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EXCL Anger as Priti Patel stands by ‘mean and counterproductive’ migrant Universal Credit ban amid coronavirus crisis

The Home Secretary has told MPs that the Government is ‘committed to doing whatever it takes to support people through’ the pandemic.

5 min read

Priti Patel has batted away calls to suspend “mean and counterproductive” rules that bar some migrants from accessing Universal Credit during the coronavirus crisis.

Opposition MPs and campaign groups hit out at the Cabinet minister after she said those with ‘No Recourse To Public Funds’ should instead apply to have the status lifted on a case-by-case basis - a process that PoliticsHome has been told can take “months”.

Under the NRPF status, migrants subject to immigration control by the Home Office are shut out of most most social security benefits, council tax help, state housing support and free school meals for their children, although they can access the NHS.

Campaigners have warned that this could make some migrants particularly vulnerable during the coronavirus economic downturn, and there are concerns that the ban on Universal Credit  could force people to break social distancing guidelines in a bid to keep food on the table.

In a letter to Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson Christine Jardine, seen by PoliticsHome, Ms Patel said the Government would do “whatever it takes to support” people through the Covid-19 crisis.

But while she confirmed that measures including the Government’s furlough scheme for workers and the self-employed, as well as statutory sick pay were “not classed as public funds” and could therefore be accessed by those with NRPF, she made clear the wider ban would stay in place.

“Migrants with leave under the Family and Human Rights routes can already apply to have the restriction lifted by making a ‘change of conditions’ application if there has been a change in their financial circumstances,” the Home Secretary said. 

“The application form has been recently digitised to make sure it is accessible for those who need to remain at home, and decisions are made on a case-by-case basis to ensure the details of each applicant’s situation are taken into account. Applications are being dealt with swiftly and compassionately.”

"Applications are being dealt with swiftly and compassionately" - Home Secretary Priti Patel

Responding to the letter, Ms Jardine warned: "Priti Patel’s refusal to lift the ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ rule during this emergency means that many people will be denied the financial support they need to stay at home. Saying that migrants can apply to be exempted from this rule is completely out of touch, given the Home Office’s appalling record of dealing with applications.”

That view was echoed by Labour MP Neil Coyle, whose Bermondsey and Old Southwark constituency office regularly deals with migrants seeking to lift NRPF conditions.

He told PolHome: “The Home Office takes months to process these claims and routinely makes mistakes.”

Councils have already been handed a £1.6bn funding boost by the Communities Department to help them manage the impact of coronavirus on their services.

Housing ministers have meanwhile told local authority leaders they should help those with NRPF status find emergency accommodation as part of a wider push to end rough sleeping.

But Marvin Rees, the Labour mayor of Bristol, said that bid would be undermined unless the Home Secretary scraps the status entirely during the Covid-19 outbreak.

“The Home Office’s refusal to review the NRPF status represents both a profound injustice and a huge missed opportunity,” he told PoliticsHome.

“NRPF represents a second-class citizen status where people are expected to pay into our system without having the safety net that we all rely on and is a hangover of the Hostile Environment which we are told the Home Office moved on from. It was a terrible policy even before the current crisis."

“The Home Office’s refusal to review the NRPF status represents both a profound injustice and a huge missed opportunity" - Bristol mayor Marvin Rees

He added: “This is a missed opportunity to radically improve how we deal with homelessness and destitution. Local Authorities, including Bristol, have responded at speed to house as many rough sleepers as we could, including people with NRPF status. 

“We now have an ideal opportunity to find more permanent housing solutions for these people but those options are hugely diminished if people don’t have access to the basic benefits that millions rely on in the current crisis.”

Minnie Rehman of campaign group the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said it was “shocking that the Government has not committed to suspending NRPF conditions – forcing people to make lengthy applications at a time of crisis”.

She added: “At this difficult time, everyone should have equal access to financial protections, safe housing and healthcare. Automatic suspension of NRPF conditions is the only way for the Government to make sure that no one is left behind and to ensure that public health is protected.”

NRPF status was first introduced in 1999 to curb access to state help for people who are subject to immigration controls.

But its use was expanded under the Coalition government and now applies to many migrants granted limited leave to stay and work here, including the family members of settled UK citizens.

The Home Office has not published figures on the number of people affected by the rules, but research carried out by the Children’s Society in 2016 estimated that some 50,000 households with dependents had a member affected by the status.

The SNP’s migration spokesperson Stuart McDonald said the letter from the Home Secretary appeared “pretty mean and counterproductive.”

“If we’re really all in this together, then no public support should be off-limits just because of a person's immigration status,” he said.

“A worker faces the same impact on their wages if put on furlough or made redundant, regardless of what passport they hold - so all should have access to Universal Credit and other forms of support. NRPF conditions should be suspended urgently.”

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