This article explores the plight of the thousands of children living in destitution in the UK who do not appear in school poverty statistics because their families, owing to their immigration status, cannot access public funds such as housing benefit and child support. Local authorities, schools and third sector organisations are picking up the pieces left behind by national immigration policies.
We first came across this issue when we read about the work of Surrey Square Primary School in a 2017 Guardian article. It tells the story of a mother of two pupils at the school who had been sleeping on a local church floor for nine months because her ‘right to remain’ in the UK came with restrictions to seeking employment and to accessing public funds including housing benefit. Her story is, unfortunately, not uncommon: 50,000 adults with dependent children were given ‘no recourse to public funds’ from 2014 to 2016. While many families get by without state support, Children’s Society research demonstrates how unexpected changes in circumstances following arrival in the UK such as the breakdown of a relationship, escape from abuse or domestic violence, or the death of an earner can leave a single parent (more often than not, a mother) and their children destitute.
As Surrey Square Family Worker, Fiona Carrick-Davies, pointed out on a recent RSA visit to the primary school, finding yourself in these circumstances “isn’t something you broadcast”. So, while the school knows of around 40 children whose families’ immigration status prevents them accessing the public funds needed to provide the basics for their children, there may be many more that haven’t yet come forward. A critical part of Fiona’s job is to build trust with families so that they, like the mother at the centre of the Guardian article, might seek her help to access the support that local authorities, food banks and local charities can offer. The bedrock of human need: food, water, warmth and rest (see Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), is vital to children thriving in education. And yet a tension between immigration legislation and the provisions of the Children’s Act can leave some families struggling to meet these most basic of needs.
What is ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ and who is affected?
The immigration legislation of concern to us here is ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’. The overwhelming majority of those who come to the UK to work, study, join family and seek asylum, in addition to those who come to visit and overstay their visa, have this condition on their ‘right to remain in the UK’. It means that they cannot access public funds such as housing benefit, child support, job seeker’s allowance and tax credits unless they are able to gain citizenship or otherwise change their immigration status.
While the restriction technically applies to adults, it evidently affects children in their care when parents or guardians are not able to meet their needs without state support. This is particularly likely in cases where parents or guardians do not have the right to work, which may include those who have overstayed visas and are therefore undocumented, and those whose asylum claims have been refused. However, if parents or guardians become ‘destitute’, they can seek local authority support under the Children’s Act.
The role of local authorities
The Children’s Act 1989 places a duty on local authorities to safeguard the welfare of children and promotes the unity of families as long as this does not affect the wellbeing of children. Under the act, in circumstances where it is not possible to maintain a child’s good health and/or development (physical, intellectual, emotional, social and behavioural), local authorities should provide services to meet their needs including accommodation or assistance in cash or in kind. Local authorities must provide support to families with no recourse to public funds if they are considered ‘destitute’ i.e. do not have ‘adequate accommodation’ or the ability to ‘meet essential living needs’ (with the exception of asylum seekers whose support comes from the Home Office).
A 2015 study from the University of Oxford's Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) estimated, based on local authority data, that in 2012/13, there were likely around 3,400 families and 5,900 children with no recourse to public funds whose basic needs were being met by local authorities. However, research from the Children’s Society suggests that the numbers in need may be greater: only 38% of families who apply for this support from local authorities receive it.
Even those who do receive accommodation, clothing, food and/or a subsistence allowance may find that the support provided does not meet their needs. The accommodation offered is often in B&Bs, which local authorities admit to be ‘inappropriate, inadequate and expensive’, but their choices are often limited by the lack of available accommodation within their jurisdiction. Sometimes, this results in a decision to move families far from their child’s school and the community in which they have started to build a life. Meanwhile, subsistence payments are very low: the Children’s Rights Alliance for England reports that they are as low as £2 per person per day in some areas. This can leave families struggling to provide the essentials for their children.
Fighting an uphill battle
The lack of available support is perhaps unsurprising when you consider that local authorities are expected to fulfil these duties under the Children’s Act without specific funding from central government to provide such services. Growth in the No Recourse to Public Funds caseload over the last few years has come at a bad time for local authorities; coinciding with shrinking council budgets. What’s more, there is an issue of distribution: there are very high concentrations of families with this immigration condition in certain local authorities. One local authority alone is home to 11% of the national total of families with no recourse to public funds.
In these circumstances, the thresholds for assessments that families have to complete in order to secure support vary from place to place. Some families may not even reach the point of being assessed. The vulnerability and lack of access to information that families face, as well as a fear of adverse consequences if they make contact with the authorities – from being separated from their children to being returned to their country of origin – mean that it can take some time before families in even the most desperate of situations seek help.
This is where the role of services with which these families interact, including the NHS and schools, become critical. Indeed, most referrals to local authorities come through these services:
‘As their situation deteriorated it was frequently these services that identified emerging welfare needs, for instance a teacher noticing that children were hungry at school or health visitor noticing that home circumstances were awry’. (Price and Spencer, 2015)
The role of schools
The duty for teachers to safeguard children’s wellbeing is enshrined in the Teachers’ Standards and reiterated in the Keeping Children Safe in Education guidance, which outlines responsibilities including making referrals for statutory assessments under the Children’s Act 1989. What’s more, as the quote above makes clear, teachers are well placed to notice changes in children’s circumstances through their daily attendance, presentation and behaviour at school, and they inherently feel a sense of duty to act where something seems awry.
However, as we learned in our visit to Surrey Square Primary School, these actions sometimes go far above and beyond the call of duty. As we walked into Fiona’s office, we couldn’t help but notice a pile of airbeds and other basic household items in the corner of the room. She explained that “teachers bring in anything they can” to help pupils. School staff have been known to help families move from hostel to hostel, as they are often forced to move regularly while trapped in the cycle of temporary accommodation. Surrey Square School also provide a daily breakfast club that is open to all children and their families, and they work in close partnership with foodbanks and with summer club providers who can ensure children have both food and activities in the holidays. Why make such a big investment in matters for which the school is not technically responsible? As Fiona put it:
“If something in your home life is affecting your ability to learn then we need to do something about it” - Fiona Carrick-Davies
Surrey Square Primary School is not alone. In May this year, the plights of families with No Recourse to Public Funds hit the news. Headteachers and campaigners expressed outrage at the fact that children from families with NRPF were denied free school meals. One head teacher, Ian Bennett, of Downshall Primary School in Essex, spoke about how he had taken money from the school budget to feed the children in his school (in Year 3 and above) who would have otherwise gone hungry owing to their parents’ immigration status.
What is to be done?
It is clear, as COMPAS recommend, that targeted funding from central government could help local authorities better meet the needs of families with no recourse to public funds, but this must be structured to reflect the varying levels of demand that different local authorities are dealing with.
In the meantime, a good place to start would be to give children from these families, many of whom were born in the UK, free school meals. At present, primary schools are given £2.30 per pupil per meal in primary schools, which means that for less than £500, a child can be fed for a whole academic year. Making these pupils free school meal eligible would also mean that the schools that they attend would receive related Pupil Premium, which, after all, is designed to meet the needs of students just like them.