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Leading article: A depressingly predictable attack on asylum-seekers

Rather than cutting benefits, ministers should let refugees work

It is no secret that a public spending crunch is on the way. And it seems one target for cuts has already been identified: asylum-seekers' benefits. As we report today, the UK Border Agency proposes to reduce the weekly subsistence payments to those waiting for a verdict on their asylum application from £42.16 to £35.13.

That asylum-seekers would be the first to suffer as a result of spending cuts was depressingly predictable. Refugees cannot vote and are widely resented. They represent just about the softest target around.

Hitting asylum-seekers might be politically convenient, but it is certainly not morally right. The subsistence payments asylum-seekers receive are already meagre; around 30 per cent lower than jobseekers' allowance. Cutting them threatens to push asylum-seekers – many of whom are already on the threshold of destitution – further into poverty.

Though the number of new asylum claims has come down in recent years, the size of the backlog is growing. So asylum-seekers are faced with the prospect of waiting longer for a decision on their case with less financial support. The widespread idea that our system is a "soft touch" has never looked more misplaced.

These cuts will also compound the cruelty of a system which prevents asylum-seekers from working while their claims are being processed. Many have impressive professional skills. Among their ranks are thousands of qualified doctors, teachers, scientists and engineers. This should be no surprise. It is often the well-educated who become targets for persecution in repressive or chaotic regimes. The loss for these countries ought to be Britain's gain. The vast majority of refugees are eager to work and play a useful role in our society with their labour. Instead, our Government forces them to survive on taxpayer-funded benefits.

Some ugly social forces have been resurgent since this recession began. There have been protests by oil refinery workers who complain of being undercut by cheaper foreign labour. No evidence has been produced to back this claim up, but that has not dampened the ire of the protesters. Political extremism has enjoyed a boost too. The British National Party, which has long demonised asylum-seekers, won enough votes in last month's European elections to send representatives, for the first time, to Brussels. This rising hostility to foreigners provides an unpromising context for reform of the asylum system. After their failure to enact humane change in the boom years, it is hard to see ministers cutting asylum-seekers a break in today's volatile climate. Yet the Government should be braver and more imaginative. Ministers ought to challenge the myth that foreigners are doing native Britons out of jobs. And they should recognise that allowing asylum-seekers to work can drain some of the public resentment towards them. What better antidote to the popular misconception that refugees are "spongers" than to show that they are working, paying taxes and contributing to the common good?

This reform would also make financial sense from the Government's perspective. The increase in taxation this reform would generate – even at a time of rising joblessness and recession – would surely dwarf any meagre savings to be made from reducing the asylum benefits budget. The Government rightly argues that we need to grow – not cut – our way out of recession. Let it live up to this conviction by releasing the full potential of asylum-seekers.