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No Recourse to Public Funds

Volume 732: debated on Thursday 11 May 2023

I must just warn Members that because of the limited time for this debate, I will expect them to speak for about six minutes.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of no recourse to public funds.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for enabling the debate to take place, and I thank the Members on both sides of the House who supported the application. The Register of Members’ Financial Interests records my support from the Refugee, Asylum and Migrant Policy project. I also thank Praxis, Citizens UK, and the Refugee & Migrant Forum of Essex and London for helping me to prepare for the debate.

During the pandemic, hard-working, law-abiding families, working legally in the UK but subject to no recourse to public funds, were especially hard hit. Their wages stopped because their jobs stopped, and NRPF also prevented them from claiming benefits. They had to turn to food banks, as a huge number did in my constituency, where Bonny Downs Community Association, Newham Community Project and others did an amazing job. Before the pandemic, if people with no recourse to public funds lost their job they just got another one, but the pandemic made that impossible.

The complete absence of help came as a shock to, for one, the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson). At the Liaison Committee in May 2020, two months into lockdown, I told him about a hard-working, law-abiding family in my constituency, including two British-born children, who were destitute because the father had lost his income. The transcript of the Committee meeting records the following:

“Hang on, Stephen. Why aren’t they eligible for universal credit, employment and support allowance or any of the other benefits”.

I said that it was because of no recourse to public funds. They had been here for years, but for 10 years, NRPF meant no help at all. The Prime Minister said:

“I am going to have to come back to you on that, Stephen. Clearly people who have worked hard for this country, who live and work here, should have support of one kind or another…I will find out how many there are in that position and we will see what we can do to help. ”

He was right to say that

“people who have worked hard for this country, who live and work here, should have support of one kind or another”.

Unfortunately, however, the Prime Minister’s opinion was not his Government’s policy. He did not find out how many were in that position, because the Home Office does not know.

No recourse to public funds is a condition imposed on people with temporary visas. The current version dates from 2012, and bars access to social security benefits. According to the House of Commons Library, 1.6 million people have leave to remain with no recourse to public funds. The Migration Observatory at Oxford University estimates that the total includes 225,000 children. Typically, families are on the so-called 10-year track to indefinite leave, like the family that I mentioned to the Prime Minister. That family were in the UK on student visas for several years, but after their two children were born, they started on the 10-year track. They renew their leave every two and a half years, paying at least £2,608 per adult in visa fees each time plus additional fees for their children. No recourse to public funds applies throughout. The Home Office has been taking 11 months, on average, to process these re-applications, so for months people cannot prove their status. Thousands who are still permitted to work while awaiting the determination have wrongly lost their jobs as a result. After 10 years, they can apply for indefinite leave and, when they secure that, NRPF no longer applies.

The Home Office does not know how many people in the UK have no recourse to public funds. That, I think, is understandable. Once people are given leave to remain, the Home Office does not know who departs. Parliamentary questions have shown, however, that the Home Office cannot even tell us how many people it gave leave to remain last year with the NRPF condition attached, apparently because of the inadequacy of its computer systems. Last November, I asked in written question 93420 when the new Atlas case working system would tell us the number of applicants who have no recourse to public funds attached to their leave to remain. The answer came back that,

“remaining areas will complete their transition to Atlas in 2023, after which time it will be possible to explore what further information can be produced using the new system.”

I wonder whether the Minister can update us when he winds up. By when does he now think the Home Office will at least know how many people it imposes NRPF on each year?

Citizens Advice estimates that 329,000 parents have had NRPF, many for 10 years, which is most of somebody’s childhood, whereas 40% have been in the UK for more than five years and 10%, like the family I told the then Prime Minister about, have been here for more than a decade. Families with no recourse to public funds can make a change of circumstances application for exemption from NRPF if they are destitute or heading for destitution. Last year, 3,200 families applied and 60% were successful. I welcome regular publication of the data about that. Recent court decisions have required immigration rule changes to allow disability and child welfare to be considered, but those decisions do not yet seem to have been reflected in change of circumstances decisions. A lot of families do not know about the change in circumstances process.

My right hon. Friend mentions recent court cases. It was particularly disgraceful that the Green-led administration in Brighton refused to support people with no recourse to public funds during the covid in-period. Shelter took the council to court—where the council spent huge amounts of public money to defend its actions—and won. Is it not the case that housing is a public health issue and, just like access to healthcare, which is excluded from no recourse to public funds, access to basic housing facilities should not require an exemption but should automatically be allowed?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I believe that his local council is no longer Green party controlled. He is absolutely right.

The change of circumstances process is cumbersome and difficult. With specialist help from an organisation such as the Unity Project or Praxis, people are likely to succeed, but lots of families do not know those organisations and cannot access the help. If someone is in Brighton, they cannot access a support organisation in Islington. It is very troubling that many families are missing out because applying is so hard.

The Select Committee on Work and Pensions unanimously recommended two specific changes. The first was that no family with children should have the condition for longer than five years, recognising that for many it is 10 years at the moment. The second was that where the children are British citizens, as is often the case, child benefit should be paid in relation to those children even when the parents have no recourse to public funds. When families have been here for five years, or when children are already British citizens, they are here for good. We should be supporting children to fulfil their potential future contribution to our society. We will all lose out by denying them that support. It makes no sense to impose destitution on the families of children who will be in Britain for the rest of their life. The Government rejected those modest cross-party recommendations, and I hope the Minister will think again. The current policy is contrary to the national interest.

The pandemic highlighted the perilous situation of people with no recourse to public funds, and the latest Trussell Trust data show that food bank demand is sharply up again. In the cost of living crisis, families with no recourse to public funds are being clobbered once more, which is the trigger for this debate. Low-income families with no recourse to public funds are ineligible for cost of living support because they are ineligible for the benefits that passport people to that support. They are not eligible for the £900 cost of living payment this year or the £600 cost of living payment last year, for the £300 pensioner payment, for the £150 disability payment or for the warm home discount.

Battling through the current crisis without the support everyone else receives is extraordinarily hard. The Select Committee took evidence from parents with no recourse to public funds, and a Conservative colleague on the Committee rightly described their evidence as “harrowing.” Having no recourse to public funds leaves families in desperate situations.

Praxis, which supports families in my constituency, calculates that a two-parent, two-child family with both parents working and earning the national living wage are entitled to just over £11,000 of support this financial year, including cost of living support, universal credit and child benefit. If the same family had no recourse to public funds, they would be entitled to £195—the saving from the energy price guarantee. No assessment has been made of the impact on children in low-income families with no recourse to public funds of the non-availability of the support being provided to other families in identical situations, but not much imagination is needed to work that out.

The household support fund is paid out through local authorities. When it was introduced, councils did not know whether they were allowed to support people with no recourse to public funds. The Government advice was that councils should take their own legal advice on whether or not they are allowed to use the household support fund for that purpose. At last, paragraph 45 of the Government guidance on the household support fund states that, from 1 April 2023:

“Authorities can provide a basic safety net support to an individual, regardless of their immigration status, if there is a genuine care need that does not arise solely from destitution, for example if…they have serious health problems; there is a risk to a child’s wellbeing… Authorities must use their judgement to decide what legal powers and funding can be used to support individuals who are ineligible for public funds”.

The Government guidance remains somewhat unclear, but the first point is welcome and overdue.

On the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), Crisis reports that 6% of the people it supported last year had NRPF. St Mungo’s points out that rising food, energy and rent costs are increasing rough sleeping. More NRPF families will be on the street, and others will be stuck in insecure, overcrowded housing with long-term damaging impacts on children who will be here forever.

One parent told the Select Committee:

“My 5-year-old kept asking, ‘Mum, why are other children entitled and I am not?’ I struggled to answer.”

We should not be doing that to children who will spend their life in this country.

Maryam, a 23-year-old domestic violence survivor with two daughters, was referred to the Kurdish and Middle Eastern Women’s Organisation in north London by children’s social services. She had no recourse to public funds, so she was financially dependent on her husband. She had no choice but to stay in an abusive relationship for four years, as NRPF meant she had no way out.

Praxis has surveyed families with no recourse to public funds over the past month: two thirds are struggling to afford food; 59% have been forced into debt to pay for essentials, about three times the proportion of the population as a whole; and half are relying on charities and food banks for basic needs, compared with 3% of the population as a whole.

The Chancellor announced welcome improvements in the Budget, as recommended by the Select Committee, to support people who are claiming universal credit with their childcare costs. That support is not available to working families with no recourse to public funds who are faced with unaffordable childcare, like everybody else. We cannot justify having this large group in the labour market at such a massive disadvantage compared with everyone else. I welcome the extension of care for disadvantaged two-year-olds to NRPF families. Access for those families to free school meals is now permanent as well, which I am pleased about.

Five years is long enough for a family to contribute into our welfare state before receiving from it. After half a decade, a family with British-born children is here for good. Will the Minister commit to considering extending child benefit to all British children, irrespective of their parents’ status, and allowing parents access to public funds after five years? Those are not radical changes. They are affordable, sensible reforms that will be advocated in an op-ed in The Times tomorrow that is co-authored by me and the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds). They were proposed unanimously by a Select Committee with a Conservative majority and they would support thousands of families during the biggest fall in living standards on record.

It is an honour to follow the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), who set out the complicated nature of this problem that the Government face. I will not repeat all the statistics he gave, particularly in view of the time.

The Minister for Immigration, who is on the Front Bench today, will recall that during the pandemic, the Everyone In project brought everybody off the streets, regardless of whether or not they had no recourse to public funds. However, we did not capture the data on those who had no recourse to public funds who were supported. When the Select Committee on Levelling-up, Housing and Communities took evidence, the Minister at the time could not even tell us how many people being housed under that scheme had no recourse to public funds. Of course, that means that those people almost certainly ended up returning to the streets, which is precisely not what we want.

It is right that people who come to this country, make it their home, contribute to the economy, work, pay their taxes and settle here should not have recourse to public funds in normal circumstances. That gives rise to the view among the public that people are making a direct contribution to the UK. However, the circumstances of the pandemic have changed things and we should recognise that. People who have NRPF clearly have difficulty in finding another job and they can then end up being destitute, and if their family is destitute, that is a disaster.

In certain circumstances, local authorities can, rightly, provide support for those who genuinely need additional care—but that is where it does not stem from destitution, and that is the problem we face. I am delighted that in the London Borough of Harrow, the council provides vital care to those with NRPF where it is appropriate. The council has made such provision in cases where parents have NRPF but dependent children are involved. Harrow children’s services and the team work closely together to ensure that cases are dealt with appropriately in a timely, cost-effective and productive manner, making best use of the resources available. Clearly, that is being provided under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 and a process has to be followed. I hope that all local authorities are following the process to ensure that teams are alerted when there is a problem so that there is no delay in accessing help, particularly where a family is involved. The teams then work together with legal services to fully understand the duties, as well as the limits of the support they can give using public funds. Clearly, the provision will be paid until such time as the children need no further support from the local authority.

In June 2022—I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to update us on this—there were around 166,000 people in various stages of the asylum system and, of course, those people have no recourse to public funds. Broadly speaking, they are not eligible for asylum support. Fifty-four per cent. of those people are from London boroughs alone. This is not just a London problem—it is a nationwide problem—but obviously London has a specific problem here.

At the time of those figures, including my constituency, London boroughs were supporting 2,089 households with accommodation or financial support. That amounted to a staggering cost of £40.6 million. Of those households, 576 represented adults with care needs, at an annual cost of £11.41 million, and 513 were adults with children or dependent care leavers, at an annual cost of £10.87 million. That is a huge cost to the public purse, but not being financed properly by the Government.

Therefore, I am delighted, obviously, that the Government are looking at this particular aspect. I commend the Work and Pensions Committee for recommending some measures that would help and support those vulnerable people. As we know, each case is unique and has to be properly assessed, but local authorities need guidance. The public purse must be protected, but, equally, we must make sure that vulnerable people are not forced to sleep rough on our streets through no fault of their own. Some people who have come to this country and provided their expertise and help for a long time, suddenly find themselves out of a job with no place to live, no ability to pay their rent and no ability to support themselves. Those people deserve our support and help and should not to be treated in an inhumane fashion.

I recognise that this is a complicated area of public policy. I hope that, when he replies, the Minister can say what the Government are going to do to assist those in this position. The position of those people who have come to this country as immigrants seeking to help this country is very different from those who have arrived illegally. We must consider those two aspects separately. I hope the Minister will be able to answer that during his summing up and that we can see real measures that will improve the plight of those very vulnerable people who currently have no recourse to public funds.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). I agreed with much of what he and the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), who has been a tireless campaigner on this issue, said. When I was on the Work and Pensions Committee, we raised the issue repeatedly, particularly during the pandemic.

I want to raise the clear link between no recourse to public funds and food insecurity. That was made very clear to us last year. I chaired a webinar discussion run by the Independent Food Aid Network. There were more than 150 participants, including experts by experience, food bank managers and third sector workers. It is clear that, even before the pandemic, asylum seekers and refugees disproportionately represented food bank users—3% of food bank usage, against 0.1% of the population. No recourse to public funds has proven to lead to that food insecurity and destitution, with almost half of all children with foreign-born parents living in the UK in poverty. Children with foreign-born parents constitute 25% of all children in the UK living in poverty. The pandemic exacerbated that particular hardship, as the right hon. Member for East Ham outlined, because people were out of work. They had no other support because they had a no recourse to public funds condition. If someone with that condition is subject to immigration control and has no access to public funds, it prohibits access to the most mainstream social security benefits and support, and services that are conditional on certain benefits, including things such as housing support, free school meals, where that is not a universal provision, and healthy start vouchers.

Tandy Nicole, a volunteer peer food researcher and expert by experience from the Govan Community Project, gave evidence to the webinar discussion and gave testimony on the lived experience of asylum seekers facing food insecurity. She explained how the experience of someone with no recourse to public funds in accessing support is very different from that of a citizen who is eligible for public funds.

We expect asylum seekers to live on an amount per week that is equivalent to what a youth trainee, or YT, was getting paid in 1990. How do I know that? Because I was a youth trainee in 1990, earning what asylum seekers are expected to live on now, when I started my employment with Strathclyde Regional Council. When someone is asked to live on that amount of money, they have competing needs: toiletries, cleaning products, over-the-counter medication, clothing and internet access and phone data, both of which were particularly crucial during the pandemic. Those are all essential items that I would argue are needed for an individual to get by.

In her evidence, Tandy also emphasised the importance of looking at a person’s overall needs. It is important to pay attention to health-related dietary needs and intolerances, religious dietary restrictions and other cultural preferences. That is what we have had to do with the many food projects I am involved with in Glasgow South West. We are opening pantries and larders to try to alleviate food bank use and give people dignity and choice, and we have had to take into consideration people’s dietary restrictions and cultural preferences.

I will suggest some policy changes. I think there should be the right to work across the board for asylum seekers. The Government are making some advance in allowing asylum seekers to work in jobs on a restricted list, but I would like to see the right to work across the board. People should have access to public funds, such as universal credit and unemployment support, and certainly child benefit, as others have argued, to reduce hardship and poverty. When people at risk of poverty because of the no recourse to public funds condition get work, they find themselves in insecure work, zero-hours contracts and low-income jobs, and when they lose that work, it can be very detrimental, as the pandemic showed. It is really time for a policy change there.

We also need to reduce the time it takes asylum seekers to receive a decision. The Govan Community Project gave an example in that webinar discussion of someone who waited nine years to get a decision. That is far too long for someone to be put in that position. I hope the Minister will tell us how the Home Office is looking at this issue and ensuring that people get decisions in a timely manner. We also need to close the disconnect between the amount of support that asylum seekers are being expected to live on, and the amount provided to those on social security benefits. There should be crisis grants for all.

In closing, the right to food should exist for everyone. That requires a comprehensive, rights-based approach to tackling food insecurity, with a human rights Bill that incorporates social and economic rights, including that right to food.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) for helping to secure this debate and for the work his Committee has done on this issue. I will not repeat the important points that he helpfully laid out for the House, but I wanted to turn to some cases in my own constituency.

Just after the lockdown, I went out doing a roving surgery and I met a man who worked as a hospital porter in my local hospital, earning £1,400 a month. He was working but had no recourse to public funds. He had been renting two rooms in a private rented property for him and his daughter, at £400 a room. When the landlady—understandably hit by challenges due to the pandemic—put the rent up to £550 a room, he and his then 17-year-old daughter had to share a room because there was no other option.

My constituent could not qualify for housing benefit and there was no prospect of promotion at work as a hospital porter, yet he was working in our NHS. In many ways, that underlines one of the big problems here: these are people who are working hard, contributing to society and paying their taxes and their national insurance, but getting nothing back in return. It is perhaps sometimes painted that we want to ensure that people are paying their way. Well, those people are paying their way, but in an area as expensive as Hackney, housing is well out of reach because of the way in which housing benefit is structured, and of course, they cannot have access to that anyway. The 10-year route to citizenship is a big issue here as well. It is very expensive for those concerned, who are often in this bracket. They pay the fees every two and a half years. I will get to asks later, but it would be a great help if the Minister were to look at how that worked and reduce the fees and timeframe.

Let us look at the issue across London. According to London Council figures, London boroughs spent about £53 million on supporting an estimated 2,881 households with no recourse to public funds in 2016-17—that was some years ago. It is difficult to assess the figures precisely. The estimated average total annual expenditure was nearly £1.7 million per borough, at an estimated average annual cost of nearly £19,000 per household, so it is not cost free. Somewhere in the system, people have to be picked up and that burden is falling on local authorities. At that point in 2016-17, for which we have reasonably reliable figures, the average time spent supporting cases was nearly two years.

A lot of that support is spent on accommodation, for the reasons that I have highlighted. In my borough, you cannot get a family home under the housing benefit cap, which affects everybody, but particularly the group in question and, of course, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and those who require support under the Children Act 1989. That means that it is a big issue. As an estimate, 3,000 children may be in households with no recourse to public funds across London. Other colleagues have made points about the need to support those children, who will not be going to live anywhere else. They will stay in this country and become, hopefully, taxpaying, working adults who contribute to society. We need to welcome and support them, rather than hindering them at an early stage in their development.

I have some quick asks of the Minister—well, not so quick for him to deliver, perhaps, but easy for me to ask. I thank Praxis and the NRPF Network for some of these thoughts—I have worked with Praxis in particular. Could the Home Office conduct a one-off case resolution exercise systematically ensuring that people, particularly those without indefinite leave to remain at this point, are getting regularised support, and that, if they do not qualify to stay, they are being put on the route to leave the country? That would resolve the matter.

What we have is a lot of people dribbling around the system. As one of the top-six customers of Home Office Ministers on immigration cases over 18 years—so not just in one Government—I have seen the problem of people waiting a long time for resolution of their cases. Even when they have exhausted their appeal rights, sometimes they are still dribbling around the system. We need proper returns preparation support for them to leave. Many of us London MPs will have those conversations with our constituents, telling them that they have reached the end of the line and need support to leave. So it works both ways, but where people are allowed to stay, we can get through that quickly and give them the recourse to public funds that they need.

On that point, we should end the 10-year route or, at the very least, reduce the fees. I know that the Minister is committed to trying to speed up the backlog on immigration cases. Every 30 months, people have to pay and go through the system again; they are just clogging up the queue. Really, there is not much difference in someone’s life usually, and unless they have committed a horrendous crime or something that will obviously change their case, most people—I would hazard a guess of well over 95%—will just go through the system every 30 months and have to pay a fee. That comes out of their often meagre wages—even on good wages, it is quite challenging—and causes them real problems.

My right hon. Friend touched on data. How many people are affected by that? We need to understand and assess the impact and cost on local authorities. As I have said, saying, “You have to exist without recourse to public funds,” is not a cost-free option. At the moment, the Home Office cannot even tell us how many people need biometric residence permits and that is a big issue in my constituency. I hope that, when Atlas comes forward, it will be a start towards better data, but it would be helpful if the Minister updated us on its progress. Not being able to get data has been a long-standing woe of the Home Office, so I do not lay it all at the Minister’s door, he will be glad to know. I will give him as much support as I can in getting that system running so that we can get data and ensure that people are properly supported.

As I have said, this is not cost free. We need to lift the restrictions. The number of people who applied for restrictions to be lifted rose—unsurprisingly—from 900 in the first quarter of 2020 to 6,000 to in the second quarter of 2020. Even last year, 3,200 people applied to have those restrictions lifted and 60% of those requests were granted. If the Minister looked at that issue, he could free up a lot of time in the Home Office for the civil service to deal with getting people through the immigration system, rather than having them go through a system that eventually brings benefit, but very slowly.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate and the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) for setting out such a great foundation on which to have this conversation. He brought such a lot of information to the table about the number of people, as far as we can tell, who are subject to no recourse to public funds and some of the issues they face.

I do an awful lot of work with the No Recourse North East Partnership in the north-east of Scotland, which was set up because all of us who deal with casework and people with problems were seeing a massive increase in the number of those coming to us with no recourse to public funds. Unlike Glasgow, which has been a dispersal authority for a period, we did not have the legal or charitable support in place in our city to provide people with that level of legal immigration advice. We saw a massive increase in numbers in the last few years, and that is why the group began.

During that time, we have struggled so hard to find out how many individuals are subject to no recourse to public funds, so that we can make the case for there being more specialised support for people in our city. In Aberdeen we have the highest percentage of non-UK born citizens outside London. We have a significant amount of immigration in our city, and that is a good thing to be celebrated, but it brings with it the problem we are seeing of an increase in the level of destitution as a result of people having no recourse to public funds.

The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) mentioned the consistency in applying guidance under section 17 of the Children Act. I can tell him that it is not being applied consistently across councils. That is partly because the guidance from Government is not as good as it could be in directing local authorities as to what they can and cannot do and is leaving it up to them. If local authorities have legal departments that are particularly scared of litigation, for example, they might be less keen to support people. If individuals have “no recourse to public funds” stamped on their immigration documents, they might be less keen to seek support because they are terrified that it might impact their future immigration status. They are terrified that they might not eventually be able to apply for leave to remain if they claim something. That guidance is not as consistent as it could be.

The right hon. Member for East Ham mentioned domestic abuse. I tabled a ten-minute rule Bill a number of years ago about extending the destitution domestic violence concession. There is still a gap. We still see local women’s organisations up and down these islands struggling because they cannot apply for housing benefit for people who have no recourse to public funds unless they get the destitution domestic violence concession, which is not applicable across the board and is not a guarantee. We cannot see women’s aid organisations go under, but it means that individuals are in a situation where they might have to stay in abusive relationships or go back to abusive partners simply in order to feed their children. We should not be doing this. As has been made clear, in so many of these cases, these are children who were born here and will live here their entire lives, and they are being directly discriminated against by these policies just because of where their parents were born—not because of anything to do with the way they have lived their lives.

What are the other options for people who have no recourse for public funds? We have heard various arguments from Ministers in the past. They have said, “Well, people can just go back to the country they have come from.” Some people with no recourse to public funds are stateless. How can someone who is stateless go back to the country they came from? The country might not even exist anymore. Ministers have suggested, “That person could just go back to Nigeria,” but the person has never been to Nigeria in their entire life. We are asking them to go back to a country in which they have no home and no support and that their family has shunned them from. They are living here and contributing to our economy.

Imagine if everybody with no recourse to public funds decided to go off to another country—we would have so few people working in the caring professions, on the frontline of our NHS and as hospital porters, in those jobs that we desperately need people to do. If the Government are so desperate to crack down on illegal migration, they need to make the legal migration routes slightly more pleasant at least, because at the moment they are deeply discriminatory.

We are seeing children being put into hunger and poverty as a result of this—children who are at no fault and are entirely innocent. If it were up to me, I would not have “no recourse to public funds” as a status at all. If we are looking for an interim measure, the measures on child benefit that have been put forward by the Work and Pensions Committee are incredibly positive. The Government also need to give serious consideration to the rules around housing benefit, particularly in cases that involve domestic abuse, because we cannot have women’s aid organisations struggling with this issue in a way that means they cannot support women, resulting in women having to stay in abusive relationships. We cannot see that happen.

Lastly, on the point about the 30 months payment that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier), what are people getting for the money that they are putting in? They are certainly not getting a good service. I am aware that the Minister is doing his best to improve it, but the Home Office service is not great. People are being asked to pay that money for the pleasure of staying in a country where they cannot even afford to feed their children because of the lack of support. It is absolutely shameful, and it really needs to improve.

Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thank the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) for bringing this debate before the House, and the Backbench Business Committee for granting it.

No recourse to public funds is a critical issue in my constituency, as it is to many of the Members who have spoken this afternoon. To give some of the history, it has been a visa condition since 1980. Its origin more recently is in Labour’s Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, and to me, it feels like it is steeped in myths about people coming over here to claim our benefits. Given the paucity of such benefits and the lack of knowledge people moving to the UK have of the inner workings of the benefits system, that has always seemed particularly unlikely to me. What we have instead is an expensive immigration system—as hon. Members have pointed out—and people caught in a double whammy where they pay a huge amount of money to be here, they are not a burden to the taxpayer, and they get very little back out of the system. They are, in fact, paying in more than most of us.

What this status has caused is poverty, destitution and an increasing strain on individuals and families, including those children who have been born here. There is also an increasing strain on charities and public services. Praxis has documented that two thirds of people with no recourse to public funds are struggling to feed their children. Some 59% are forced into debt to pay for essentials, and 50% are turning to food banks and charities for support, all at a time when the cost of living is soaring. The right hon. Member for East Ham correctly pointed out that the Prime Minister did not know about no recourse to public funds, and only on Tuesday this week, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury still did not know what no recourse to public funds meant when I asked him in this House. I said, “What happens to people who cannot afford to pay for their heating?” and he said, “They should just claim through the system.” They cannot—that is the very nature of no recourse to public funds. Ministers should really catch themselves up on the impact that their policies are having.

Another part of the problem is that we do not know how many people are affected by this status, both as a whole and within our individual constituencies. There are estimated figures of around 1.6 million people, but if we do not know how many of the people in our constituencies have this status, we will not know what support they might need and how to respond to those needs. Quite often, as the hon. Members for Hackney South and Shoreditch and for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) and Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) mentioned, it falls to charities and local government to pick up the pieces when everything else breaks down. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West correctly identified that this is causing huge food insecurity. I have spoken to Audrey at the Glasgow South East food bank in my constituency, which is seeing increasing numbers of people on no recourse to public funds coming forward and looking for help.

As a constituency MP, my heart sinks when I see somebody’s biometric residence permit stamped with “no public funds” in the back, because I know that that will limit my ability to help and support them, and there are people who desperately need that support. I have a constituent who has a disability and no recourse to public funds, so he could not get a disabled persons railcard because that is the gateway to getting that support. I had another gentleman who was medically unfit to work and on no recourse to public funds—what is he supposed to do in those circumstances? The Ferret reported recently on a family of five left homeless because of no recourse to public funds who were sleeping in a borrowed car in the streets of Glasgow. That is inhumane in our society.

Also, problems arise that people could not have anticipated or expected. I recently had a case where international students were being housed inappropriately in accommodation that was found to be unsafe, and all of a sudden, 40 families were put out with nowhere to live. The local authority stepped in and was able to help, but only on a limited basis, because those families could not claim benefits, housing support or anything else because of no recourse to public funds. The safety net has massive holes in it when it comes to these groups of people. The Minister closes his eyes to these real plights and circumstances that are caused by no recourse to public funds. When these crises happen and when there are those changes in circumstances, people are unable to get the support that they need.

The Scottish Government have done what they can. They have had the “Ending destitution together” strategy along with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. They are trying their best to try to plug these gaps and fill these holes, but without an understanding of the numbers involved or of how to reach those people—as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North mentioned, they may have good reasons for not wanting to identify themselves—it makes it difficult to provide the support that is required. We may have two households next door to each other in identical circumstances, working the same jobs with children the same age, but one household is not entitled to support, because they have no recourse to public funds status. That seems fundamentally unfair.

The Scottish Government are determined to build a country where everyone is treated with fairness and respect. No recourse to public funds prevents Scotland from doing so. I look forward to an independent Scotland where we can build a more equal and fair society and we can be rid of the Home Office and its cruel hostile environment once and for all.

I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for this important debate, and I pay particular tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), who has campaigned on this issue on behalf of his constituents and others across the country with such vigour and determination. I well remember his question to the Prime Minister in the Liaison Committee. It was a moment where he brought to the fore this often hidden issue. He made some important points across the board and reminded us of the particular problems that people with no recourse to public funds had during the pandemic.

I thank everyone for their contributions to what has been a calm and sensible debate on the issues at hand. The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) talked about the particular problem that London boroughs have. As a Croydon MP, I am, I think, in the top 10 for immigration cases in the Home Office, and I have dealt with many people with no recourse to public funds. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) talked about the increase in food bank usage and its disproportionate use. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) talked about that 10-year route to citizenship and the struggles that people have with that.

I should start by saying that we in the Labour party will always value the vital contribution played by migrants, including those here on a short-term visa, in keeping the wheels of our economy turning and the heart of our public services beating. We have a priority to ensure that Government and businesses are investing first and foremost in skilling up home-grown talent to fill job vacancies, but we recognise the vital contribution that migrant workers play in supporting Britain’s economy to strengthen and our people to prosper. That is all part of the firm and fair well-managed system of migration that the Labour party is committed to delivering.

Unfortunately, the policies of the Conservative Government have hit those workers and their families extremely hard, like so many of us. The cost of living crisis that we now face has been difficult for all of us, but it has been particularly challenging for those on low incomes and even more so for those with no recourse to public funds, such as those on short-term work visas who are on the pathway to British citizenship, as has been mentioned, their family members or those seeking asylum. They cannot access critical Government services such as the additional means-tested cost of living payment for poorer households, the additional cost of living payment for pensioners entitled to the winter fuel payment or the disability cost of living payment for people in receipt of disability-related benefits. That has consequences.

The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) talked about research by Praxis from April this year. It found that two thirds of parents surveyed had struggled to afford to feed their children because of the rising cost of living, with 59% having been forced into debt to afford the cost of basic essentials and 50% of those who cannot access public support relying on charities and food banks to meet their basic needs.These statistics are a damning indictment of the mismanagement of our economy over the past 13 years, and of the impact of the cost of living crisis on individuals with no recourse to public funds and their children.

The Labour party recognises that migrant workers and those on low pay often face other specific challenges. The Labour party is particularly concerned about working conditions and enforcement. Many of those affected by this policy are in low-paid work, in which their wages have failed to keep up with inflation, or they are forced into working underground in insecure jobs with precarious conditions.

In this context, it should be noted that there are particular vulnerabilities for people working on the minimum wage, given the lack of robust enforcement action from the Government. For instance, the number of complaints from workers received by HMRC’s national minimum wage unit has more than doubled from 1,500 five or six years ago to 3,300 last year. At the same time, there have been only nine prosecutions for non-payment of the national minimum wage in the entire period since 2015. In a report published in 2021, Focus on Labour Exploitation found that the UK’s overall ratio of inspectors to workers is approximately 0.4 inspectors per 10,000 workers. This is less than half the International Labour Organisation’s recommended ratio of 1:10,000. In practice, this means that a UK employer can on average expect an inspection by the HMRC national minimum wage team just once every 500 years.

Part of the issue is that the Government’s labour market enforcement agencies read like an alphabet soup, with the GLAA, or the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, the EASI, or the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate, and the HMRC’s living wage enforcement team. Does the Minister acknowledge that the level of resources allocated to enforcing the minimum wage and other workplace rights is entirely inadequate to provide adequate protection against exploitation? Will he reaffirm the commitment made in the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto that his party will, before the next election, create a single labour market enforcement body to tackle exploitation and poor conditions?

Further to this, it is the Government’s stated position, as set out in the Immigration Act 2014, that their no recourse to public funds policy is intended to ensure that people support themselves and achieve financial independence. Does the Minister not agree that, unless they have genuine access to adequately paid work, such independence inevitably remains out of reach? Does the Minister accept that it is a shocking indictment of this Government’s record that there is such a high and growing number of migrants facing in-work poverty?

Much has already been said at the start and throughout the debate about the lack of data and the Home Office not routinely collecting data on the overall number of people subject to NRPF restrictions. In December 2022, in a letter to the Work and Pensions Committee, the Immigration Minister wrote that the Department’s transition to a new IT system, scheduled to be completed this year, would provide opportunities to capture more comprehensive data, but that until the transition was complete

“we are unable to make any commitment with regards to what further data we are able to publish”.

Can he tell us what progress he has made on this front, and whether this will include information on the impact of these restrictions on families with children? The Work and Pensions Committee has recommended that the Government improve their guidance and practice on the social security entitlements that people with no recourse to public funds already have, so can the Minister tell us what progress he is making on that?

We of course recognise that the challenges surrounding no recourse to public funds are extremely difficult as these issues are wrapped up in the dire state of the economy under the Conservatives and the weak state of the public finances. When Labour gets into government, we will look very closely at the public finances, the data around no recourse to public funds and the cost of any policy changes. We are looking very carefully at the recommendations from the Select Committee, particularly the two that were highlighted at the start, and I look forward to reading the article in The Times tomorrow by its Chair, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham.

We want to make sure that people with no recourse to public funds, like all others, are free to fulfil their potential in order to play a full and fruitful role in a thriving Britain as part of the firm, fair and well-managed migration system that the Labour party is committed to delivering.

I congratulate both the Backbench Business Committee and in particular the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) on securing the debate and his characteristically thoughtful and intelligent approach which raised some very important questions, and it is right that the Government and indeed the whole House carefully consider them. I thank Members from all parts of the House for their contributions and the tone and thoughtful nature of this discussion. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) noted, as a former Local Government Secretary I have been interested in this issue for some time and in fact took the decision not only to create the Everyone In programme but to ensure that, as the name suggested, it included those who had no recourse to public funds. I appreciate the difficulties some of those individuals have found themselves in, particularly during the unique circumstances of the pandemic, which put huge pressure on both them and, as the right hon. Member for East Ham reminded me before the debate, their families back home in their countries of origin, some of whom might have been sending them help in times of straitened circumstances but were not able to do so during that particularly difficult period.

The right hon. Gentleman and others across the House are clearly aware of the context of NRPF policy, which has evolved over decades, but it might be helpful to set that out again. It is a well-established principle that migrants coming to the UK should be able to maintain and support themselves and their families without posing a burden on the welfare system. Successive Governments have taken the view that access to benefits and other publicly funded services should in general reflect the strength of a migrant’s connections to the UK and, in the main, only become available to migrants when they have become settled here with indefinite leave to remain.

We operate a comparatively permissive legal migration system in this country, enabling people to come here particularly for work and study purposes, and with respect to work at a relatively low salary threshold of approximately £26,000 per year plus other conditions. In order to maintain a relatively permissive legal migration system, it is important that we have regard for the taxpayer and encourage people to come who are able to look after themselves and their families. The alternative would be to tighten the legal migration system, and, for example, as some argue, to increase the salary threshold considerably. There are pros and cons to either approach, but I think there is broad consensus across the House that NRPF is required although we must manage it carefully to ensure that people who are in this country, particularly for a sustained period of time, can live appropriately and decently and we look after those in the most challenging situations. The position the Government therefore take is to ensure that those seeking to establish a life in the UK must do so on a basis that prevents burden on the taxpayer and promotes integration, and the vast majority of temporary migrants coming to visit, study or work here are subject to NRPF as a result.

It is recognised that some migrants will find themselves at risk of destitution, as I have said, and a response to that would be to say they can return home to their own country, but I appreciate that that is challenging in some circumstances and we do not want people to be in periods of sustained destitution in the United Kingdom. Appropriate safeguards have been introduced for circumstances whereby an individual is destitute or at risk of imminent destitution. Migrants with permission under the family or private life routes, permission outside the rules on the basis of article 8 of the European convention on human rights or the Hong Kong British national overseas route, can apply for free to have the NRPF condition lifted by making a “change of conditions” application. The latest data published in February, for quarter 4 of 2022, shows that 68% of the decisions taken on “change of conditions” applications were granted and that the Home Office and its associated organisations have now restored that process to pre-pandemic levels, which is the right thing to do. We have provided flexibility around the immediate impact on immigration status for accessing public funds. Families are no longer automatically moved from the five-year to the 10-year route to settlement when their NRPF condition is lifted; their circumstances are reassessed when they next apply for permission to stay, and they can remain on the five-year route only if they continue to meet all the requirements.

To give proper effect to the Government’s schemes in response to the cost of living crisis, the Home Office ensured that those with NRPF could access the measures as intended: for example, the energy bills support scheme, which has delivered £400 non-repayable Government discounts on electricity bills to help households in Great Britain, as well as the council tax rebate for those living in certain council tax bands. Subject to the relevant income thresholds, those with NRPF can access free school meals and early years education for two-year-olds. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman both for welcoming that and for having played a part in encouraging the Government to do so.

Statutory benefits including statutory sick pay, statutory maternity pay and contribution-based jobseeker’s allowance are accessible to all those who have made sufficient tax contributions, including those with NRPF. Local authorities can provide basic safety-net support regardless of immigration status. I take the points made by a number of hon. Members about the variable application of that by local authorities and the guidance that the Home Office provides. We have a responsibility to improve those things.

May I check whether the Minister is making a commitment from the Dispatch Box to have a look at the guidance and ensure that it is as clear as it can be and applied consistently by local authorities?

I am happy to do so, because that is a valid point that has been raised.

In the limited time that I have available, I would like to address the important question raised about the quality of data. As the right hon. Gentleman noted, data in this area will always be imprecise because, by its nature, it is hard for the Home Office to accurately assess the number of individuals in the UK in these circumstances, and particularly the cohort who have entered the UK illegally. However, it is right that we understand the number of people to whom we are granting leave in the UK who are part of the NRPF cohort.

In answer to the right hon. Gentleman, we have previously said that the right time to do that will be when we have completed the migration from the case information database to the new Atlas system, which is expected to be in the coming months. I am happy to commit to him today that, as soon as that is in place, we should publish statistics on the number of individuals subject to NRPF to whom the Home Office is granting leave. If I may, I will revert to him with a more precise date and our current estimate of when we will be able to do that. I hope that that is at least one useful outcome for him from his investigations and from the debate.

With that, I will bring my remarks to a close and thank him once again for organising the debate.

I am grateful to everyone who has supported the debate and contributed to it, including those who have delayed their return to Scotland to do so. I am also grateful for the tone of the Minister’s response. I welcome the point that he made at the end about giving us information about when, in the next few months, the data will be available.

Let me underline the two key recommendations from the Work and Pensions Committee, reflecting the reality that children in families who have been here for five years and children who are already British citizens are here for good. First, families with children should automatically be exempted from NRPF after, at most, five years. Secondly, where the children are British citizens, child benefit should be payable, notwithstanding their parents having no recourse to public funds. It cannot be right for families in otherwise identical circumstances doing the same jobs to be £11,000 a year worse off even after they have been here for years because of the impact of the NRPF condition. It is, as others have said, a straightforward question of fairness. I am encouraged by the tone of what the Minister said and I hope that we will see some significant changes in this area in the coming months. It would be in everybody’s interests and in the national interest for that to happen.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of no recourse to public funds.