Lord Bishop of Durham: Local authorities must uphold the rights of child victims of the hostile environment
Despite having a duty to protect their welfare, overstretched local authorities are failing children whose parents are subject to hostile immigration policies, says the Lord Bishop of Durham
Project 17’s report Not Seen, Not Heard outlines how vulnerable children are trapped in destitution, caught between hostile immigration policies and overstretched Local Authorities. These are children whose families have No Recourse to Public Funds because of their immigration status. And yet, these children also struggle to access the support that Local Authorities have a duty to provide.
No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) affects anyone who is a ‘person subject to immigration control’, i.e. a non-EEA national who:
• has leave to remain, but subject to a NRPF restriction;
• has leave to remain given as a result of a maintenance undertaking;
• needs leave to remain, but does not have it; or
• in some cases, is appealing a refusal to vary their leave.
Those with NRPF cannot access many benefits or social housing. Section 17 of the 1989 Children Act commits Local Authorities to protecting the welfare of children ‘in need’ but the report found that they are often failing children.
Joel, aged 9, told Project 17 of having to sleep in A&E and McDonalds: “They would say we have to sleep where the people wait but it’s just like lights and there is nothing colourful there. The chairs were hard. You know when you just sleep in the waiting room? I felt sorry for my mum because she had to stay up and my head had to be on her lap. She had to stay awake, her eyes were open like 24/7, all night and all day so she could watch over me. It was hard for her but also hard for me.”
The report found he was not alone in having been left street homeless by a Local Authority. Where accommodation is provided, Project 17 note it was often unsuitable.
Amir, aged 8, spoke of being made to feel like “I committed a crime” and “intimidated”. Project 17 found wider evidence of local authorities failing to follow statutory guidance – as well as Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – in not prioritising the voice of the child. Joel and Amir are just two of the voices and experiences the report brings together to tell this worrying story.
The interaction of immigration enforcement and welfare provision is never going to be simple. However, this report indicates that the relationship is currently malfunctioning. While difficult trade-offs are inevitable in this policy area, I refuse to believe that we are currently anywhere near a fair arrangement.
Part of the solution might lie in simplifying our approach. While identifying the best approach to those families with irregular status will be difficult, it does seem strange that anyone would be granted Leave to Remain with NRPF stipulated. If you are legally here, you are legally here. We should have robust qualifying criteria for granting Leave to Remain by all means. However, welcoming people and benefitting from their contribution should also mean a commitment to support them when they fall on hard times. Of particular concern are reports of those here on human rights grounds having No Recourse to Public Funds.
Regardless of whether No Recourse to Public Fund can be reformed in this way, it is clear that more must be done by and for Local Authorities, so that the rights of all children are upheld. Project 17’s report offers various recommendations to that end. For example, I hope colleagues from both houses will join me in calling for Local Authorities to sign up to Project 17’s Children’s Charter, committing themselves to a child-centred approach when dealing with families in this situation.
I look forward to discussing these recommendations and other possible solutions with colleagues on 9th July. It is clear that our next Prime Minister will bring a new approach to immigration. I hope that the architects of our future immigration system are listening to the voices in this report.
The Lord Bishop of Durham is a Non-Affiliated peer