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No recourse – no hope?

No recourse – no hope?
7 min read

Hundreds of thousands of people in the UK are affected by a Home Office policy denying them access to welfare. Most Black or from minority ethnic backgrounds; many have British-born children; and most are living below the poverty line.

“I will find out how many there are in that position, and we will see what we can do to help.” 

These were the words of Boris Johnson in May 2020 when asked about the hardship facing those in the United Kingdom with a “no recourse to public funds” (NRPF) condition on their visa. His apparent unawareness of NRPF caused a degree of shock, but many MPs and charities were quietly hopeful the Prime Minister’s admission was genuine and could mark a turning point with this Home Office policy. 

Almost two years on, however, the number of people with a NRPF condition continues to rise, with thousands of children and adults living in deep and sustained poverty, unable to afford basic living supplies and finding themselves barred from accessing housing and welfare support.

Stephen Timms, Labour MP and chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, asked the question in a meeting of the Liaison Committee in 2020 that prompted the pledge from the Prime Minister to investigate the issue. 

“I pointed out … that hard-working, law-abiding families whose work had ended because of lockdown were, if no recourse to public funds was a condition of their immigration status, being driven into destitution … The consequence of the NRPF condition was that no support of any kind was offered,” Timms tells The House.

It is a common misconception that the NRPF condition is applied only to individuals without a legal right to be in the UK. In fact, since 2012 the majority of migrants with a legal right to live and work in the UK are subject to this restriction, meaning they are unable to access state support until they have obtained indefinite leave to remain – a status which can take up to 10 years. 

The Home Office argues the condition is necessary to reduce the burden on public funds. Critics and charities say the restriction impacts British children, and those in work and paying taxes in the UK. 

This will mean more children facing homelessness, hunger and uncertain futures

The Home Office does not collect data on how many the restriction affects, but estimates from the Migration Observatory and The Children’s Society put the number at more than a million, including almost 150,000 children – many of whom were born in the UK and are British citizens. 

Speaking to The House, Azmina Siddique, policy and impact manager at The Children’s Society, says: “It is unacceptable that thousands of children from low-income migrant families are facing extreme poverty in the UK because the NRPF immigration condition prevents their families from accessing the welfare safety net. The Children’s Society believes the government should end the NRPF policy or, at the very least, not apply it to families with children under 18.”

Staff at Surrey Square primary school in south London estimate they have 24 pupils impacted by NRPF. They attempt to support these families through advice, referring them to agencies that can help, and often by directly sourcing clothing, food, bedding, beds and other furniture when needed.

Despite this effort, however, the inequality created by the Home Office policy is stark. “What it affects most of all is their [children’s] sense of belonging and their sense of being worth something,” Fiona Carrick-Davies, family and community co-ordinator for Surrey Square, tells The House.

“We’ve had families sleeping on buses, in police stations; a family who lived on a church hall floor for about a year … The ordinary mechanisms that are used for children facing homelessness in this country aren’t always used for children with no recourse to public funds, unless you really push for it.”

In 2020 the High Court ruled the NRPF policy breached Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, preventing inhuman or degrading treatment. In April 2021, the High Court again ruled the policy was unlawful as it breached the government’s statutory duty to safeguard and protect the welfare of children. 

These legal challenges were supported by The Unity Project, a charity established to help those facing destitution because of NRPF. Despite the policy being found to be unlawful, the Home Office has not withdrawn it, and The Unity Project tells The House it continues to see destitute families.
“Despite piecemeal changes and several ‘reviews’ over the past few years, a family with NRPF still faces all the same fundamental challenges as ever, and – in the aftershock of the pandemic – the economic context is even harder,” a spokesperson says.

In September 2020, as part of its Windrush Lessons Learned Review, the Home Office undertook to review its hostile environment policies, including the public funds stream. In its improvement plan, the Home Office stresses: “Transparency and engagement will remain at the heart of our approach throughout this process. This will include structured engagement with a wide range of groups to inform its findings.” 

“I have, however, seen no sign of this work having taken place over the last 18 months,” Timms tells The House.

There is also concern the NRPF condition discriminates against people with protected characteristics. Research from The Unity Project shows women, people with disabilities, and British children from ethnic minority – mostly Black – backgrounds, are disproportionately affected by the visa condition and more likely to face destitution.

A spokesperson for the Home Office tells The House an individual’s NRPF condition can be lifted if there are “particularly compelling reasons” – such as destitution – to do so. 

“There are safeguards in place to ensure vulnerable migrants who are destitute and have other needs, such as supporting children, can receive help and can also apply to have the conditions lifted.”

Campaigners and charities argue this change of condition (CoC) application is problematic, however, and in some cases acts as a barrier rather than a safeguard. For instance, applicants are often forced to show they are already destitute before the condition is lifted, and the evidence threshold applied can be extremely high.

Caz Hattam is a project co-ordinator for The Unity Project. She tells The House: “The CoC application is not a sufficient safeguard. The application is burdensome, slow, and only a fraction of people affected by NRPF can apply. 

“Often, the more difficult your situation, the more difficult it is to evidence; providing the requested documents is often impossible for people who are in precarious situations, have exploitative landlords or employers, or are in abusive relationships.” 

Moreover, in cases where the NRPF condition is lifted, many families and individuals find themselves struggling to pay insurmountable levels of debt accrued as a consequence of being barred from accessing state support. 

Project17 is a leading charity for migrant children. Speaking to The House, a spokesperson warns the crises facing families will get worse if the policy is not overturned. In particular, there is concern that proposals in the Nationality and Borders Bill will apply NRPF to a larger swathe of people, including asylum seekers who are granted temporary protection status.  

“The Nationality and Borders Bill will plunge more people into destitution by increasing the number of people with no recourse to public funds. More people will need to seek help from local authorities because they are excluded from the usual safety nets, increasing the strain on councils’ already stretched social services budgets.”

The Children’s Society is also clear the Nationality and Borders Bill, set to pass shortly, will make the situation worse. “This will mean more children facing homelessness, hunger and uncertain futures,” a spokesperson insists. 

NRPF is still being examined by parliamentarians, with the Work and Pensions Select Committee aiming to publish a report into the policy’s impact on child poverty before the Easter recess.

However, the momentum generated during the pandemic appears to have slowed and the government shows little sign of scrapping this controversial policy. 

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