Boris Johnson is facing a significant rebellion in the House of Commons next week over the nationality and borders bill with at least 27 Tory MPs backing an amendment that would allow asylum seekers to work in the UK while awaiting the result of their application.
Conservative peers have already inflicted a defeat on the prime minister in the House of Lords over the amendment, which was put forward by Baroness Philippa Stroud, former head of the Centre for Social Justice think-tank.
Now the move has the backing of a broad coalition of Conservative MPs ranging from right-wingers, such as Steve Baker, to centrist “One Nation Tories” including former cabinet ministers Robert Buckland and Andrew Mitchell.
It also has the support of all the opposition parties in the Commons and 39 Conservative peers, including Lord Jo Johnson — brother of the prime minister — and Baroness Ruth Davidson.
In a letter, signed by the 66 Conservative politicians and seen by the FT, Stroud called on ministers to consider extending the right of work to asylum seekers and their adult dependants who have been awaiting a decision for over six months. The move comes ahead of a Commons debate on Tuesday on the amendments made to legislation by the Lords.
The contentious bill would overturn traditional interpretations of the UK’s obligations under the UN’s Refugee Convention by making it a criminal offence to enter the UK by illegal means to seek asylum. It would only offer temporary protection to those who can demonstrate their right to refugee status but have entered the UK clandestinely to lodge the claim or came via a safe third country.
The provisions could affect the rights of Ukrainians fleeing the war if they applied for asylum after travelling to Britain through either Poland or Romania, which the UK deems safe countries. However, Ukrainians admitted under the government’s family reunion scheme or under the Homes for Ukraine programme are not expected to claim asylum.
The government is facing other potential rebellions over the bill, including from dozens of Tory MPs who oppose plans to process asylum seekers’ claims outside the UK.
One Home Office official defended the bill, saying the “vast majority” of voters agreed with the legislation because they wanted to tackle the issue of small boats carrying clandestine immigrants into Britain across the English Channel.
He said it would “fix our broken asylum system” by preventing “people from making dangerous journeys to the UK and protect[ing] those in need through safe and legal routes.”
He said the government opposed the Stroud amendment as allowing asylum seekers to work would be a “pull factor” encouraging more economic migrants to come to Britain. The government’s Migration Advisory Committee has said there was no meaningful evidence to support that assertion, however.
Stroud said that polling by YouGov found that more than 80 per cent of people thought asylum seekers should be given the right to work. “The government have offered right to work to Ukrainians because of the clear benefits the policy brings to the economy and integration,” she said in her letter to the government.
“It seems absurd that at a time of labour shortages, we would keep any asylum seeker — including Afghan, Syrians or Hong Kongers — out of work while they await a decision. It is a policy which would bring a significant tax windfall and aid integration and chimes with the conservative conviction that work is the best route out of poverty.”
Official figures show that 81,000 people were waiting for their initial asylum decision.
Additional reporting by Robert Wright