HC Deb 19 November 2001 vol 375 cc4-6
3. Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

Whether asylum seekers whose applications have taken longer than six months to process are entitled to apply for permission to work. [13341]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle)

Under the terms of the employment concession, adult asylum seekers can apply for permission to work if their application has been outstanding for longer than six months without a decision being made on it. Once such permission has been granted, the asylum seeker is entitled to take employment.

Paul Farrelly

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. The partner of one of my constituents, Angela Giray, was refused permission pending an appeal against the refusal of asylum. It is distressing when the situation is confused, and both employers and asylum seekers are confused. Could the Minister outline what measures she will take to ensure that people are better aware of the rules in future, given the recent changes?

Angela Eagle

There has been no change, and none is intended, to the employment concession. Any individual asylum seeker who is concerned need only check with the authorities to see whether he or she has been given permission to work. It is also an offence for employers to employ an asylum seeker who has no such permission.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

Does the Minister agree that the only reason why permission to work is a major issue is the 40,000-plus backlog in the system? Does she accept that my constituents in Eastbourne are not filled with confidence by the Government's belated conversion to the need to set up more centres to deal with asylum seekers when Home Office Ministers are consistently unable to tell me how many asylum seekers currently reside in my constituency?

Angela Eagle

We can say how many asylum seekers reside in the hon. Gentleman's constituency under the national asylum support service dispersal scheme, but he will be aware that his local authority runs the interim scheme that preceded dispersal and so may be able to help him. We do not have national figures available by constituency that take account of the pre-1999 scheme and the NASS dispersal scheme. I wish that we did, and we are trying to compile them, but we can give him only the figures that we have.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it depends on how we define "work"? Will she commend the interesting work of Time Banks UK with regard to paying refugees and asylum seekers in time currencies so that we can truly value their worth in this country?

Angela Eagle

Once people have been granted refugee status, they are certainly available to work. However, I reiterate that if all asylum seekers were to work, that would be a big pull factor which would encourage more people to apply for asylum in Britain. At the same time, we are more than happy to encourage those who are in the middle of the asylum process to do voluntary work, if that is what my hon. Friend is talking about.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

Notwithstanding the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) about the backlog of some 40,000 cases waiting to be decided, does the Minister agree that it is deeply worrying that more than 300 people have been kept in detention for more than 100 days? Will she address that issue as a matter of priority?

Angela Eagle

I can announce that we have successfully taken all asylum seekers out of detention at Cardiff prison, as I undertook to do following a recent Adjournment debate. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has announced our intention to ensure that no asylum seekers are kept on remand in prison by the end of January. It is important to realise that some asylum seekers are detained because it is thought that they may abscond or be about to be returned to their country of origin, and that some of them are in prison for other reasons, such as criminal offences. There will always be a reason to keep a certain number of asylum seekers at particular parts of the process in detention, and I do not apologise for that.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

Are any of the asylum seekers currently held in prison ever likely to be granted permission to work? I welcome my hon. Friend's announcement that Cardiff prison has been cleared of asylum seekers as a result of the commitment that she gave in the Adjournment debate organised by my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) and for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). The fulfilment of that pledge is well ahead of time.

Angela Eagle

I accept my hon. Friend's congratulations on that matter. On his first point, people often spend small amounts of time in detention, while we establish their identity, for example. It is difficult to generalise about whether anyone who has been in detention while we establish their identity may then have a valid claim for refugee status and end up working. That may well be the case, but the figures as we collect them do not allow me to give my hon. Friend detailed information.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

Does the Minister accept that the policy of accommodation centres will have failed hopelessly if it takes as long as six months to process the applications of asylum seekers?

Angela Eagle

The key to the success of our asylum changes is how quickly we can manage to get an individual from the beginning of the process to the end. The longer that takes, the more difficulty any system will have.

Mr. Letwin

I suppose that I should say that I am grateful for that answer, but as we have not received one, I would be even more grateful if we did. Meanwhile, can the Minister guarantee that the accommodation centres will provide doctors, lawyers, immigration officials and adjudicators? They are needed on the spot if decisions are to be made in a lot less than six months.

Angela Eagle

I can guarantee to the hon. Gentleman that the accommodation centres will be the focus of all the help that is appropriate to give asylum seekers—on legal, health, education or training matters—as they go through the process.