Author: Severin Carrell
Jeremy Corbyn has indicated that Labour could devolve some parts of asylum policy to Scotland, as he condemned Home Office handling of individual refugee cases in Glasgow.
The Labour leader said he was willing to consider greater flexibility in Scotland and other parts of the UK over housing and education for asylum seekers, ending the so-called “hostile environment” policies he said the UK government was pursuing.
“I’m open to the idea that we would look very carefully at the administration of the housing issues, the support issues, the education issues. [We] will certainly be having that discussion both with Scottish Labour and with Welsh Labour,” he said.
“I want us to have an asylum policy that works in a humane, decent and effective way. At the moment we don’t have that at all. We have a hostile environment which is so damaging to people’s lives.”
The first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, has repeatedly called for the Scottish parliament to be given control over immigration, chiefly to address the issue of Scotland’s ageing population and falling birth rates. She has also championed the case for allowing refugees far freer entry to the UK, with Scottish councils including Glasgow among the first in the UK to offer housing.
Demands for greater autonomy over immigration and asylum policy have escalated in Scotland after more than 300 asylum seekers in Glasgow were threatened with eviction by the Home Office’s private sector housing contractor Serco.
Those evictions have been suspended pending several legal challenges by the housing charity Shelter and Govan Law Centre, a public law firm in Glasgow.
Corbyn and the Scottish Labour leader, Richard Leonard, met several asylum seekers in Glasgow affected by the Serco controversy, including one family of Pakistani Christians who say close relatives have been imprisoned, kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan because of their religious beliefs.
Maqsood and Parveen Bakhsh, originally from Faisalabad in Pakistan’s Punjab region, fled six years ago but were not allowed to work in the UK. Maqsood was a highly qualified data analyst and Parveen a midwife.
Maqsood Bakhsh, who has become an elder in his local church in Possilpark, Glasgow, said the stress of fighting to remain in the UK and fear of deportation had damaged their health. “If you go outside, we’re in fear that maybe somebody from the Home Office, they will pick us up,” he said.
Their sons Somer, 15, and Araab, 13, hope to be an astrophysicist and an astronomer respectively. Backed by the local Labour MP Paul Sweeney and SNP MSP Bob Doris, the Church of Scotland has been running a community-based campaign calling for the family to be given asylum, with a petition on the 38 Degrees website hitting 83,000 signatures. That petition is due to be presented to the Home Office next week.
Leonard said Labour was not in favour of a wholesale devolution of immigration policy, hinting that was chiefly to avoid conflicts within different parts of the UK in admissions policies. Corbyn said immigration policy across the UK should remain under the overall control of the Home Office.
But Leonard said there was a strong case for greater flexibility in employment laws for asylum seekers, who are barred from any paid employment until they are given rights to settle in the UK.
There were major labour shortages in the NHS, which could use the Bakhshs’ skills. “We need to have a mature discussion about how we tackle regional or labour-market issues, not least post-Brexit, so I think there’s a debate to be had,” he said. “I think there are disadvantages about it as well so I don’t think it’s as straightforward as the SNP have made it out to be.
“I don’t think we’ve said our last word on it; I think it’s something we would keep under consideration not least in the light of Brexit. But, as things stand, Labour as a party is not in favour of the devolution of immigration policy.”