A Lifeline for All
There are thousands of children in the UK facing deep, long-term poverty because of strict immigration rules, which mean their families cannot access mainstream benefits or vital support, even in a crisis.
In this report we focus on the experiences of families who are affected by NRPF conditions and make a series of recommendations for policy, practice and further research.
Strict immigration rules
Immigration and poverty
Living in poverty has significant detrimental effects on children’s outcomes, both in childhood and later in life. Living on low income negatively affects children’s school attainment, cognitive and behavioural development, and their physical and mental health, even for short periods of time.
Children in recent migrant families and those with foreign-born parents are at a higher risk of poverty, with almost half of children with foreign-born parents in the UK living in poverty. In fact, children with foreign-born parents make up a quarter of all children in the UK who are in poverty.
Research from NGOs and academics in recent years has looked at how immigration policies in the UK, which restrict children and families’ access to mainstream benefits and vital support and services, contribute to children’s experiences of poverty and destitution.
What is No Recourse for Public Funds?
One of the drivers of poverty in modern-day Britain for children in migrant families is the fact that regardless of need or level of income, children, young people and their families are prevented from applying for welfare benefits because of their parents' immigration status or because of conditions placed on their stay in the UK and their ability to settle .
These are commonly referred to as ‘no recourse to public funds’ or NRPF conditions. It is government policy to apply the NRPF condition to ‘the leave of most migrants in the UK as a legitimate means of maintaining and protecting our economic resources’.
But as the NRPF Network has argued: ‘the imposition of the NRPF condition on families with dependent children gives rise to child poverty and hinders the integration of families who are entitled to settle in the UK permanently’.
This means that even in times of crisis, such as becoming unemployed, fleeing domestic abuse, becoming ill or following the death of a family member, children and families who have ‘no recourse to public funds’ cannot apply to access the vital safety net of the benefits system to get them back on their feet.
The benefits system itself is already highly restricted, and is means-tested and limited to those who need help the most. But if you are an individual or family with ‘no recourse to public funds’ you are prevented from the social security safety net altogether, regardless of your low income or need. This means you cannot access most benefits like housing benefit, Child Benefit, Universal Credit, Free School Meals, Disability Living Allowance, tax credits, Local Welfare Assistance Schemes, and many other vital support provisions for those facing a financial crisis, disadvantage or with additional needs. Families may be eligible for contribution-based benefits as these are not considered to be public funds but depend on contributions through National Insurance and other eligibility criteria.
Sabryna is a single mother from Jamaica with a British child and she has been in the UK for over 17 years. When we spoke to her for this report, she was on her third tranche of leave to remain for two and a half years so had at least four and a half years to go until she could settle, even though she has a British child and this is their home.
Each time she was granted leave to remain – three times – the ‘no recourse to public funds’ condition was reapplied and she had to spend time and money getting legal support to have the conditions lifted. She told us that despite being a single mum, she has worked since she received her work permit and has tried to work all the hours necessary, but without recourse to public funds she really struggled.
She didn’t think that the Home Office took her or her child’s circumstances into account: “you see that all documented down and yet you turn around and go: “oh, you know what, this is a single mum, she’s struggling, but I’m not going to give her public funds anyway, I’m not going to give her access to [support]. I’m just going to let her and her family suffer” it doesn’t add up”.
The cumulative effects of the NRPF conditions, cuts to legal aid, the fees and the ten-year route have had a significant impact on Sabryna and her child. Living on low income means that, every two and a half years, Sabryna has been forced to borrow money from her friends and to take out loans to pay for Home Office applications.
Our report finds that ‘no recourse to public funds’ and other immigration policies are leaving thousands of children growing up in long-term poverty, trapped in cycles of homelessness, destitution and mounting debt and segregated from their communities and peers. Punitive Home Office restrictions hit families on low income most severely and are compounded by other disadvantages such as having a family member with a disability, being a single parent or being an ethnic minority
- Most of the families we spoke to told us that while they had NRPF, they struggled to meet their children’s even most basic needs, such as paying for food or buying school uniforms, and paying rent and utility bills. For those with additional needs, NRPF conditions mean they are prohibited from applying for Disability Living Allowance or Personal Independence Payments. Although some temporary measures have been implemented during the Covid-19 crisis as a result of litigation, generally families with NRPF cannot access benefits-based Free School Meals (FSMs) for their children and at the time of our interviews parents spoke about the difficulties they faced not having access to this vital support, which can cost families over £400 per year per child.
- Most families we spoke to experienced street homelessness, were forced to sleep on the sofa or floors with friends or other families, or lived in precarious, unstable and unsafe private rented accommodation. This caused parents great anxiety and fear, and made them vulnerable to exploitation. Living in temporary or cramped accommodation and experiencing frequent moves took a heavy toll on children’s wellbeing, particularly where children had additional needs. The transience, noise, uncertainty and unfamiliarity of temporary accommodation meant that some families had to spend all their time out in parks to manage their child’s behaviour and help them to feel comfortable and settled.
- Most of the families we interviewed (8 out of 11) were headed by single mothers and many had children with additional needs, such as autism. Our analysis suggests that most of the families struggling with NRPF conditions are households where parents are of African, Asian and Caribbean nationalities, predominantly from former British colonies. However, the children themselves are often British citizens, were born or raised here, and have only ever known the UK as their home. These families are likely to face other forms of discrimination, marginalisation and exclusion, in addition to the systematic exclusion from social security support brought about by NRPF conditions.
- Despite working as much as they could – one father worked 90-hour weeks – and often in key jobs like NHS staff, care workers, cleaners or in food preparation, without the ability to apply for top-up benefits or vital childcare support, their income alone was not enough. This was particularly difficult for single parents whose income was considerably lower: they could not get top-up benefits to support their income and needed to work on zero-hours contracts and in flexible jobs to be able to take care of their children, especially when children had additional learning needs as they were ineligible for vital support like Disability Living Allowance (DLA), which they were able to access when NRPF conditions were lifted. It’s important to note that families where parents are working in key worker frontline roles and who will not have the benefits safety net to fall back on will also be at far greater risk of contracting Covid-19.
- Families who are destitute and cannot access mainstream benefits, may be able to access support under Section 17 Children Act 1989, which is often the only safety net available. Data from the NRPF Network showed that 8,117 families with at least 16,331 dependents were supported by local authorities under Children Act provision between 2015 and 2019 in England and Scotland12 . While many of the families we spoke to eventually received support from local authorities, some experienced ‘gatekeeping’ measures and were turned away before getting support. One mum, who had fled domestic abuse, was told that her child would be taken into care if she didn’t have a place to stay, which left her feeling shattered.
- Other families received good support from social services and had strong advocates on their side. This was critical in protecting families from becoming street-homeless and providing them with some financial support. Even so, the subsistence provided by cash-strapped authorities was often very limited – under £3 per child per day – making it impossible to meet children’s welfare needs. This is echoed by other research (Dexter et al., 2016; Jolly, 2019; Price & Spencer, 2015). Without central access to mainstream benefits and other mechanisms, the support provided to families is likely to be greatly exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis as need increases.
- Despite the deep and persistent poverty that families faced, they were still expected to pay thousands of pounds in increasing Home Office application fees and the Immigration Health Surcharge every 2.5 years over ten years to be allowed to settle. A single mum with two children, who has no access to top-up benefits, child benefit or housing benefit, would have to pay over £23,000 altogether over ten years to be allowed to settle if she started her settlement journey in 2012. A family of five – two parents and three children – would have to pay over £39,000 over the same ten-year period.
- Unsurprisingly many of the families we spoke to were forced to take on debts or borrow from friends to pay for these fees, or risked overstaying and becoming undocumented. One single mum who had lived in the UK for 17 years, had a British child and has always worked in social care – including in nursing homes and for the NHS – was forced to take out multiple payday loans and had accrued debts of £15,000. She described herself as feeling trapped in an endless cycle of debt and borrowing. Children and young people’s own lived experiences of destitution, Home Office fees, the ten-year route and the hardship they face are well documented in other research.
- There is no publicly available data on how many children and families are currently living in the UK without recourse to public funds as a result of conditions attached to their leave. However, given that the government’s intention is to generally apply NRPF conditions to most migrants (House of Commons, 2020) until they settle, we can assume that most of those who have some form of temporary status in the UK – limited leave to remain or a visa – will have no recourse to public funds. Migration Observatory figures obtained from the Home Office show there were 142,496 children under 18 and 1,002,091 adults who had leave to remain in the UK at 31st December 2016.
- Of course, not all children in migrant families are living in poverty or indeed would meet the strict eligibility criteria of mainstream benefits if they were to apply. However, the blanket restrictions mean that even in times of crisis, they are prevented from applying. What the Migration Observatory analysis of those with leave to remain and the GLA estimates on undocumented children living in the UK highlight is that there are potentially hundreds of thousands of children and adults who have no access to the welfare benefits lifeline, regardless of their needs or the poverty and deprivation they experience.