Last week I spoke in the Westminster Hall debate on Asylum Seekers and Permission to Work, highlighting the case for a change in position. Currently, those seeking asylum are allowed to work, in jobs on the Shortage Occupation List, if their claim has not been decided after 12 months through no fault of their own. As a Conservative, I think it is right that we enable those who arrive in our country to work in our hospitals, care system or in any kind of job that their skills and experience make them fit to do. While we make a decision on their long-term future, they can become economically active members of our society, no longer financially reliant on the taxpayer.
I accept that it has been necessary for previous government’s to make decisions in light of the circumstances they face and in the wider interests of the country. Having these restrictions on our borders and immigration policy was, at one time, needed to command public confidence.
However, now that businesses around the country are saying that they are struggling to recruit skilled workers for certain types of jobs, as we saw with the farming industry over summer, we have an opportunity to bring those with skills in to make that contribution.
I am pleased to include one of my contributions below:
As I have made some interventions already, I shall be brief. As a Conservative, I believe the case is now robustly made for a change in position. We can consider the history and accept that it is right that Government Departments should implement different policies to respond to the concerns that the public, voters, businesses, and everybody in the community has in a given period.
I was reflecting on an article published in The Guardian about how the wider issue of immigration and this point specifically had become so toxic over the years. It referred to the proposals put forward by a Labour Government, for example, that the children of asylum seekers should be taught separately because they were “swamping” the classrooms of this country. Barbara Roche, who was the Immigration Minister for a number of years at the time when the current legislation was established, talked about needing to be much tougher to deter people. That was probably a response to a prevailing concern with the accession of the Visegrad countries into the European Union and a lot of coverage in the media that said that that was going to lead to large numbers of people arriving in the country with the right to work. There was understandable concern in some communities about the impact that would have on their local areas. The Government wanted to demonstrate that they were concerned, and that they were going to be tough and take effective measures to make sure that impact was mitigated.
Of course, as we have heard from the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle), we face a period in which covid, Brexit, and changes in legislation on borders and free movement all add up to a very different picture. The polling done by British Future identifies that many people in these communities have, over time, come to see that asylum seekers and refugees in their local area can bring valuable skills and should be able to use those skills in paid work, rather than subsisting for a long time on very meagre amounts paid for by the taxpayer.
It seems to me a very Conservative thing to expect people to pay their way. When people arrive and could be working in our hospitals, our care system or, frankly, in any kind of job that their skills and experience make them fit to do, we as Conservatives should enable them to do it, rather than having taxpayers pick up the tab for their costs while we make a decision on their long-term futures. That view seems to be gaining a high degree of traction.
Although I absolutely accept that there is a compassion argument at the heart of this issue, we need to recognise that that argument is not attached to any particular political viewpoint. Governments have to make decisions in the light of the circumstances that they face and in the wider interests of the country. It was, once upon a time, in the wider interests of the country to apply those restrictions to have a borders and immigration policy that commanded public confidence.
When so many businesses around the country say that they are struggling to recruit workers, particularly skilled workers for certain types of job—the farming industry was talking about that over the summer with preparations for harvesting, and for local authorities recruiting staff for social care is a major challenge, with significant upward pressure on wages—there is an opportunity to bring people with those skills in to make that contribution and become tax-paying, economically active members of our society, rather than subsisting on the taxpayer. That is why I think it is time to make the case for a change in that policy.