Second permanent secretary Tricia Hayes told a committee of MPs last week that the department was “not looking at changing” the rules around access to employment for people awaiting decisions on their claims. The prime minister said in 2019 that the policy was being reviewed, and no findings for this review have been published.
A Home Office spokesperson told The Independent on Monday that Ms Hayes had “misspoken” during the evidence session with the Home Affairs Select Committee and that the review was in fact “ongoing”.
But campaigners said her response indicated that the department was “kicking the can down the road” on completing the review, which the government first said it planned to do three years ago.
Currently, asylum seekers in the UK are not normally allowed to work while their claims are being considered, and instead have to rely on the Home Office for their accommodation and essential living needs.
In December 2018, the then home secretary Sajid Javid told Parliament that he would like to review the ban. When asked about asylum seekers’ right to work in July 2019, prime minister Boris Johnson said the Home Office was currently “reviewing that matter” and that his government would be “making an announcement shortly”.
Last November, the then immigration minister Chris Philp said a review was “ongoing” and that he would “report back as soon as [the Home Office was] able to complete it”.
However, when asked if the department was looking into the matter during an evidence session with the Home Affairs Select Committee last Thursday, Ms Hayes said there were “no plans” to do so.
Questioning the second permanent secretary on the asylum system, SNP MP Stuart McDonald said: “Is the Home Office going to revisit things like the prohibition on work, the levels of support that people get and so on?”
Ms Hayes responded: “We’ve got no plans to revisit those parameters at the moment. I think at the moment we’re going to focus our attention on doing the best job we can at managing the backlog.
“We will give people support, but we’re not looking at changing the terms and conditions at the moment.”
A Home Office spokesperson later told The Independent Ms Hayes has “misspoken” and that the matter was still “under review”.
Calls to lift the ban have ramped up in recent years. A poll of over 1,000 business leaders in 2019 found that two thirds (67 per cent) said the government should lift the ban, with a majority (64 per cent) also saying they’d expect to see benefits in terms of diversity of experience and skills.
Mr McDonald told The Independent the ban on work for asylum seekers was “appalling”, “particularly when people are having to wait longer than ever for decisions on their cases”.
He added: “It’s despicable that people who need to rebuild their lives and want to contribute are instead being forced into years of unemployment and poverty.”
Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive at Refugee Action, said the government’s review into giving people seeking asylum the right to work appeared to have “vanished into thin air”.
“Tens of thousands of skilled and talented people are crying out to be taken off a government allowance and be allowed to work so they can contribute to our communities,” he added.
“The government cannot keep kicking this can down the road. It must urgently share details of its review, set a date for when it will be published, and find its common sense to finally lift the ban on people seeking asylum working.”
Minnie Rahman, interim chief executive at the Joint Council for the welfare of Immigrants, said that banning asylum seekers from working made no “practical, moral or financial sense”.
“It’s disappointing to see government repeatedly kicking the can down the road when it comes to reviewing the policy, and lack the most basic information on whether it’s even taking place,” she added.
“Instead of leaving people in this endless limbo, government should be listening to the evidence by lifting the ban on work, and giving people the chance to get on with their lives.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Asylum seeker right to work is a complex issue and is under review. It is crucial we take the time to get this right. We are listening carefully to the arguments and considering the evidence put forward on the issue.”