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Scrap migrant welfare ban or make coronavirus spread worse, Priti Patel warned

MPs and charities want the Home Office to end the ‘No Recourse To Public Funds’ status during the nationwide lockdown.

5 min read

The Home Office should immediately scrap a ban on some migrants accessing benefits and housing assistance or risk making the spread of coronavirus worse, Priti Patel has been told.

The SNP’s migration spokesperson Stuart McDonald has written to the Home Secretary calling on her to axe the ‘No Recourse To Public Funds’ (NRPF) immigration status - which is applied to thousands of migrants across the country.

People with NRPF status are shut out of a string of state benefits, including Universal Credit, housing benefit, council tax support, and access to means-tested free school meals for their children, even if they have been granted leave to remain in the UK.

The status does not curb access to NHS treatment or state schools - and councils have an obligation to help those deemed to be in destitution.

But Mr McDonald told PoliticsHome that the ban’s continued enforcement meant councils were being “left to try and navigate a minefield” as they help migrants facing homelessness and unemployment while staying on the right side of the Home Office rules during the lockdown.

Warning of “a patchwork of different responses in different parts of the country”, the SNP MP - who also sits on the Commons Home Affairs Committee - said: “In some places folk are turned away altogether from accommodation because they have No Recourse To Public Funds on their visa.

“There are other places where accommodation seems to be found but they’re not given any financial support, and there are other places where there seem to have been some successful schemes to help people get the support they need.”

But he added: “Local authorities and other organisations have been left to try and navigate a minefield of what they’re allowed to do and what they’re not allowed to do.

“And to make things simple the Home Office should scrap or suspend these rules and let folk get the support they need to help them get through this - and to help us all get through this.”

Mr McDonald’s letter comes after a coalition of charities said it would consider bringing legal action against the Home Office over its continued enforcement of NRPF status - arguing that the ban is incompatible with emergency laws curbing people’s movement during the lockdown.

“We’re not asking the earth of the Government at all" - SNP migration spokesperson Stuart McDonald

The group, which includes the migrant children’s charity Project 17, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, and the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, said of the lockdown: “We consider that the NRPF system strongly disincentives many of those subject to it from complying with the above guidance, giving rise to serious health risk for them, the people with whom they live and the general public.”

In their own letter to Ms Patel, sent over the Easter weekend, the charities added: “For many [migrants], their NRPF condition may mean that they are compelled to continue to work (and risk exposure to / transmission of COVID-19) because they cannot fall back on public funds in the UK. Put simply, such migrants cannot afford to socially distance or self-isolate.”

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 minister Luke Hall has 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 Mr Hall said councils must “utilise alternative powers and funding to assist those with no recourse to public funds who require shelter and other forms of support due to the Covid-19 pandemic” - a move campaigners fear could see migrants with the status locked out of much of the help available.

Mr McDonald said help for those with NRPF status needed to be “as comprehensive as possible” - both for their own wellbeing and to ensure the lockdown is obeyed.

“At the end of the day, the Government response is all about public health and social distancing - people not going out and congregating,” he told PoliticsHome. 

“To abide by the law you have to follow certain rules - but if you don’t have a home or if you don’t have access to accommodation or support then it’s impossible to do that.”

He added: “I think most people would be perfectly understanding about why everyone has to have access to public support if that’s what’s needed. 

“Because at the end of the day it’s a public health response. We’re told all the time that we’re all in this together.

“We’re not asking the earth of the Government at all.

"We just want to make sure that everyone has access to basic accommodation so that they can be separate from other people, so that they can follow the guidance that we’re all following - not only in the interests of people who currently have no recourse to public funds, but it’s in everybody’s interests because that will help to stop the spread of the virus, just as all these others measures do.”

The letter to Ms Patel comes after the Liberal Democrats joined dozens of Labour MPs as well as London mayor Sadiq Khan in demanding an immediate pause to the NRPF status during the lockdown.

A government spokesperson said: "The Government is committed to supporting people through this crisis and nobody should find themselves destitute, with £1.6 billion allocated to local authorities to help the most vulnerable.

"Many of the other wide-ranging coronavirus measures we have put in place are not considered public funds and therefore are available to migrants with no recourse to public funds.

"These range from protections for renters from evictions, a mortgage holiday for those who need it, support for the employed and the self-employed and for those on zero-hour contracts, and support for those who are vulnerable and need assistance with access to medication and shopping.

"These measures all apply to people with no recourse to public funds status."

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