Lord Bethell was Minister for Innovation at the Department of Health and Social Care during the pandemic.
The plight of Ukrainian refugees breaks my heart. There’s a strong feeling that they should be welcomed to Britain and given a safe-haven to rebuild their lives. I applaud the Government for moving quickly to make that happen. I have started the process to welcome my Ukrainian friend and her daughters to our home so she can live safely and restart her business in the UK. I hope we can make a difference to their lives.
The Ukrainian refugee crisis puts a vivid spotlight on the way we treat other asylum-seekers. Very few in the asylum system pass the government’s strict criteria for a work permit, which rules that unless you have been waiting more than 12 months and your profession is on the highly restrictive shortage occupation list, you must remain jobless.
To repeat, we have a Conservative government that effectively bans people from work, that stops them from improving their lot through their own individual hard work and effort.
Nothing could be more deeply un-Conservative. Utterly central to our beliefs is that the right to work is a basic human right. Margaret Thatcher put it very emphatically in her first speech to the Conservative Party Conference (1975),
” A man’s right to work as he will, to spend what he earns, to own property, to have the State as servant and not as master; these are the British inheritance. They are the essence of a free economy. And on that freedom all our others depend.”
She was right to see the right to work was a moral question, not an administrative authorisation to be decided by bureaucracies. She saw it on the same level as the unalienable constitutional rights listed in by the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, “life, liberty and the pursuit”. These rights, they argued, have been given to all humans by their Creator, and governments are created to protect.
I agree with Margaret Thatcher.
She is right that one of the unifying beliefs that unites the various traditions of Conservative thinking is that that the role of the state is to help people into work, not to stand in their way.
Around half of asylum-seekers are make successful applications, and we want those people to become integrated members of British society, standing on their own two feet and contributing to the national prosperity.
And for the other half, they will move on, either to return to their homeland or to make a home elsewhere, and we would like to think that their time in the UK had left them with a positive impression. Emasculating both groups by denying them the right to work during their application period will not encourage them to become responsible members of society, quite the opposite.
Instead of following core Conservative principles, the Government seeks to hold on to this ridiculous rule which was introduced by a Labour Government in 2002. Instead of encouraging people to take responsibility for their lives and benefiting from their hard work, we demand that people perfectly capable and willing to work must instead sit on their hands and depend on state benefits, letting their skills go to waste, keeping them isolated from their local communities, and harming their chances of building a successful new life for themselves in which they contribute to the UK.
Whether or not people succeed with their asylum claim, while they are here waiting, they should be working, for the good of themselves and society. We have got the moral imperative the wrong way round. Protecting refugees does not mean locking them up or restricting their right to work.
Change would be popular among voters. YouGov Polling commissioned by the Lift the Ban coalition shows that more than 80 per cent of the public think that asylum seekers should be given the right to work while they wait. It’s not a great surprise that the public, who voted for a Conservative Government, support a policy that follows Conservative values.
Home in on individual constituencies and the results of the polling are more interesting still. Whether it’s a Blue Wall seat, a Red Wall seat, a Cabinet Seat, the Home Secretary’s seat or even the Prime Minister’s seat, most people think asylum seekers should be allowed to work.
And businesses want change as well. In polling carried out by Survation, 60 per cent said they supported asylum seekers working. As Conservatives we are the party of business, and we must make sure that this is loud and clear.
By denying people seeking asylum the right to work we are also depriving businesses of much-needed labour.
It won’t have escaped anyone’s attention that the UK has a huge labour shortage problem. According to the ONS figures release in February there were 1.3 million job vacancies in the period November to January, another record.
That’s thousands of businesses up and down the country who are keen to build back better post Covid and see the UK take back control as Brexit allows us to do. Instead, they are being hamstrung by red tape that has somehow become Conservative policy to keep in place rather than consign to the policy bin.
As well as individual prosperity and national prosperity, we must also remind ourselves we are the party of fiscal responsibility and small government.
Stopping asylum seekers from working leaves taxpayers to foot the unnecessary bill, not just for the benefits paid out to people in the asylum system, but for all the lost income from tax and national insurance receipts.
The latest round of Immigration statistics shows the number of people waiting more than six months for a decision on their asylum claim at 62,000 – estimates suggest that this costs the Government more than £200 million a year.
We should not be frittering away that sort of money, especially as we must pay for all the state spending during the pandemic. When people from Ukraine enter our asylum system they, like other refugees who have been waiting months and years for a decision on their claim, will want to work. And we have decided that we will let them.
As Conservatives, we must extend this principle to others who find themselves stuck in limbo through no fault of their own.