Modern slavery tsar and migration advisory committee chair say ministers must provide evidence to back findings that asylum seekers should continue to be banned from employment
The Home Office has been accused of “misleading the public” after refusing to publish evidence to support its claim that allowing asylum seekers to work would create a “pull factor” for people to come to Britain.
High profile figures including the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner and the chair of the Migration Advisory Committee have criticised the department over its refusal to make public the full version of its long-awaited review into the employment ban.
Currently, asylum seekers in the UK are banned from working. Those who have been waiting for a decision for more than 12 months can apply for the right to work – but they can only take jobs in a very limited list of professions known as the Shortage Occupation List.
Last Wednesday, immigration minister Tom Pursglove announced that a review of the current policy, which was first promised in 2018, had concluded that the ban must remain in place in order to “reduce pull factors to the UK, and ensure our policies do not encourage people to undercut the resident labour force”.
The findings were published in the form of a written ministerial statement and were not accompanied by a full report or supporting evidence.
When asked for the full review by The Independent, the Home Office said it had “no plans to publish anything further”.
Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Dame Sara Thornton, who has pushed for asylum-seeking trafficking victims to be given the right to work, told The Independent she also had asked the Home Office to send her the report, but to no avail.
“They’ve given me no reason why they can’t publish it. They’ve just told me I can’t have it. I have not given up yet […] If they’ve got evidence of pull factors, publish it. Let’s have proper, informed public debate because that’s how you make decisions,” she said.
“I keep meeting victims and survivors who are waiting years, and are unable to work […] If you look at the comparisons: the US is six months, Germany is three months, Australia and Canada let asylum seekers work straight away – why are we 12 months?”
Professor Brian Bell, chair of the Migration Advisory Committee, told reporters on Wednesday that he had not seen evidence to back up the “pull factor” assessment, and said that it was “incumbent” on ministers to make this public.
“It’s not enough to say: ‘There’s a pull factor’. You’ve got to have evidence to support that, and that’s all we’re suggesting the government produces […] You can’t come to conclusions if you’re not willing to tell us what the evidence is on one side of the equation,” he said.
Syed Naqvi, a lawyer with ITN Solicitors who has worked on a number of asylum work rights cases, said the Home Office was “misleading the public” by “relying on the so-called ‘pull factor’ reasoning” to ban asylum seekers from working.
He added: “There is simply no evidence to support the finding that asylum seekers being given the right to work will lead to more asylum seekers coming to these shores. If there is such evidence then the Home Office should publish this evidence so that there is an informed debate on this important issue.
“On the contrary, there is very clear evidence of the harm that the current system causes to asylum seekers and their families, including young children, who are being forced to live in squalid living conditions and rely on food banks for years on end when the delays on their asylum cases are of the Home Office’s own making.”
In July 2020, the Lift the Ban coalition published a report which found that allowing asylum seekers to work would benefit the public purse by an estimated £98m per year. A further update in summer 2021 revised this further upwards to £180.8m per year.
The report recommended relaxing the policy to allow asylum seekers to work after six months, with no restrictions on access to the labour market.
In his statement announcing the findings of the Home Office of the work ban review, Mr Pursglove said the financial benefits arising from a relaxation of the right to work policy were likely to be “significantly lower” than the figures claimed by Lift the Ban.
Speaking on behalf of the Lift the Ban coalition, Paul Hook, co-director at Asylum Matters, said: “It’s worrying that ministers are either failing to be transparent about the three-year Home Office review into the asylum work ban – or that they simply have no evidence to support their policy.
“Repeated calculations by the Lift the Ban coalition show voters overwhelmingly support giving people the right to work, while the change could save taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds.”
A Home Office spokesperson said its wider conclusions on its reasons for not changing the asylum seeker work policy was not dependent on the evidence that The Independent and others were requesting. They added that its resources would be better deployed to speeding up decision making for asylum claims.