Leading article: Let asylum-seekers work

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Maybe it is a consequence of the recession. Maybe it is simply that the court system still moves at snail's pace. Whatever the reason, the vexed question of asylum-seekers is moving up the public and political agenda again.

Earlier this week a family from the Democratic Republic of Congo was awarded a record £150,000 in compensation for unlawful detention. The couple and their two children had been detained in Yarl's Wood detention centre for eight weeks in 2006. Their asylum claim was subsequently granted.

The case came two months after the award of £38,000 to a woman from Cameroon, who had been held at Yarl's Wood, despite rules designed to ensure that victims of torture were not detained in this way. Both cases are expected to give the green light to other cases concerning torture victims or young families.

Yesterday the Church of England Synod – which this week has shown an admirable concern for some of the grittier aspects of life in this country – called for asylum-seekers to be allowed to work pending a decision on their application. Speakers argued that the current system leaves people in poverty and without dignity, and they put their weight – by a vote of 242 to one – behind a call for the rules to change.

Permitting asylum-seekers to work is the single measure that would do most to improve their lives – but not only theirs. It would discourage them from working in the black economy, foster social integration and help to quell accusations of "scrounging".

Even better, of course, would be administrative streamlining that produced a system able to check claims more efficiently and consistently than at present, and make definitive decisions with more urgency. This is what changes introduced two years ago were supposed to do.

Recent National Audit Office figures show, however, that the backlog of applications doubled last year, despite a fall in the number of new claims, and that only one in 10 of those turned down was deported. Until we have an asylum system worthy of the name, applicants should not just be permitted but encouraged to seek employment. The current ban is counterproductive and inhumane.