Stephen Kinnock – 2022 Speech on Asylum Seeker Employment and the Cost of Living

The speech made by Stephen Kinnock, the Labour MP for Aberavon, in Westminster Hall, the House of Commons, on 14 December 2022.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) for calling this important debate, and I commend him for his brave, powerful and honest speech. I thank all hon. Members who have made such excellent contributions —in particular my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), who always speaks with such passion and commitment on these matters.

I echo the comments about the terrible incident in the channel today. It is just appalling to think of those poor people suffering. It shows that the issues that we are discussing today are matters of life and death in the most literal sense.

The debate about whether asylum seekers should have the right to work has come to the fore largely because of slow asylum claim processing by this Government. After 12 years, a series of Conservative Home Secretaries have openly admitted that their asylum system is “broken”—and they should know, because they broke it. The backlog of asylum seekers awaiting decisions stands at 143,000. An enormous 97,700 of those have been waiting more than six months. The root cause is that the Government have failed to process asylum claims with anything like the efficiency required. In 2012, Home Office decision makers were making an average of 14 asylum decisions a month; now, they are making just five.

Tory Ministers try to blame covid, but the truth is that this is a mess of their own making. They chose to downgrade asylum decision makers from higher executive officer grade to lower executive officer grade, leading to a less experienced workforce on lower wages and with lower morale, lower retention rates and a collapsing process. The inevitable consequences were slower decisions, more decisions overturned at appeal, an increasing backlog, and ballooning costs for the taxpayer.

As a result, the British taxpayer is now forking out almost £7 million every single day on emergency accommodation in hotels—with private contractors, by the way, making a killing. It is worth noting that the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 has made the whole situation worse by adding an extra layer of bureaucracy through its so-called inadmissibility provisions. Make no mistake: the system is a shambles.

That is the backdrop against which we discuss the right of asylum seekers to work while they await an asylum decision. Currently, asylum seekers who have been waiting more than a year are able to work in shortage occupations. The Labour party is clear that that period should be reduced to six months. It would not be appropriate for people to work straightaway on arrival, as those with clearly unfounded claims or who have come from safe countries should be swiftly returned. The asylum system is for those fleeing persecution and conflict; it is not an alternative to the normal immigration rules for those who are not. However, where people are in limbo for more than six months simply because of Home Office incompetence, there are real problems with expecting the British taxpayer to pay them about £40 in weekly earnings. That money and more could be being paid by employers, especially at a time of high job vacancy rates in Britain.

The current state of affairs is damaging to the taxpayer, damaging to the Exchequer, and damaging to the wellbeing of asylum seekers. The Government’s own Migration Advisory Committee said that restrictions were pushing asylum seekers

“into exploitative situations by preventing them from obtaining safe and legal sources of income.”

The Lift the Ban coalition, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South, estimates that reform of the policy could save the UK economy more than £333 million a year. Moreover, research by the OECD found that being refused permission to work leads some asylum seekers to work unlawfully, which exposes them to exploitative working practices because of the absence of health and safety and other regulatory employment protections. That, of course, tends to lead to undercutting and a race to the bottom right across the labour market, so absolutely nobody benefits from the mess in which we currently find ourselves. Does the Minister recognise the absurdity of the situation?

Currently, the Government allow asylum seekers to work in jobs on the shortage occupation list if they have been waiting more than 12 months for their claim to be heard. As I mentioned, we support the view that asylum seekers should be able to work after six months, on the basis that the Government should not be taking longer than that to process a claim, except in the most exceptional circumstances. There is strong support for that view across the House, including from a number of Conservative Members.

In case the Minister has forgotten, may I remind her that the long-standing target of processing 98% of straightforward asylum claims within six months was scrapped by this Government more than four years ago, with no indication of when or whether it would be reinstated? Perhaps the Minister could enlighten us about whether that service standard will ever be reinstated. It is a shocking sign of Conservative Government failure that almost 100,000 asylum seekers have now been waiting more than six months.

It appears obvious that the right to work should exist alongside a functioning system. That is why our entire focus, when we are in government, will be on clearing the backlog and getting back to the six-month service standard. In other words, the debate about the right of asylum seekers to work is a symptom of the fact that the Government are not clearing the backlog or stopping the boats.

On the issue of small boats, we on the Labour Benches are clear that the dangerous channel crossings are a real problem and that preventing them is a priority for our party. In 2019, the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), said that she would stop the small boat crossings in months. Three years later, the numbers have rocketed to around 45,000. Meanwhile, we recently had the chaos of 4,100 people living in Manston—more than double the legal limit—with the local Conservative MP blaming the Home Secretary for failing to provide the appropriate accommodation. Last month, another Conservative MP called on the Minister for Immigration to consider his position over the procurement of hotels around the country. We know that 222 vulnerable children have gone missing from asylum accommodation, and there have been other deeply disturbing safeguarding issues.

The public can see that the asylum system is neither firm nor fair, neither compassionate nor competent, and neither safe nor secure. The system needs fixing, but unfortunately the Conservatives are more concerned about chasing headlines than doing the nitty-gritty of good government. They put tough talk above hard graft. The country can see that government by gimmick is not working. An obvious example of that is the failing Rwanda offloading plan: with a mere threat of deportation, we are supposed to prevent crossings, but crossings have increased dramatically since that announcement.

The Labour party wants to stop refugees crossing the English channel and to crack down on the smuggling gangs that exploit refugees for profit, but the Rwanda plan is unworkable, unaffordable and unethical. Labour has shown leadership by setting out a five-point plan to deal with the mess. It is a serious approach based on sensible policy solutions; it is not based on what would best achieve a right-wing tabloid front page headline. First, we would crack down on the criminal gangs by repurposing the wasted Rwanda money for an elite unit in the National Crime Agency that would partner with France, Belgium and Europol to crack down on people smugglers.

Secondly, we would speed up asylum decisions by restoring order and smart management to the Home Office and by returning to 2016 levels of asylum processing. As part of our plan, we would fast-track applications of asylum seekers from safe countries in order to ensure swift returns. The previous Labour Government used the safe countries list to fast-track returns, but when this Conservative Government lost control of the asylum system as a whole, the fast-tracking process fell off the cliff with it.

Recently, the Labour party has been pushing for that system to return in the context of the number of Albanian channel crossers rising to 12,000. The Government have announced their intentions, but the detail is still unclear. It feels like more rhetoric, but we hope we are proven wrong on that. Labour’s common-sense fast-track system, combined with the much-needed injection of energy and competence that we would bring to government, means that we would deal with the issue in our first 100 days.

Thirdly, we would reform resettlement schemes better to target those most at risk of exploitation by trafficking and smuggler gangs, and liaise closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to get the Afghanistan scheme working properly. Fourthly, we would replace the Dublin agreement on returns. Fifthly, we would work internationally to address crises that lead people to flee their homes.

Claudia Webbe

Does the hon. Member not agree that the immigration system is based on the hostile environment and that we are going to have difficulties unless we do something about that? The Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016 effectively introduced internal borders. That means that every aspect of someone’s life, including going to a bank and accessing any type of service, is being policed by immigration control internally, as opposed to at the border. That is the problem of the hostile environment, and it would be much easier simply to allow asylum seekers to work.

Stephen Kinnock

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She is absolutely right that the hostile environment is profoundly counterproductive. Much of the thinking around the asylum system is based on a hostile environment for assessing applications, which has led to the system becoming completely blocked, and that has become a magnet in itself. The backlog is a magnet for many people, who pay people smugglers knowing that when they arrive in the UK it will take up to 450 days for their claim to be processed, so it is counterproductive in terms of the efficiency of the system. Of course, the hostile environment to which she refers is also the root cause of the appalling Windrush scandal, which has had such a damaging impact on communities across our country.

Having set out our approach to the right to work and how Labour will deliver on that in government, I look forward to the Minister’s response to these vital questions. We need to get away from empty rhetoric and towards something that resembles the efficiency, speed, compassion and control that we need, so that we can have an asylum system that works for our country, we can start to get control of our borders again, and we can ensure that people who come here fleeing war and persecution are able to make a valued contribution to our society and, indeed, our economy.