The UK Migrant Benefit Ban leaves women and children to fall through the cracks

This article has been written by Michael Noone who is a correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service.

No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) is a condition attached to most UK migrants’ Leave to Remain immigration status and means that up until the applicant can meet the requirements for Indefinite Leave to Remain or British Citizenship (which can take as long as ten years), they are prohibited from accessing public funds. The benefits ban excludes them from all welfare schemes, including Universal Credit, child tax credits, carers’ allowance, social housing and free school meals for children.

At a parliamentary committee hearing on Wednesday 27 May, MP for East Ham Stephen Timms recounted the struggles of a migrant couple from his constituency. The husband had been stripped of his job due to COVID-19, and his wife’s income was less than their monthly rent. Timms informed the Prime Minister that, with ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ (NRPF) stamped on their visas, the couple was on the brink of destitution and their two children, both born in the UK, were at high risk.

Astonishingly, the Prime Minister seemed to have no idea what NRPF really was. NRPF was a New Labour policy, extended by Theresa May in 2012, and has been discussed and debated hundreds of times during Johnson’s tenure as a serving MP, including over 80 times since he became Prime Minister. A policy which is already negatively impacting the lives of around 100,000 children, most of whom were born in the UK, should be one on which the PM has passing knowledge? After he was informed about the policy, Johnson promised to “find out how many there are in that position” and what the Government could do to help.

Johnson’s response elicited hopes of a swift reversal of the cruel measure. However, those hopes were quickly extinguished. When asked about the possibility of dropping the restrictions any time soon, Home Secretary Priti Patel said, “the answer is no”.

It’s estimated that this so-called ‘benefits ban’ impacts over a million adults in the UK, and around 143,000 children. And yet the Home Office fails to recognise the hardship facilitated by NRPF and its disproportionate impact on migrant women.

Impact of NRPF on single mothers

A 2019 study by the Unity Project examined the cost of the No Recourse to Public Funds policy. The findings showed that women are more likely to be single parents and, without access to free public childcare schemes afforded to disadvantaged families, are often unable to enter full-time employment. Women are therefore more likely than men to become trapped in underemployment, total unemployment, or low-paid work which pushes them to the brink of destitution. Pregnancy care and postnatal aid are among the services protected by the 2010 Equality Act, but NRPF means new mothers are affected disproportionately by the measures. Even those in receipt of Statutory Maternity Pay struggle to make ends meet; without welfare support, the study found pregnant migrant women are engaging in work for longer – both before and after giving birth – to avoid significant wage losses.

Domestic abuse survivors struggle for support

Troublingly, women impacted by NRPF restrictions find it difficult, often impossible, to access domestic abuse support services. Women are significantly more likely to suffer abuse in the home, and the study showed that women with NRPF are more likely to suffer violence than those with British citizenship. While the Office for National Statistics estimate that 7.5% of British women experienced domestic abuse in 2017, the Unity Project found 23% of women with NRPF are subjected to abuse and violence. Further studies by Southall Black Sisters and Women’s Aid find that migrant women are at an increased risk of all forms of abuse, including familial and honour-based violence, sexual violence, economic exploitation and harmful practices like female genital mutilation. The evidence suggests that migrant women are at a heightened risk due to a combination of structural factors such as a lack of supporting services, language barriers and reluctance to come forward because of their immigration.

Yet to flee violence and access temporary aid, migrant women must jump through hoops and provide a mountain of paperwork to the Home Office to prove that they have become victims. This stringent red tape has only resulted in survivors remaining with their abusive partners, trapped in a vicious cycle afraid of their partner yet equally afraid of deportation. And this escape route is only applicable to women in the UK with a Spouse or Partner Visa: undocumented women, students and women with UK work permits are prohibited from seeking support available under the Destitute Domestic Violence Concession.

The impact of domestic violence on any woman is devastating, but for migrant women, the dual oppression of violence and lack of access to help can be lethal. Language barriers and shattered confidence impair the ability of some to approach the limited help they have at their disposal. And without public funds, migrant women are often turned away from refuges where spaces are limited and often funded by the public purse. To add insult to injury, the most recent Domestic Abuse Bill fails to recognise the lack of support available to migrant victims.

Women at the mercy of the ‘postcode lottery’

Along similar lines, survivors of human trafficking and modern slavery find themselves with a mountain to climb to escape destitution while coping with the physical and emotional scars of their ordeal. Half of the trafficking survivors were refused asylum support in the UK between 2015 and 2017, perpetuating the cycle of exploitation. Instead of accessing public funds, trafficking and slavery survivors fall victim to the UK’s National Referral Mechanism (NRM) and, by extension, the ‘postcode lottery’ as many local councils simply lack the resources to properly provide aid.

In the eyes of many, NRPF feeds into the overtly “hostile environment” policy the Government has been creating in the past decade . The human touch is provided by the victims of such a harsh policy and is lacking in the implementors. This is possibly best reflected in the remarkable story of an eight-year-old boy who took his case to the high court, arguing that the Home Office’s NRPF policy increased the risk of families like his becoming destitute and heightened public health risks during COVID-19 by forcing people into overcrowded accommodation or on to the streets. The unnamed boy and his lawyers won the case, with the court ruling that the denial of families like his to the welfare state is unlawful.

New NRPF guidance notes

As a result of the case, the Home Office amended its guidance, lifting NRPF from vulnerable families who are ‘destitute’ or who are ‘at risk of imminent destitution without recourse to public funds.’

However, it still doesn’t go far enough to protect some of society’s most vulnerable people as only those with a Family Visa may apply for an exemption to NRPF – and there is little confidence that local authorities will take notice. Whenever access to financial aid falls in the hands of local councils, as exemplified by the National Referral Mechanism for trafficking victims and Section 17 – the latter of which obliges authorities to provide welfare for children in their jurisdiction, yet 6 in 10 families are turned away – it is evident that vulnerable people fall through the cracks. As such, this tweak to the NRPF condition in the immigration rules is not the revolutionary change campaigners have been hoping for.

It seems difficult to present an argument for keeping the current rules in place. Surely the most appropriate course of action for the government would be to abandon NRPF entirely and allow individuals and families with children who have settled in this country  to access public funding in the same was as other Britons do. By allowing women and children to teeter towards the brink of destitution, with all the perils that entails, before considering allowing them access to welfare aid is a cruel, Russian-roulette style policy which serves only to remind us that the government are creating a hostile environment which batters and bullies migrant women.