dignity that this amendment offers, and I am delighted that these Benches will be supporting the noble Lord.
Lord Rosser: I will be relatively brief, since the case for the amendment has already been made. My name is attached to the amendment, which we will vote for if the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, having heard the Government’s response, decides to test the opinion of the House. Its effect, as has been said, is to give all asylum seekers who have been waiting for more than six months for a decision on their asylum application the right to work on the same basis as a person recognised as a refugee.
According to the latest immigration statistics, I think for the period from September to December last year, some 3,500 applications had been without an initial decision for longer than six months. Currently, only asylum seekers who have been awaiting a decision for more than 12 months can apply to the Home Office for permission to work in national shortage occupations.
I would add only that the Government said in Committee that they had met their commitment to decide straightforward asylum claims lodged before April 2014 by 31 March 2015, and that they would decide all straightforward claims lodged from 1 April 2014 within six months. They went on to say that about
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85% of cases were straightforward and that that meant that the vast majority of asylum claims were decided quickly. They also said that delays that had happened before had been brought under control.
Since the Government have said that the situation has changed for the better to a quite considerable degree in the time taken to deal with asylum claims and that previous delays have been brought under control, I hope that the Minister will be able to give a helpful response when he comes to reply. However, if the amendment is put to a vote and has the backing of the House, it will also provide the other place with the opportunity to reconsider this issue in the light of the changed situation in dealing with claims, under which the vast majority of asylum claims are now being decided quickly.
Lord Roberts of Llandudno (LD): My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Alton, and my noble friend Lady Hamwee. I see this whole issue as one with far wider implications than just allowing asylum seekers to work. Sometimes I get quite depressed thinking about the legacy we will hand over to our children and grandchildren. Is it a legacy where every hope has been withdrawn, or one in which there is hope even though there are difficulties?
I see this as an opportunity to extend some hope to people who are here often in desperate circumstances. It has already been mentioned that trying to exist on £36 a week is not easy. People who want to work, to contribute to the taxation of the UK, and to support their families, or who have skills that they would love to develop and extend, are people we should encourage. When the time comes—I hope we will test the feeling of the House—I ask the House to say, “Yes, we’re going to provide a beacon of hope. We’re not going to lift another drawbridge or make it more difficult”. We know that it is difficult, but I think, and I am not often a pessimist, that, in the years to come, the problems of the present day—migration, destitution, poverty and everything else—will be increased. This is our chance as a House to say that we are trying to help people and somehow provide a legacy that has at least some hope attached to it. It gives me terrific pleasure to support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Alton.
Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood: My Lords, once again there is a balance to be struck here. On one side is the disadvantage of permitting asylum seekers to work after six months. Contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Alton, suggested, it seems inevitable that some aspiring immigrants, at least, would be encouraged by such a provision to apply for asylum and, perhaps, to prolong the process by making what they then assert to be a fresh claim. On the other side are the benefits of enabling self-support, not to mention self-respect, by allowing this work after six months—indeed, all the various benefits so eloquently outlined already in this short debate by the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Rosser, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee.
Here, contrary to the view I expressed on the previous issue, the balance seems to fall in favour of the amendment. Furthermore, if, as I hope, one consequence of passing the amendment were the further speeding up of the
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decision-making process, that would be a most welcome additional benefit. Accordingly, in this instance I respectfully support the amendment.
Baroness Lister of Burtersett: My Lords, I support Amendment 57. I will not repeat all the arguments I made in Committee in support of this most basic of civil rights—the right to be able to undertake paid work. I simply want to respond to a couple of the arguments that the noble Lord, Lord Ashton of Hyde, made in response in Committee.
As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, noted in so ably moving the amendment, the main argument seemed to be our old friend, the pull factor, which dominates policy-making in this area. Since that debate, my attention has been drawn to the only piece of research I am aware of that has explored with individual asylum seekers and refugees the factors that informed their decision to seek asylum in the UK. The reportChance or Choice? by Heaven Crawley was published a few years ago by the Refugee Council. I will quote from it in the interests of evidence-based policy-making. Her broad finding was that, contrary to the assumptions on which policy is premised,
“the choices asylum seekers make are rarely the outcome of a rational decision making process in which individuals have full knowledge of all the alternatives and weigh them in some conscious process designed to maximise returns”.
Professor Crawley found no evidence from this or other research that work acts as a pull factor. Instead, she concludes that,
“the policy change introduced nearly a decade ago to prevent asylum seekers from working whilst their claim is determined has had no measurable impact on the level of applications received”.
The report said of asylum seekers,
“the inability to work was the biggest difficulty they faced in rebuilding their lives. Lack of access to work has psychological and social as well as economic consequences”.
It quoted a woman from Zimbabwe who said:
“Sometimes I just cry. It’s like I am worthless, like I am just this piece of junk”.
“My mind has gone rusty. I am not able to look at a meaningful life anymore. I look at it and I think, oh what a wasted life”.
It is terrible that people are having to feel this.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, cited a range of cross-national evidence that does not support the argument that enabling people to work acts as a pull factor. No doubt the Minister will respond with the other argument given twice in Committee:
“It is important that we protect the resident labour market for those lawfully present in the UK”.—[Official Report, 20/1/16; col. 850.]
But asylum seekers are lawfully present until they are deemed otherwise. To suggest they are not plays into the popular tendency to conflate asylum seekers with undocumented economic migrants.
This leads to my final point. A number of noble Lords and organisations outside have expressed the fear that by denying asylum seekers access to legitimate paid work, sheer need and desperation will push them into the shadow economy where they are prey to exploitation. I raised earlier my concerns that they could now also be caught by Clause 32, which will criminalise them.
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To conclude, like the noble Lord, Lord Alton, I do not believe that the Government have made their case that current policy is, to quote the noble Lord, Lord Ashton of Hyde, “fair and proportionate”. On the contrary, it is unfair and disproportionate when compared with the position in most other EU countries, and in its short-term and long-term impact on asylum seekers and refugees whose subsequent integration into British society is impeded by it, as we have already heard. As Ian Birrell, former speech writer for the Prime Minister wrote earlier this week:
“The key is to let refugees work legitimately, so they can build a fresh start—wherever they are. After all, what human being wants life trapped in limbo … Refugees may have escaped hell, but that does not mean we force them into purgatory”.
It feels as if, too often, we do just that. This amendment would help asylum seekers out of the purgatory of enforced idleness and impoverishment.
Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws (Lab): My Lords, I, too, support this amendment. I frequently find myself addressing immigration issues at public meetings because these issues are in the public’s mind and attract a lot of attention, particularly in relation to law. As soon as you draw the distinction between economic migrants and those seeking asylum, the public always recognise the importance of the ability to work, and support it. There is a misconception among politicians’ and public commentators’ understanding of the public mood on this issue. The public generally think it is right that those seeking asylum should have the opportunity to make a life, to work and to have that dignity which everyone has spoken about. They do not see this as just a compassionate issue but as one of good sense in relation to this country and its needs. I urge the Minister to look at this issue carefully, especially given the speed with which these applications are now being dealt with, as the Labour Front Bench mentioned, and which we commend. This is one of the ways in which we can show that we are capable of making a distinction between economic migrants and others; that we will not going allow this confusion to arise in the public’s mind; and that we recognise the public’s desire to ensure that those seeking asylum, to whom we are giving a home, should have the opportunity to live among us, work, and thereby make a contribution to their own lives.
Lord Wigley (PC): My Lords, I support the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and by other noble Lords and reinforce the points that have just been made with regard to the attitude of the general public towards genuine refugees. They would much prefer that these refugees are enabled to make a contribution to the economy and to the social life of the community into which they move. This was reinforced in my mind the other night—as it possibly was for other noble Lords —when a refugee who was a pharmacist was shown on a television programme. One thinks of the contribution that he could make with those skills, which we need. We are silly not to maximise those opportunities. For those reasons, I support the amendment.
Baroness Neuberger (LD): My Lords, I, too, support the amendment. I declare an interest as senior rabbi of the West London Synagogue, where we run in a drop-in
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service for destitute asylum seekers, as many synagogues and churches do around the country. Many of these asylum seekers have waited longer than six months. The way they survive—because you cannot survive on £5 a day—is by going from institution to institution—church to synagogue—getting handouts: that is, charity. They hate it. We do our best to make them feel welcome, but it is not what they want to do. They want to work and make a contribution. They do not want to set their children an example of effectively begging. One of the things that we give them, in addition to a decent meal and friendship—I hope—are second-hand clothes. On the rare occasions that we have enough shoes to put out, they go as if a plague of locusts has entered the room. Asylum seekers who are living on £5 or less a day cannot afford to get their shoes repaired, let alone get new ones. They walk absolutely everywhere and they go through shoes at the rate of a pair a week.
People need to understand what it is like to be in that circumstance and to realise that these people do not wish to live like that and it is not their fault that they have waited for longer than six months. I support the amendment very strongly.
The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I support the amendment and endorse everything that has been said already, and reinforce the point that the General Synod had a major debate on this and overwhelmingly supported such a move.
Some of the saddest conversations I have ever had have been with asylum seekers who came to this country and thought they would be welcomed, but have felt unwelcome; who want to be able to uphold their human dignity and feel that the best way of doing that is to become contributors to this society. I would like to draw attention to proposed new subsection (2) and the phrase “voluntary work”. There should be paid work, absolutely, but I have talked to many asylum seekers who say, “I’m not even allowed to go and voluntarily help somebody else”. This is appalling. This amendment needs to be accepted.
Lord Clinton-Davis (Lab): To deny those who came here at the turn of the century was abhorrent. Later on, before the Second World War, people came here as refugees and they were accepted. Of course, there was a minority of people who denied their status but they were not heard. The compelling voice of the majority prevailed and they were accepted. More than that, most of them have provided a huge benefit to this country and I hope the Government will recognise that.
What the Government are proposing is wrong-headed. The noble Lord, Lord Bates, is a decent man and I hope he will realise that there is a need here for second thoughts. As has been said already, the denial of hope, which this amounts to, is wrong. Hope must be compelling, and authoritative. We must permit some hope, as has already been said, to certain asylum seekers within the provisions of the amendment. The onus of disputing this must fall heavily upon the Government. I hope that ultimately, they will see sense because that is exactly what the majority of this House recognises—hope.
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Lord Green of Deddington: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, made the best case that could possibly have been made for his amendment. He was very effectively supported by many others: the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Neuberger. Clearly, there is, if you like, a human case to be heard and I am glad that it has been heard. But again, if I may say so, there are some wider aspects that also need to be taken into account. First, not all people who seek asylum are in fact genuine. The record is that 50% turn out not to be, so we have to have that in mind when we consider the people who are making applications.
Secondly, the most recent EU directive requires that there should be access to the labour market after nine months, and it is now proposed that we should go to six months and be on the more generous side among EU nations. It is perfectly fair to make that point, but mention was made of Sweden, which has had a very large number of applicants—much larger than most countries in Europe. Until recently, Sweden allowed all asylum seekers to work from the time that they arrived. Without question, that was a major reason why there was such a large inflow to Sweden, and it is why the Swedes were obliged recently effectively to try to close their borders.
One problem with going to six months is that it could become almost an incentive to asylum seekers to spin out their cases. If they could make enough appeals to slow up the process, then they would be able to go out to work. So there is some risk there.
However, my main point is that this is really almost an extraordinary time to propose this change. I mentioned earlier the thousands who are queuing up in Calais; these are not desperate people but people who are already in a safe country—that is the fact of the matter —and it would be entirely open to them to claim asylum in France, which is what both Governments are now trying to encourage. Really, we should not do this now. It should be our objective to reduce the pull factors—and pull factors do exist, even if one does not like the term—not to increase them.
Baroness Ludford: My Lords, powerful arguments have been made in favour of the amendment, led by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who made an excellent speech. He was kind enough to quote what I said in Committee, and I want to return the compliment. In Committee, he said that,
“alleviating destitution amongst asylum seekers is a prerequisite if we believe in the upholding of a person’s human dignity. The right to work is fundamental to this”.—[
, 20/1/16; col. 843.]
So, extremely importantly, this is not just about self-reliance and retaining skills for the benefit of the person and society—bearing in mind that a high proportion of these people will go on to live for many years, or possibly for the rest of their lives, in this country, so what is not to like about them retaining their skills?—it is also about human dignity.
It seems to me that much of what we are discussing in this Bill is a kind of displacement activity for what should be the core function, which is to apply immigration law efficiently and effectively. If asylum claims were determined as swiftly as possible, while allowing for
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people’s rights to be respected, many of these problems would not arise. Illegal renting or driving and all this outsourcing of immigration control would be unnecessary. We keep having to come back to the main issue: whether the UK Border Agency, or whatever it is now called in the Home Office—sorry, I forget, but my past is not in domestic immigration law—is efficiently assessing asylum claims.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Green, that I do not think that anyone is proposing, and the amendment is certainly not proposing, that people should be able to work from the day they arrive; it would be after six months. So, with respect, the Swedish experience is not really relevant to this debate.
I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Ashton of Hyde, said in Committee that UK policy is,
“fair and reasonable … and is consistent with our obligations under EU law”.—[
, 20/1/16; col. 851.]
Unless he knows otherwise, I understand that we do not have any obligations under EU law in this area because we are not opted into the so-called reception conditions directive, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Green, said, obliges other EU countries—and would oblige us if we were opted in—to allow work after nine months. We are not bound by that directive or, as I understand it, any other provision of EU law because we have opted into only some EU asylum directives, and not that particular one. We are entirely free, so please, for once, can we not blame Brussels for what we are doing in this area? As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, 12 countries allow working after six months, but all those other EU countries which are bound by the reception conditions directive, and do not have the choice the UK has, are of course obliged to allow working after nine months. We should not pray in aid EU law in this particular area.
All rational arguments are in favour of allowing the right to work—those based on human dignity and self-reliance, as well as the economic points and the fact that public opinion understands that people are trying to support themselves and not scrounge off the taxpayer, if £5 a day can be called scrounging off the taxpayer. The only argument attempted against it is that it would be a pull factor—our “old friend” the pull factor, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, said. I cannot understand how it can be argued that someone who is working illegally would deliberately make themselves known to the authorities by claiming asylum. I understand that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, suggested that sometimes people claim asylum after they are discovered working illegally, but that is quite different from deliberately claiming asylum when you are working illegally undetected. Why would you then claim asylum and bring yourself to the attention of the authorities in order to get the right to work?
Lord Green of Deddington: The point is that 50% of those who claim asylum were working when they were discovered.
Baroness Ludford: The answer to that, as I said at the beginning, is to apply the law more efficiently. There is every benefit in making things above the law
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and in regularising people’s right to work. The more we can bring people into the light of day—what they are doing, whether they are legally in the country and whether they have a right to work—the better for enforcement. What is so pernicious for public confidence in the asylum system is the idea that so much of what is done is not being properly regulated, enforced or managed. That is where the concentration and the focus has to be. Like my noble friend, I fully support this amendment.
Lord Cashman (Lab): My Lords, I will be brief and make a couple of very quick points. There have been references to bogus asylum applications. If there are such applications, we should not punish those who are sincere and make valid ones. Equally, this amendment addresses a human rights obligation. Every civilised society is judged by how it treats those most in need. In this respect, the Government are sadly wanting and I urge them to accept this amendment.
Lord Bates: My Lords, I begin by paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for the way that he moved his amendment. Nobody could be unmoved by the way in which he presented the arguments, or by his clarity and compassion. They were very persuasive. Before I put some remarks on the record, I will just say—very carefully and respectfully—that as I was sitting here listening to the debate, I was wondering whether perhaps your Lordships did not quite understand what is happening or being proposed here. It is not being proposed in the Immigration Bill before us today that somehow we change the law so that asylum seekers who were hitherto able to work and earn a living are no longer going to be able to do so. That is not what is being proposed in the Bill.
In fact, up until 2002, it was an established policy that people could stay and work after six months. Forgive me for using party tags here, but I hope that the House will bear with me; I am not trying to make undue party-political points, but I want to set out the complexity of the issue. Then, in 2005, the previous Labour Government, as a result of opting into the 2003 EU receptions conditions directive, which sets out the minimum benefits and entitlements afforded to asylum seekers while they await a decision on a claim, changed the Immigration Rules, allowing asylum seekers to apply for permission to work in the UK if they had been waiting for more than 12 months for an initial decision on their case. That was the choreography: we are not talking about a proposed change now—this was changed back in 2005 under the previous Labour Government.
I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, is itching to come in, but I ask her to bear with me, because I am about to come to the coalition. Then, in 2010, during the coalition, a case went before the Supreme Court on the issue, and the coalition Government subsequently changed the Immigration Rules from those set out by the Labour Government to reflect the Supreme Court judgment, as would be expected. At that time, they introduced the provision restricting asylum seekers’ jobs to the shortage occupation list.
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I set that out because it is important, when we hear persuasive and passionate speeches—I accept that they are persuasive and passionate—about the very vulnerable group of people who come to this country seeking international humanitarian protection because of a well-founded fear of persecution, that we bear in mind that we do not propose to change the rules. The amendment would change the rules back to the situation that existed not under the coalition, but pre-2005, under the then Labour Government.
Baroness Ludford: The Minister kindly gave me an opening. I do not want to be an EU bore—although I guess I am—but whatever the Labour Government did, which I do not agree with, EU law in the previous reception conditions directive said that you had to allow asylum seekers to work at least after 12 months. There was nothing whatever to stop a Government allowing asylum seekers to work after six months. The Government have not opted into the new receptions conditions directive 2013; they did not follow the habit of previous Governments. That is the one that says that you have to allow asylum seekers to work after nine months—but you can let them work after three months if you want.
Lord Bates: That is absolutely right; I am not dissenting from that; that is the one that we decided not to opt in to under the coalition Government. My point was that when the Labour Government introduced the provision, it was fully compliant with the EU directive 2003 and met the terms and conditions. Of course, it can be relaxed. As the noble Lord, Lord Green, said, we could go to the extent of Sweden’s position as it operated it, where people could enter the labour market immediately on claiming asylum. Of course, we all know that Sweden has some of the highest numbers of asylum claimants, so we should not somehow be vilified for claiming that that might be a pull factor when the evidence seems to suggest that the terms and conditions might act in that way.
Having set out for the benefit of the House the fact that we do not propose to change a position that obtained under the coalition and was introduced by the previous Labour Government, I want to set out the argument for noble Lords to consider.
First, while awaiting a decision, asylum seekers receive free accommodation and a cash allowance; they have all their living needs met, in terms of utility bills, and have access to education and skills and our health services. Also, to answer the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, they can also undertake volunteering activities while their claim is outstanding, and we are exploring ways in which to support that. This approach also assists genuine refugees. It is common knowledge that some people make unfounded claims. The figure of 61% is the figure that we have of initial claims that are refused. It is reasonable to assume that some do so because of the benefits, real or perceived, that they think they will gain here. Earlier access to employment risks undermining the asylum system by encouraging unfounded claims from those seeking to use the asylum system as a cover for economic migration.
The amendment would create further incentives for asylum seekers to choose to try to come here.
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In Europe we have seen the effect that those policies can have in driving migrant behaviour. The numbers choosing to live in squalid conditions in Calais, hoping to enter the UK illegally, rather than seeking protection in France, is testament to that fact. Allowing access to work after six months would be more generous than many other member states. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to some—but it would certainly be more generous than some and more generous than is required under the current 2013 directive on reception conditions to which the noble Baroness referred. We should not do anything at this stage to encourage more people to risk their lives to undertake dangerous journeys to come across Europe instead of claiming asylum in the first safe country that they reach.
In the great majority of cases, asylum seekers receive a decision within six months, so we should think carefully about the particular asylum seekers whom the amendment would benefit. That would include those who were themselves responsible for delaying the consideration of their asylum claim. It could be argued that it could provide a perverse incentive for people to institute delays. It would also include those complex cases where there are good reasons, often related to serious crimes, established or alleged to have been committed by the claimant, why a decision on an asylum claim cannot be reached within six months. Those are the asylum seekers to whom the amendment would accord preferential treatment at the expense of UK residents, including refugees seeking employment here.
Again, I accept that the arguments in favour of the amendment are well made—not emotive, but clearly touching an emotion. The vast majority of asylum seekers come here to seek our protection and we expedite their assessment. When they come to this country, they come under our obligations under the refugee convention and the 1951 Act, which says that we must offer protection and humanitarian assistance. The argument was that when people entered into the labour market they would need to be provided with national insurance numbers and tax reference numbers as well, potentially, as pay roll numbers, all of which might mean that if their claim is not upheld and well founded, it is more difficult for them to be removed from the country. The other argument is that there are also 1.5 million people who currently do not have employment in this country, and it might be argued that somebody could go for a job in a particular location and find that they do not get that job because it is offered to somebody who is here on an asylum basis. They may feel some upset that people to whom we are offering humanitarian support are somehow put ahead of them in the jobs queue, which would be unreasonable.
Those are the broad arguments that can be presented on this issue. The essential one that I would ask noble Lords to reflect on is that in this Bill we seek to provide a protection of the existing laws governing immigration in this country, recognising that there is a great migration crisis on, and many people are seeking to make their way through Europe on this journey. We are seeking control of migration flows into this country. Therefore, now is not the time to change rules that were introduced in 2005 by the Labour Government
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and which were then refined under the coalition Government. Now is not the time to make this change—and I urge the noble Lord to consider withdrawing the amendment.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, the Minister was good enough to say at the outset that he thought that I had put a persuasive case—but clearly not persuasive enough to change his mind. The argument that this is not the time is one that we are all familiar with. I have heard it in both Houses of Parliament over the last three or four decades, again and again. Now is never the time. I was surprised by the Minister’s argument that if we were to pass this amendment we would be more generous than we are required to be. Those were his words. We are talking about £5 a day to subsist, instead of giving people the opportunity to do a job. If they are here illegally, they will not be taking somebody else’s job, because they will be deported. If they are here illegally, they are not becoming part of what he described as a perverse incentive for criminality—they will be deported. Our rules are quite clear. As the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, said, they are not here illegally; they are asylum seekers. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, said, the public understand the difference between people who are here illegally and trying to cheat our system and people who are genuine asylum seekers and who should be considered on the merits of their applications.
We have heard some extraordinary speeches, and I remind the House that we have heard only one speech against these amendments during the course of the debate, from my noble friend Lord Green. My noble and learned friend Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood put the point that there was a balance of arguments. He, with his extraordinary legal experience, came to the conclusion that on balance it would be right to support this amendment and, in doing so, was echoing a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, from the Opposition Front Bench—that we will be incentivising the Home Office. We will be ratcheting up the process to deal with these applications to put them through within the six-month period because, if we do not, they would have the opportunity to go after a job and to do that job until the asylum application has been dealt with.
My noble friend Lord Wigley said that public opinion knows the difference between illegal migrants and asylum seekers, and that people who have skills will be deskilled—and he referred to a pharmacist—if they are not given the opportunity to work.
Many other noble Lords have contributed to the debate, and I know that the House is now keen to reach a conclusion. I end by reminding the House of the vivid description that my noble friend Lady Neuberger gave during her remarks, when she talked about how like a swarm of locusts people will swoop on second-hand shoes, because they are so bereft of basic income or resources or the basic things to keep life and limb together. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, said that this amendment is about hope for people of that kind. Hope was the one thing left in Pandora’s box—and here I do agree with the Minister. We are witnessing mass migration on a huge scale. This amendment,
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sadly, is unable to deal with that; it is far beyond its scope. What it will do is to offer some hope or support for people who find themselves in a position where their human dignity has been utterly degraded. Therefore, I seek the opinion of the House.
Division on Amendment 57
Contents 280; Not-Contents 195.
Amendment 57 agreed.