Polls are likely a poor guide to wise policy on letting asylum seekers work

One of the many problems with trying to make policy by public opinion, as the Prime Minister seems fond of doing, is that the public’s various preferences don’t always cohere into a desirable, or even workable, set of proposals.

The current row over letting asylum seekers work is an obvious example. On the one hand, polling reportedly shows a strong majority of voters in favour of letting people take employment whilst their claims are processed – albeit with the caveat that the polls were commissioned by a campaign group working towards that very outcome.

On the other, the Government seems pretty convinced that the public very much do not like the sight of growing numbers of people bypassing the legal immigration system by crossing the Channel in small boats. And according to the Home Office, one of the major reasons people risk their lives to make the crossing (rather than staying in France, a perfectly safe country) is that it is much easier to access work in the UK. It would probably not be difficult to commission polling which put the public four-square behind this view.

The Home Office perspective comes with its own health warning, of course. More than perhaps any other department, it can fall victim to ‘They who fight monsters…’ syndrome, getting too focused on its narrow brief and losing sight of the bigger picture.

Nonetheless, one can see why Priti Patel is reluctant to set down what is currently one of only a few ‘push factors’ available to the Government to try and disincentivise illegal crossings. Home Office sources also suggest that the backlog is already likely to get worse as it is, and creating more reasons for people to make the trip means more crossings in the short term and increased odds of needing an amnesty to clear the backlog somewhere down the line.

Both sides have a point. Allowing asylum seekers to work would ease a little the pressure on the public purse and allow willing people to fill shortages, at the expense of undermining the integrity of the immigration system to patch-and-mend the consequences of state failure in other areas and potentially undermining the Government’s narrative that the solution to labour shortages is better wages rather than fresh sources of cheap labour.

Each department can only lobby for its own interest. The decision is ultimately the Prime Minister’s to make.

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