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Children Act 1989: Local Authority Responsibilities

Volume 656: debated on Tuesday 19 March 2019

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jo Churchill.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this pertinent issue. The “no recourse to public funds” condition applies to people who have arrived in the UK in a range of immigration categories, including students and workers and their spouses, who may have the right to work but not to access benefits. There is considerable confusion over what services people with no recourse to public funds are entitled to, which has led to terrible suffering for both adults and children, including many British-born children, who fall through the net of Home Office and local government support.

It was interesting that I was met with departmental confusion simply in trying to secure this debate. Over the past few days, the Department for Education, the Home Office and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government were each in turn named as the Department that would to respond to this debate, and I fear that that speaks to the profound confusion around accountability—namely, which body or institution is responsible for assisting those who have no recourse to public funds.

The hon. Lady has secured an important Adjournment debate. Does she agree that the biggest duty of care we owe is to children who rely solely on the state to look after them? All local authorities must understand that that duty includes considering historical cases to ascertain the safety of children in foster care. More than just the bare minimum, that duty means taking responsibility for the welfare of a child who has no one else in their corner, and it is essential that all local authorities understand that. I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this important matter forward for debate. Let us get it right.

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who makes a valuable point. I will go on to express similar concerns around the responsibility for looking after such children and the fact that many children have been and are being failed.

Local authorities, in practice, and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, on a strategic level, need to get a better grip on the issue and take responsibility for the people affected. The picture is currently bleak, but the legislation is very clear. Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 provides a general duty on local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of all children in need in their local area. This means that local authorities must do whatever possible to ensure sufficient services and measures are in place where a child’s health or development is not being achieved or maintained, or where it is being diminished.

This support is not considered a public fund and includes accommodation, subsistence and help for children with additional needs, such as a disability. For many destitute migrant families, section 17 support is their only opportunity to feed themselves and put a roof over their head. One of the last comprehensive national studies of children from families with no recourse to public funds receiving section 17 support was in 2015, when an estimated 6,000 children were receiving such support.

I tabled a written question on 12 December 2018 asking the Home Office whether it had any up-to-date data on children in need with no recourse to public funds, based on applications showing a change in their parents’ circumstances. I received a response from the Minister for Immigration on 20 December stating that no ideal data was being held “entitled ‘Change of Conditions’.” I used that wording in my question, and maybe it is not correct, but I was trying to ascertain the data for people whose circumstances have changed. I was told:

“Answering this question would require manual inspection of all family and private life leave to remain applications within the date range. This would incur disproportionate cost to the public purse.”

When we are talking about the livelihoods of young children, I would hope the public purse could extend to ensuring that we are looking after those children.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. As well as children, other people in vulnerable situations are being missed in this system. My constituent fled domestic violence elsewhere in the UK, and she found herself being turned away from several shelters. It was only through the diligence of my caseworker that a local charity, Ubuntu, found somewhere for that young woman to go.

Does my hon. Friend agree that a wide range of people could be affected by this lack of recourse to public funds?

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. A multitude of people are getting caught in this trap of destitution including, as he clearly spells out, people experiencing domestic violence, which is even more complex. Those people need more support—immediate support—and, in many cases, they need to be made safe. I am grateful for his input and, more importantly, for the civil society group he mentions. I will mention other civil society groups that are doing fantastic work in picking up the public purse and doing the work that the Government are not doing, about which I am quite aggrieved.

North Lanarkshire Council runs Club 365 so that no child in North Lanarkshire goes hungry. Every child has a meal available every day during the holidays and weekends. It is a great scheme, and other councils should follow that lead.

I thank my hon. Friend for that valuable point, from which we learn that not all councils are failing to meet their responsibilities. We have to ensure that such work goes across all councils, rather than being ad hoc, which is unfortunately the case at the moment.

A freedom of information request has shown that 980 individuals with dependants were given a no recourse to public funds condition in 2016-17. The figure grew to 2,100 in the next financial year, and it continues to rise. Between April and December 2018, the figure went up to 3,405.

A child’s immigration status should not be affected by their parents’ immigration status. It is upsetting that because of their parents’ immigration status, a child born in this country can be denied access to benefits, to their wants and needs, and to the comforts they desire. Despite statutory guidance stating that local authorities have a duty to ascertain the wishes and feelings of children and take them into account when planning provision, according to the Children’s Society, in 2015 six in 10 families with no recourse to public funds who applied for section 17 support were not supported by their local council.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech in favour of some of the weakest and most vulnerable people in our communities. This is a particularly urgent issue in Glasgow, where the Home Office tried to force contractors such as Serco to enforce a move-on policy. It was actually forcing people out of their homes if their asylum application failed. Many of those people had no recourse to public funds.

We are talking about the risk of mass destitution. Is that not just another example of how the Government’s hostile environment has permutations that affect the weakest people in society, even among our communities? Councils often do not have the funds, after years of cuts, to step in immediately and fill that gap.

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. I will go on to discuss the hostile environment and its impact on the most vulnerable in society.

Project 17, an east London-based charity that I have been working with, works closely with families who have no recourse to public funds. Its recent report, “Not Seen, Not Heard”, documents the experiences of children living under this condition—I call it a “condition” deliberately. In 2018, four of the eight families living in Enfield who attended Project 17—my constituency of Edmonton is in the borough of Enfield—were told to call the emergency out-of-hours service each night for extended periods, rather than being provided with accommodation. It is standard practice for some local authorities to wrongly refuse interim support when they are first approached by families who need help. One woman was forced to call the out-of-hours service every night for almost two months.

The practice of not being child-focused is deeply concerning for a number of reasons. First, families have no stable place to be. When they are asked to leave temporary accommodation by 9.30 am, they wander the streets and have no safe place to go. Secondly, it is unclear how long it will take the out-of-hours service to arrange temporary accommodation following a request in the evening. Thirdly, navigating the out-of-hours service can be difficult for anyone, not least for those who struggle with English as a second language.

I hear reports of more and more families sleeping in the A&E reception. The reasons vary from them not understanding the system to safety, warmth and, basically, being destitute. One such report comes from Joel, who is nine years old. His family were forced to sleep in the accident and emergency department when they were left street homeless after a local authority refused their request for section 17 support. Joel said:

“We had to keep going to McDonalds every night and we would also go to A&E. I would have to wear my school clothes and sleep like that. They would say we have to sleep where the people wait but it’s just like lights and there is nothing colourful there. The chairs were hard. You know when you just sleep in the waiting room? I felt sorry for my mum because she had to stay up and my head had to be on her lap. She had to stay awake, her eyes were open like 24/7, all night and all day so she could watch over me. It was hard for her but also hard for me.”

Joel mentioned that he slept in his school uniform. That gives us more context on the plight of these children: despite having no fixed abode, Joel sleeps on his mother’s lap every night in an unsafe A&E reception. He is also expected to get up and concentrate in school.

I thank the Education Minister for being here today. I will not focus much on those young children’s experience in school, but I want to highlight the fact that, because a lot of their parents have no access to public funds, they cannot apply for free school meals and other things that would help their day in school.

My hon. Friend is making an important contribution and is outlining the problem. Local authorities have obviously been underfunded in relation to childcare for a very long time, although the Government will not admit it; they keep telling us that they are putting more money in, but they are starting from a low base.

One thing that struck me in what my hon. Friend said—I have come across cases like this—is that kids, whatever their background, are expected to go to school, but they cannot concentrate on their education if they are worried about where they will live when they come home from school, whether they will get a square meal, whether their father and mother are together and whether there has been domestic violence. We can understand why kids sometimes become resentful in those circumstances. Does my hon. Friend agree?

I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. What I take from it is that there is a lot of emotional strain on young children, which we must express and, more importantly, acknowledge.

The “Working together to safeguard children 2018” statutory guidance says that, where urgent needs are identified,

“social workers should not wait until the assessment reaches a conclusion before commissioning services”.

As I have illustrated, homelessness or destitution is clearly an urgent need. A refusal to provide interim support has led to a vulnerable woman and her children in Enfield having to stay with a local stranger they met on the street. When I first heard that story, my sadness turned to frustration at the fact that families are having to risk their safety and, ultimately, their dignity.

Why are families—mainly black families—forced to live like that? Would there be more of a public outcry if the victims of this pernicious policy were white? Would I even be standing here speaking on this matter? The hostile environment has a lot to answer for. The Prime Minister has a lot to explain, because it is her legacy that those innocent families are enduring.

Housing is a chronic issue across the UK, but housing scarcity does not remove local authorities’ obligation to ensure that all children are safe and that their needs are met. Amir, aged eight, described living in shared accommodation for 10 months:

“Where I live now, I’m not comfortable. There’s a lot of noise from people coming up and down the stairs. It’s always dirty. I have no space to do my homework and I don’t feel safe. At 3 am someone broke a door in the house—people were fighting.”

Poor living conditions are commonly reported. Project 17 reported the issues that children raised about the conditions of accommodation provided under section 17. They included living with rats, not having access to cooking facilities, cockroach infestation, antisocial behaviour from other residents in shared accommodation, not having basic furniture such as a table or chair, and not having access to washing facilities.

Civil society groups also report families receiving rates of financial support below the support rate of £37.75, set out in section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. The Home Office says that that is the minimum amount required to avoid a breach of the European convention on human rights. Case law suggests that it would be unlawful for local authorities to expect families in receipt of section 17 support to live on less than that amount. It is unreasonable to expect families to live off less than £37.75 per week, and I am concerned that the Department, and thus local authorities, do not adequately recognise the negative impact of lower levels of support on children’s development and wellbeing. Even when support is provided, the current provision is insufficient. Interim support is being refused, and poor accommodation and low rates of financial support are being offered.

How are we helping these families and children? While there are process and practice issues that local authorities need to address, civil society groups across the UK have also reported that local authorities are increasingly deliberately putting barriers in place before supporting these families. Embedded Home Office immigration officials are one method by which that is done. While they can be used constructively, there are more consistent reports of their deployment to intimidate. The perceived threat of immigration enforcement action can deter the most vulnerable families from seeking support that they should be able to access. The management of these officers differs considerably between local authorities. Local authorities must take charge of their use.

Unfortunately, it is not just Home Office officials who intimidate parents. Worryingly, there is a trend of excessive scrutiny—of credit checks, minor inconsistencies being used to undermine a family’s case, allegations of fraud, and even threats of removing children without sufficient cause. I am sorry to say that several families in Enfield were simply misinformed by council officers. One family was even told that Enfield does not provide financial support to families.

How can we work together and help the failing authorities? Looking ahead, I would like to offer some solutions. At a local level, councils can take steps to ensure that such hardship is a thing of the past by signing up to a commitment to ensure the health, development and wellbeing of every child in their area. There is already such a pledge in Project 17’s children’s charter, and the Children’s Society has a charter, too. Project 17’s charter sets out a framework for local authorities working with children in need of support under section 17. It was derived from the UN convention on the rights of the child, the legal duties defined in the Children Act 1989 and subsequent case law, and what children and young people have told civil society groups about what they want.

I ask the Minister whether the Department will agree to meet Project 17 to discuss its work and its children’s charter. At a strategic level, I ask the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, if it is listening, to encourage local authorities to sign up to such a charter, and to clarify the procedures that local authorities must follow, and their obligations, regarding their care for every child in their area. In addition, those in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government can lobby the Prime Minister and their colleagues in the Home Office to end the hostile environment policy, which causes me deep concern. With all due respect, Madam Deputy Speaker, although Brexit is important, it is all we debate in this House, while this important issue only gets an airing in an end-of-day Adjournment debate.

The hostile environment policy builds destitution into the asylum process; destitution is going to happen, and that is wrong. Any attempt to combat destitution will be limited as long as the hostile environment continues. In a sense, people with insecure immigration status being forced to go without money, food or nappies for their children is not a failing in the system; it is the system. Can the Minister really say that he is happy with such a system? If not, will he do everything he can to ensure that the Department looks at the policy and how it affects the most vulnerable?

Ensuring that the needs of children are met should be the utmost priority of local authorities. However, if boroughs are expected to provide this essential support, it is crucial that they be provided with the resources to do so. In an age of austerity, it is imperative that the Government take this matter seriously and open a dialogue with local authorities and other organisations involved, to determine how much annual funding is required.

To put this in context, London boroughs spent £53.7 million in support of an estimated 2,881 households under the no recourse condition in 2016-17, and the estimated average total annual expenditure per borough was nearly £1.7 million, but the case load size in six boroughs led to their having far higher expenditure than the London average—expenditure of £5 million per year. That funding is primarily derived directly from the local authority’s social services budget: if pressures are not uniform across London then funding levels to cope with “no recourse” families should not be uniform, but targeted to ensure effective service delivery.

As I come to a close, let me say that I understand that local authorities are under immense pressure from a population with growing and increasingly more complex needs, from year-after-year reductions in Government funding, from the hostile environment policy and from a host of other problems and concerns. That is why no one expects every council to be able immediately and perfectly to adopt every proposal that I and others have made. However, when the stakes are so high for the children and families involved, I ask local authorities, the Minister and the Government to make concrete steps in the right direction.

Let me begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) on securing this important debate today. A number of colleagues intervened on her, and I thank them for the points that they made—the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen), for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), and for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham). The message that I want to convey to local government is that all children should have access to the support that they need to keep them safe regardless of immigration status. Our main interest tonight is the discharge by local authorities of the important responsibilities under section 17 of the Children’s Act 1989, for which I am the Minister responsible. I need first of all to say a word about how the “no recourse to public funds” condition comes into this.

The Project 17 report, which has helped to inspire this debate, concentrates on local authority support for families with no recourse to public funds under section 17 of the 1989 Act. In particular, it focuses on families who are destitute because they cannot claim benefits or access social housing owing to their immigration status. Those families turn to local authorities for support under section 17. They are, though, not the main group to whom the responsibilities under section 17 are applied, and we must not lose sight of the fact that these responsibilities of local authorities involve many more groups, who also have needs.

Some of the questions raised by the hon. Member for Edmonton and other hon. Members are based entirely on immigration status issues. I will ensure that they are brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, and I have her assurance that she will write to hon. Members in response to questions that were entirely immigration related.

What it is perfectly sensible for me to do this evening is to set out the main points of the Government’s position, as approved by Parliament, when it comes to the “no recourse to public funds” condition. The position is quite simply that those seeking to establish their family life in the UK must do so on a basis that prevents burdens on the taxpayer and that promotes integration. That position has been approved by Parliament in primary legislation and is reflected in the immigration rules. The application of the “no recourse to public funds” condition to those with a temporary immigration status is, therefore, a standard means of pursuing that legitimate objective.

The Project 17 report and hon. Members who have spoken this evening have drawn attention to the fact that, for a certain group of families, the “no recourse to public funds” condition did not used to be automatically applied to their status, and that it is now. That is true. In their changes to the immigration rules in 2012, the Government acted to correct an anomaly whereby some groups were not expected to be self-sufficient. That was entirely necessary to ensure that the Government could fulfil their intention for incoming families to establish themselves here without needing access to our limited public funds.

The Government’s view is that access to public funds should still be available, but not automatically. For those now coming to the UK, therefore, no recourse to public funds is a standard position. But I must make it clear that there is scope in immigration legislation for family life and private life applicants to request that no recourse to public funds should not be imposed, or that it should be lifted once imposed. Those applications are given very careful consideration in the light of the applicant’s circumstances and the welfare of any children involved. Of course, that does not apply to those who have been refused leave to remain in the UK and whose appeals have been turned down by the courts. These individuals are expected to leave the UK and are not eligible for support from public funds.

Sometimes there are barriers to individuals leaving the UK—for example, the difficulty of obtaining documentation from their own national authorities. Parliament has accepted that, as a result, they may qualify for local authority support where that is necessary to avoid breaches of human rights obligations, and where children are involved. This is the group whose support needs are brought to our attention by the Project 17 report. The Government’s view is that the right framework exists for providing them with support. There will be occasions when the support is provided in order to avoid a breach of the adult’s human rights. There will also be occasions when support is provided under section 17 of the Children Act, because it is the specific needs of the children of the family that call for such supportive intervention. This means that such families are supported by local authorities, even if they have no recourse to public funds. However, these decisions are made locally, according to an individual local authority’s protocol and assessments.

Although the Government’s position is that those seeking to establish their family life in the UK must do so on a basis that prevents burdens on the taxpayer and promotes integration, nothing in any of the legislation prevents the provision of support to those in genuine need, whatever their immigration status and at whatever stage they are in their migration journey. The Government have an impressive track record of ensuring that those who are in genuine need are supported appropriately.

The Home Office provides specific support under section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 to families with children who have come to seek asylum and cannot provide for their own needs. Individuals and families with children may also be granted recourse to public funds even if their leave would otherwise be subject to an NRPF condition, where there are compelling circumstances relating to destitution, the welfare of a child or exceptional financial circumstances. Local authorities may also provide basic safety net support to families with children using their own powers, if it is established that there is a genuine need that triggers an obligation under human rights or children’s legislation.

The hon. Lady mentioned local government funding. I recognise that Enfield and other local authorities are delivering in a challenging environment, and have had to make really tough, difficult choices as they work to meet the needs of the most vulnerable. I welcome the further £410 million in 2019-20 for local authorities to invest in adult and children’s social care services. That is on top of the more than £200 billion until 2020 made available at the 2015 spending review for councils to deliver local services, including children’s services. Of this, Enfield is currently forecast to have core spending power of £236 million for 2019-20—an increase of about 1.7% on the previous year. I would like to assure you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that my Department is continuing to work closely with the sector to build the strongest evidence base for long-term children’s services funding as part of the spending review.

The hon. Lady mentioned free school meals. Let me reiterate—it is important to put this on the record, because many people will be listening to this debate outside this place—that where a child is in need, for example because they are homeless or the parent cannot afford to meet the family’s basic needs, families with the NRPF condition are not prevented from getting additional help from their local authority’s social services department. To establish eligibility for assistance, the local authority must undertake a child in need assessment. It is clear that many local authorities are doing the right thing and delivering free school meals for those children.

Again, I thank the hon. Lady for securing this important debate. We have a shared ambition, I think, to ensure that the most vulnerable children have the safety net and stability that they need to enable them to thrive in their homes and in their families.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.