Kate Osamor MP: Local authorities are failing to meet their responsibilities under the Children's Act 1989
Confusion over what services people with the NRPF condition are entitled to has lead thousands of children living in extreme poverty, warns Kate Osamor MP.
The social security system helps prevent tragedy becoming disaster. The “no recourse to public funds” (NRPF) condition, however, is one of many tears in the social safety net into which children are slipping in increasing numbers. NRPF can apply to people under a range of immigration categories, including students and workers, and their spouses, who may have the right to work, but do not have access to benefits.
All children in the UK are covered by section 17 of the Children Act 1989, which places a duty on local authorities to promote the welfare of all “children in need” in their local area. However, considerable confusion over what services people with the NRPF condition are entitled to is leading to terrible suffering, including exceptional poverty and a high risk of homelessness, exploitation and abuse for thousands of children.
The stories from civil society groups trying to pick up the pieces for these families are heart-breaking. Last year, a client of Hackney-based charity Project 17 was forced to sleep in an accident and emergency department with her children because she could not understand her local council’s out of hours system, and another mother and child were forced to stay with a total stranger they met on the street.
Confusion also extends to the amount of financial support families with children under NRPF condition receive, leading to intense food and health insecurity. NRPF children often report feelings of shame, including about school packed lunches so small they are “embarrassing” and which leave them hungry because they are ineligible to free school meals.
Voluntary services regularly report NRPF families receive less than the £37.75 per person in the household per week the Home Office has set as a minimum for families in comparable circumstances. It is irresponsible for government departments and local authorities to allow support to be so uneven and unregulated, and indicates that the impact of insufficient levels of support on children’s wellbeing is not adequately recognised.
More sinister, however, are the cases of families apparently being wilfully refused the support they are entitled to. Home Office immigration officials embedded in local authorities up and down the country, uniformed and clearly identified, intimidate vulnerable people and put them off seeking support. There are also rising instances of intentional misinformation. In one London borough very recently, a mother was told the flat out lie that the council did not provide financial support to families.
Councils can make simple changes to get necessary improvements rolling. Project 17 have written a Children’s Charter, which I urge local authorities – and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government – to adopt. It is well thought through: derived from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the legal duties defined in the Children’s Act 1989, subsequent case law and from what children and young people themselves have told civil society groups about what they want and need.
Local authorities are under enormous pressure to meet the increasingly complex needs of a growing population with smaller and smaller budgets. This pressure must be alleviated and funds allocated from the enormous wealth in our country, so our most vulnerable children do not have to suffer. Councils should not be put in a position where they are breaking their legal duties, turning people in need away from their doors or allowing poor service delivery to lead to incredible poverty for young people. There is, after all, a moral calling on us all to ensure every child in our country is safe, secure and able to thrive.