No Recourse to Public Funds: the threat to migrant women and children

Covid-19 has exposed the cruelty of the No Recourse to Public Funds (NPRF) rule. It should be scrapped immediately, argues Bethany Morris, a correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service.

protest signs read: No Recourse No Safety
Southhall Black Sisters protesting against the NRPF rule. Photo: Southhall Black Sisters.

As thousands of migrant families struggle to make ends meet during the Covid-19 pandemic, the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) rule has been under scrutiny in Parliament and wider society. Although the rule is worsening the hardships faced by migrant families during the coronavirus pandemic, evidence continues to suggest that migrant women and children are disproportionately impacted by the policy.

Despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledging to review NRPF during the coronavirus pandemic, nothing has changed. In fact, on 8 June, Home Secretary Priti Patel simply said ‘the answer is no’ when pressed on the matter, and outlined that the Government would not even consider lifting the rule for struggling families. Instead, she pointed to other packages such as furlough and the Covid-19 retention scheme – but this overlooks the fact that many NRPF migrants are ineligible to apply, and that (mostly) women with children have had to take a severe pay cut to meet childcaring responsibilities due to school closures. As such, over 100,000 people in the UK during the COVID-19 crisis could be at risk of destitution.

A report by the charity Unity Project called Access Denied discovered that NRPF disproportionately impacts women, low-income families, disabled people and BAME children. Of those who appeal for the NRPF rule to be removed, according to the data compiled by the Unity Project, women constitute an average of 85% of cases, with the majority of these being single mothers. The report suggests that the NRPF rule discriminates against women solely because of their sex, arguing that, ‘it restricts their access to full-time employment because of curtailments to free childcare entitlements.’ In short, NRPF ensnares migrant single parents in a vicious cycle where they are barred from financial aid including in-work benefits, yet are unable to top up their working hours and therefore become trapped in lower-paid or zero-hour contracts.

Further studies conducted by the Southall Black Sisters also found that migrant women are at a higher risk of experiencing sexual abuse, suicide, economic abuse and domestic violence. The restrictions imposed by the NRPF rule only exacerbate these risks as migrant women are unable to access support services such as refuges, since shelters typically require tenants to pay rent, which is funded through housing benefit. Spaces are severely limited for migrant survivors, and considering financial coercion commonly plays a part in abuse, many fleeing an abusive partner or family member would not be able to pay for their bed space. In the circumstances, the Women’s Aid Nowhere to Turn Project (2017) discovered that, on average, there was just one refuge space for NRPF women per region of England.

Pregnant migrant women are also left to fall through the cracks due to NRPF. Even women who are in work and who are able to receive Statutory Maternity Pay from their employer struggle to get by without significant savings. The lack of welfare support to help pregnant women during their time off work, both before and after giving birth, puts the mother and baby at severe risk of destitution. Case stories collected by the Unity Project illuminate how this looming threat of destitution compels heavily pregnant migrant women to stay in work longer than is advised, and return to work sooner after giving birth. One case documented the struggle of a pregnant single mother who continued her employment as a care worker up until a month before her due date, despite extreme pain and discomfort, as she was unable to take the time off that she needed for her pregnancy.

To add insult to injury, migrants residing in the UK on a Spouse Visa are simply being told to ‘rely on savings’ to meet the income requirements of this visa if they lose their jobs. The Spouse Visa requires that the British partner earns a minimum of £18,600 (before tax) to sponsor their non-UK spouse, or that the couple can accumulate joint savings of at least £16,000. However, with thousands of jobs being lost during the coronavirus outbreak, the income threshold could put thousands of migrant families with NRPF at risk of destitution or even deportation if they become unemployed and cannot meet the requirements of their visa at its renewal date.

However, in one welcome step forward, the Home Office has been forced to update its guidance on NRPF following a landmark case involving an eight-year-old boy and his mother in May 2020. The High Court ruled that NRPF had plunged the family into severe and unnecessary hardship, prompting the Government to tweak the rules slightly. Now, applicants who are at risk of ‘imminent destitution’ may apply to have the condition lifted. However, only those in the UK under a Family Visa may apply. Local council schemes already exist to provide funding to families and protect children in their jurisdiction, but clearly it is failing. Six in ten families who seek aid from their local council under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 are refused, presenting little confidence that the minor adjustment to NRPF will make any difference whatsoever to those in need of urgent financial support.

It is clear that it is the right thing to do to scrap the NRPF rule. The pandemic has helped shed light on the injustice of this policy and how many people are inches away from falling through the cracks and into destitution. Although recent discussions surrounding NRPF have been more positive, there is clearly still much more to do to ensure the rights of vulnerable people are protected.

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