It is, by now, well known that the UK government has, for much of the past decade, been operating what itself terms a “hostile environment” for some migrants. Following various scandals, the hostile environment has become the “compliant environment” but, behind the name, little has changed.
The condition of “no recourse to public funds” is one of the least known elements of the hostile environment but it is also one of the most damaging. Many of those assigned the status of no recourse to public funds have a leave to remain in the UK, but are prevented access to a range of benefits. These include income support, child tax credit, universal credit and housing benefits. Most asylum seekers who apply for immigration status are trapped in this limbo. As undocumented people, they have no right to work. As applicants with a temporary permit to remain, they have no right to social welfare.
Nearly 1.4 million people are thought to have had no recourse to public funds in the UK in 2020 – including 175,000 children. The system is carefully crafted to relieve the government of any legal obligation to provide resources. As the government cannot legally force these people back to their home countries, it encourages them to leave by making their lives impossible.
Since 2012, the Home Office started putting no recourse to public funds conditions on people in the process of legally settling in the UK. This includes families with British or settled children or partners who have been living and working in the UK for years.
Local authorities can provide accommodation to families with children with no recourse to public funds. However, they often have to move around, living in temporary shared council accommodation. This means that children struggle to settle and are forced to move neighbourhood and school, sometimes even more than once a year. Living conditions in council accommodation are also extremely basic and sometimes far from sustainable. It’s not uncommon for a family to have to share one bedroom between them. Relying on charities and food banks quickly becomes the only option for families living with no recourse to public funds.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the government to face the problems caused by its no recourse to public funds policy. Exceptions have had to be made as more and more people have found themselves in this situation.
In May, Labour MP Stephen Timms addressed prime minister Boris Johnson with the case of a family living in his constituency. Both parents in the family were from Pakistan, had leave to remain in the UK and had worked for years but the father had lost his job because of the pandemic. Their status as having no recourse to public funds had left them unable to pay their rent.
The prime minister appeared to have no idea that a family could be reduced to living this way or what their legal situation would be. He asked why they couldn’t claim universal credit and when he was told that they had no recourse to public funds he seemed taken back. He could only reply that he would look into it.
The incident drew public attention to the policy and pressure quickly mounted on the government to take action. Charities warned of the abrupt rise in homeless migrant workers with no recourse to public funds. Many had been working until lockdown in the hospitality industry, and have struggled to pay rent since losing their jobs.
During the first and second lockdowns, children with no recourse to public funds were excluded from the free school meal voucher scheme. This scheme has now been extended to include some but not all of these children – and only on a temporary basis.
After some debate, people with no recourse to public funds have also been included in the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme and let them access statutory sick pay.
People with no recourse to public funds are now able to access these schemes but the confusion surrounding the exceptions has left many unsure of what their rights are. The government is also clear that they are exceptional measures. But no recourse to public funds is not an exceptional rule. It is the law. People trapped by the policy were struggling before the pandemic started and will keep struggling when it will be over.
By including people with no recourse to public funds among those vulnerable groups who have been most affected by COVID-19, the government has implicitly admitted that the system was not working at its roots. By reaching out now, the government is recognising that forcing people to live under no recourse to public funds during the pandemic is unacceptable and it should now consider whether it’s ever acceptable under normal conditions.
Benedetta Zocchi volunteers at PRAXIS for Migrants and Refugees and is completing her PhD at Queen Mary University of London