Christian Wakeford will apologise on Wednesday for previously claiming asylum seekers “have a shopping trolley as to what they want as economic migrants” when he was a Conservative MP.
The MP for Bury South crossed the floor to Labour earlier this year, criticising the Tory government’s policies for only worsening his constituents’ struggles . He said two of his constituents had opened his eyes to the difficulties many asylum seekers faced when arriving in the UK.
Currently, asylum seekers cannot work in the UK. Charities and campaigners have called for the effective ban, introduced in 2005, to be scrapped as many refugees are facing long waits for officials to make a decision on their case.
Wakeford backed the controversial nationality and borders bill in July 2021. He told the Commons: “These asylum seekers aren’t just travelling through one safe country, they’re very often travelling through many safe countries – essentially having a shopping trolley as to what they want, economic migration.
“So the best way to actually deal with this is to deal with the issue and have a meaningful policy, which is what this is for.”
Since he defected to Labour, Wakeford has faced criticism for not backtracking on his previous remarks.
Speaking in a Westminster Hall debate on asylum seeker employment and the cost of living crisis he has sponsored on Wednesday, Wakeford will say: “I want to go on record and say what I said 18 months ago was wrong and I am sorry for saying it.
“Every week, government uses scapegoats and as we continue to see even yesterday, asylum seekers have been one for this government for far too long. I am sorry for playing into that narrative. These people aren’t arbitrary numbers for newspaper editors to froth at the mouth about and stoke the fire of intolerance.
“They are human beings who have hopes and dreams, for them and their children, they want a good education, to live life without fear of persecution.”
One of his constituents who fled persecution in Kenya sought asylum in the UK four years ago, but has struggled with the cost of living crisis because she has been unable to work since she arrived, despite being willing to do so.
During a meeting in August, Mary told Wakeford her mental health had deteriorated because she was not able to provide for her child despite having transferrable skills that would enable her to contribute to society.
Another of his constituents, Mahmoud, told Wakeford he felt “comfort” when he goes to bed hungry, knowing “the money that could pay for my food has paid for the food my family is eating. My little son will not go to bed hungry, and that brings me comfort”.
Labour is understood to back calls to allow asylum seekers to have the right to work after waiting six months for a decision on their claim.
Wakeford’s comments come as the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, vowed to “abolish” the backlog of asylum claims by the end of 2023. But this aim was called into question after officials admitted only a portion of applications would be cleared.
Boris Johnson and Priti Patel have reportedly backed a forthcoming bill attempting to pressure Sunak to ignore rulings from the European court of human rights (ECHR) over the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda.
The asylum seekers (removal to safe countries)bill is to be introduced on Wednesday by the Tory MP Jonathan Gullis, who says the legislation “will ensure that parliament, not unaccountable foreign judges in Europe, have the final say”.
The report adds that the bill’s other “co-sponsors” include Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nadine Dorries, Tim Loughton and “six other MPs”.
There is little prospect of the bill becoming law but it once again throws a spotlight on the issue.