Several recent reports have drawn attention to the growing problem of child poverty, hunger and destitution in the UK, during the pandemic and before. The Children’s Society’s report at the start of the pandemic highlighted that among those experiencing destitution and deep, prolonged poverty in the UK will be hundreds of thousands of children – overwhelmingly ethnic minorities – who have ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF).
The NRPF policy applies a blanket ban on access to most income-based benefits like Child Benefit and Universal Credit which means that children and families have no access to the benefits safety net, regardless of need or income. The policy has continued throughout the pandemic. NPRF conditions affect most children whose families arrived from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) and live in the UK on a visa or have ‘leave to remain’ here and whose homes are here. According to the Migration Observatory, at the end of 2019, over 175,000 children had this status. In addition, anyone whose immigration status is precarious including an estimated 215,000 undocumented children also have no access to benefits. These numbers do not include children with British citizenship but who are affected by their parents’ status.
While the government has temporarily granted access to Free School Meals (FSM) for some children in these cases, the NRPF policy continues to lock families out of vital provisions like Universal Credit, Housing Benefit, Tax Credits and Child Benefit. This affects their income and their ability to provide essentials for their children as well as to protect them from debt and homelessness. Undocumented children still cannot access even FSMs.
Families excluded from the safety net
The Home Office has begun to publish data about those at the extreme end of hardship – facing destitution – who may be able to get the NRPF condition lifted. In July, the government published data on ‘Change of Conditions’ applications showing the numbers of individuals who had applied to have the NRPF condition lifted. This revealed a significant jump – 568% – in the number of applications received at the beginning of the pandemic, from Q1 to Q2 of 2020 (though this has fallen in Q3). Since March, frontline services have seen a rise in families affected by NRPF restrictions seeking support, including those who had not applied previously.
The latest Home Office data show that a quarter of applicants and dependents (25% in Q3, 2020) who applied to get recourse to public funds were children under 18.
Figure 1: Analysis of Home Office UK Visa and Immigration Transparency Data Q3 2020 – CoC_02
Previous research has highlighted the high risk of poverty among children with foreign-born parents. CASE research prior to the pandemic highlighted that almost half of children in migrant families who have been in the UK for 10 years or less were on relative low income after housing costs (48.3% for non-EEA and 44.9% for EEA origins). This compares to 26.9% of children in UK-born/long-term resident families. This suggests that many more families will be struggling on low income but will not meet the destitution threshold to get the NRPF condition lifted and apply for vital benefits.
Through its frontline services, The Children’s Society is aware that despite living on extremely low incomes, many families fear requesting access to public funds in case this would jeopardise future applications to remain in the UK. Many more will be unaware that this is even an option. For those on the shorter five-year route to settlement, applying for recourse to public funds would mean switching to the longer, more costly ten-year route.
Waiting to get help
Decisions for ‘Change of Conditions’ applications can take many weeks: those applying between April and June had to wait on average 45 days to get a decision. The data for July-September suggest this may have fallen to 17 days (though not all records for this period have been counted). Even so, this still leaves families waiting over two weeks on average to get the NRPF condition lifted in addition to the time needed to apply and wait for benefits to kick in. This leaves some families destitute, reliant on food banks and charities, and falling into arrears on rent and bills for months, with damaging consequences for their children’s welfare.
As most applications to grant recourse to public funds – 85% in Q3 – were successful, the purpose of the mechanism is questionable. Is it really necessary to force families to submit administrative applications, and wait longer for vital support during these difficult times?
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the precariousness of daily life for thousands of families without access to public funds. The founding principles behind NRPF are to ‘reduce burdens on the taxpayer’, ‘promote integration’ and ‘tackle abuse’, yet the effectiveness of this policy is increasingly being called into question.
Parliamentarians have argued that whilst the policy might save one Government department money, it shifts the financial burden onto other departments, local authorities and civil society. Research shows that the policy disproportionately affects families with dependent children, women of colour, single mothers and those with additional needs – indeed those already more likely to be in poverty.
There is a strong argument, backed by the Home Affairs Select Committee and the Local Government Association, for suspending NRPF. At the very least the government should be improving interim financial support to families and reducing the waiting times to have NRPF lifted.
This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.