A united sector must fight the hardwired immigration injustice
Sue Lukes from MigrationWork was in the team that evaluated our NRPF Project, and wrote this call to action on migrant destitution based on research by MigrationWork colleagues Elizabeth Balgobin and Alexandra Bulat.
- What is this about?
All of us, housing providers, charities, advisers, local authorities and those we serve, struggle to understand and to deal with the intertwined cost of living scandal and housing crisis facing the whole of the UK. As we do so, we find some who have no safety net at all, not even the ragged one we are trying to repair. More than a quarter of destitute households in the UK are headed by a migrant, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
One of the primary causes of this destitution is the “no recourse to public funds” (NRPF) condition. Their immigration status, or lack of it, makes them ineligible for most basic social security benefits and social housing. While the Government admits it “does not know how many families are living in the UK with NRPF or how many of those families are living in poverty,” the Oxford University Migration Observatory estimated in 2019 that almost 1.4m people have this condition attached to their immigration status, although this figure does not include asylum seekers who cannot claim benefits but may get basic housing plus an allowance of £45 per person per week.
Citizens Advice estimated that 329,000 of the people barred from accessing public funds are parents who live with their children, that most are behind with bills and rent, and some are unable to feed their families. The NRPF condition is thus forcing destitution not only on already vulnerable adults, but children too.
How did we get here? Rules restricting access to benefits and housing were first introduced in 1996, and frequently amended and often tightened since then. Some see a pattern of “trying out” measures on migrants that are later applied to all, such as benefit conditionality. The housing restrictions have, in many cases, enabled the return of the race discrimination outlawed in 1976.
The Cameron Government promoted the “hostile environment”, including checks by employers and landlords to discourage migration and force people to leave the UK from 2012 onwards. As the system became more complex, some local authorities even paid the Home Office to “embed” staff in local councils to do status checks.
The “Windrush scandal” that erupted in 2018 exposed how inhumane the Home Office, aided by many statutory, voluntary and private agencies and even individuals, had become. Many working with migrants feel that the asylum and immigration system is now in the grip of a rights and humanitarian crisis, where both access to justice and the basics of life are denied to those caught within both a hostile and increasingly dysfunctional system.
The reality is, unjust and cruel policy-making is worsening. As highlighted by an All Party Parliamentary Group in 2021, the EU withdrawal arrangements are making more people subject to the NRPF condition. The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 now imposes the no recourse condition on some refugees recognized as needing protection, while creating a ‘two-tiered’ asylum system.
At the heart of these measures is a real contradiction. A condition that was originally devised to control economic migration to the UK because “[…] it is the view of both Parliament and the Secretary of State that it is in the public interest… that persons who seek to enter or remain in the United Kingdom are financially independent” is now applied to people who, by definition, have a recognized, overwhelming need to stay in the UK, because they and often their children have made their lives here, or because they cannot be safe elsewhere. This is recognized in one area of UK migration law: some (but not all) survivors of domestic abuse with limited leave to remain are given long-term leave with no conditions attached to allow them to seek safety. But others who hoped to get settled status with all restrictions lifted within five years actually get that period lengthened to 10 years if they ask for the NRPF condition to be lifted, making them even more insecure. The government, by design, is failing migrants. When this happens, the responsibility falls on local government, the voluntary sector and our communities to step up. In 2020-21, 68 councils spent £57m supporting 3,200 households with children or vulnerable people who could not leave the UK, who were destitute with no recourse to public funds.
And that is where the housing project run by Commonweal Housing and Praxis came in.
- The Praxis/Commonweal No Recourse to Public Funds Project
Between 2015 and 2022, Commonweal Housing and Praxis ran a partnership project exploring practical housing-based options to support people with No Recourse to Public Funds. Praxis offers expert immigration advice, peer support and training to migrants. Praxis managed the homes (bought with social investment) and offered places in them to local authorities to house destitute women and children, whom they were supporting under S17 of the Children Act. Thirteen councils referred 60 women and their 93 children to the project. Staff worked with residents to regularise their status, support each other, get advice and help, and participate in ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), Praxis support groups, and training. The cross subsidy also allowed Praxis to offer some places to single women who could not get local authority support who became part of the support networks too.
The women and children in the homes got good quality housing and support, laying the basis for sorting out their immigration cases more quickly (72 had positive decisions by the time they left and families in the project averaged a year to get a decision, compared to the 552 days for those housed elsewhere). They were better able to navigate the system, understand their situation and participate as a result. The local authorities involved had places for their more difficult caseload, because of the support available. They were also paying less than the average annual cost for accommodation, which, along with the faster route to regularizing status offered by the project’s advice component, offered significant savings.
Sir Stephen Timms MP said the project showed “how combining housing and immigration advice can deliver quicker, better outcomes for families and for society.” He continued by saying “We must continue to campaign to reduce damage from NRPF, and work with voluntary groups and local authorities for sustainable and inclusive housing solutions.”
Some of the residents are now involved in the NRPF Action Group hosted by Praxis. The Living with Dignity campaign is organised by them, and aims to end No Recourse to Public Funds by addressing parts of the policy that can be addressed through targeted public campaigning and advocacy, whilst making the wider case for abolition.
Their first push, in early 2022, called on the Department for Education to permanently extend Free School Meals to all children living in poverty, regardless of their immigration status. When the Government announced in March 2022 that it would extend Free School Meals to more people with NRPF, the campaign celebrated its first victory. The next phase, ‘Stop the Waiting’, targets the need for shorter, more affordable routes to settlement.
3. Concern is building
Since the project started in 2016, working in what was then a little-known field, concern among policy-makers and experts on no recourse to public funds has been building:
- The All Party Parliamentary Group for Ending Homelessness recommended in 2018 that “The no recourse to public funds condition should not be imposed on a person who is applying for leave to remain under the family/private life rules when they have a dependent child. Care leavers and victims of domestic abuse and modern slavery should also be exempt from the condition”.
- The Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlighted the impact of NRPF in pushing many families “to the brink” in their third report on destitution in 2020.
- The Scottish Government and COSLA published their Ending Destitution Togetherstrategy in 2021 which aims “to ensure the people living in communities across Scotland do not experience destitution because of their immigration status…. prevent and mitigate destitution for people with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF).”
- The Work and Pensions Committee report Children in Poverty: No Recourse to Public Funds inquiry, Seventh Report Session 2021-2022 highlighted that allowing access to public funds could lead to societal gains, such as reducing pressures on local authorities and freeing up capacity in third sector organisations. The report recommended “that the Government undertake an analysis of whether it would be more cost effective for families with NRPF to have earlier access to the welfare system and if so, the Government should bring forward proposals along these lines.”
- In 2021, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee of the House of Commons noted “If the Government is serious about meeting its manifesto commitment to end rough sleeping by 2024, it must reform the no recourse to public funds policy”.
- A partnership approach with funding from the Greater London Authority and central government, and support from Citizens UK, enabled Olive Morris Court in Haringey to launch in October 2021. The single person modular units are furnished for immediate occupancy, support includes an immigration adviser employed 4 days a week alongside specialist housing support to tackle the issues that led to homelessness. Tenants are supported as they move on to permanent accommodation. A small number of units are ‘rent free’ for people with NRPF.
- The Greater London Authority and London School of Economics published Social Cost Benefit Analysis of the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) policy in London in 2022 which looked at relaxing NRPF conditions or a complete end to NRPF. “Lifting NRPF conditions for those with limited leave to remain would result in a positive net present value of £428 million over a 10-year period …. while lifting NRPF conditions for families with children and other vulnerable individuals would result in an overall net present value of £872 million analysed over a 10-year period.” While not all of these social gains could be monetised, the implication is that they would at least free up resources for all communities.
The acceleration of interest more recently is not a coincidence: the pandemic demonstrated that the forced destitution of already potentially marginalised members of our communities was not just inhumane and expensive, it was also a public health risk.
The first glimpse of the later win on free school meals came in April 2020 when many families with no recourse were given access to them. But more significantly, at the outset the Government announced it was to spend over £100m on “Everyone In”, to bring all rough sleepers, whatever their immigration status, in off the streets and into decent accommodation. It trusted local authorities to do this, and funded the process adequately, and local authorities drew on voluntary and community resources to deliver. Many of those brought in were then able to access decent immigration advice, resolve their immigration problems and move on into a more settled life, just as those housed by the Praxis/Commonweal project had.
We have, however, moved from that crisis to several more.
“The cost-of-living crises will put additional pressure on non-statutory services working in the community to reduce poverty (as is widely reported). For parents who are not in receipt of S17 support and who have NRPF, the pressures on household finance will be ever more significant.” (Henry St Clair Miller, NRPF Network Manager, Islington Council)
As our communities deal with benefit reductions, higher bills, an unregulated labour market, increases in childcare costs, continuing rent increases, how can we ensure that those who don’t even have benefits or access to social housing stay at the centre of what we do?
- Can we end “no recourse”?
It is increasingly clear that a policy of enforced destitution has no place in a humane society, or even in the toolkit of decent immigration controls. If we want to end rough sleeping, deal with overcrowding, ensure that children have a decent chance in life, to take just three examples of how we make our communities happier, more resilient and safer, abolition of the no recourse rule must be part of our efforts. As Praxis says:
“Housing solutions … can be a big help to those who are facing destitution – and there’s lots to be learned by practitioners and policymakers about these models specifically. However, such models won’t ever solve the problem while the NRPF policy persists, so…Policy change is essential. Abolition of NRPF is the ultimate aim. Absent that, there’s scope for incremental change … that will improve the lives of some affected by NRPF.”
For many involved in housing, however, such incremental changes within a wider campaign for abolition are not just much needed ways to improve people’s lives, they also enable us to engage with those directly affected by the no recourse rule, and start the difficult process of co-producing solutions with them. This is what Praxis found and did. And putting a roof over their heads, providing some stability and a base from which to grow, is essential for that.
Baroness Lister of Burtersett echoes this sentiment, “With COVID and the cost of living crisis, the need for support is constantly growing. We must continue testing innovative models such as that of Commonweal and Praxis in search of sustainable solutions to end the injustice of NRPF and its negative impacts on children, families, and our community cohesion.”
There are opportunities. The Homes for Cathy network is a national group of housing associations and charities working together to end homelessness formed in 2016. It now has 116 members managing over 1.34m homes. Members sign up to nine commitments, one of which is “to contribute to ending migrant homelessness in the areas housing associations operate”. How can associations do this? By:
- agreeing a small percentage of vacancies to be allocated to people with no recourse, working in partnership with local authorities and third sector organisations to assign them to those supported by them
- ensuring that skilled immigration advice is part of any support offer for residents
- opening discussions with investors, especially social investors, about options for developing projects based on the Praxis/Commonweal model in their area
- contacting the No Accommodation Network to find out how they can help, with housing management, funding, accommodation
- signing up and showing up to campaigns to end no recourse
Local authorities can similarly keep their eyes on the prize of the significant social gains that could come from the abolition of no recourse, making that case heard clearly through local government associations, national political channels and any other forums and joining and supporting the NRPF Network. Locally they can bring together the actors that can make a difference to destitute migrant residents: housing providers, immigration advice agencies, migrant organisations and community leaders to work on improving services to migrants and co-producing new initiatives and priorities.
All of us that are campaigning for a fairer immigration system need to get on message: no recourse is unacceptable, forced destitution has no part of immigration policy any more than forced immiseration has in any social policy. Showing how we can mitigate against the effects of these policies has the dual benefit of exposing how appalling the policies are and also busting some of the myths about migrants and benefits.
By housing and engaging with migrants subjected to this abuse, housing providers can support them, work with them, amplify their voices, and stand for their right to dignity and participation. It is time to come together and build those pathways out of destitution.