Compass: Safeguarding Children from Destitution:

2015 June 18BASW: Local Authority Responses to Families with ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’

Implications for policy and practice: There is a range of steps which could be considered to address this situation.
The use of the ‘No recourse to public funds’ restriction as a means of immigration control – whether it is necessary and proportionate or alternatives could be deployed – is beyond the scope of this study. We suggest only that our findings should be taken into account in any review of the extent to which the NRPF restriction is used, not least for people who will be in the UK for long periods, recognising the implications for children in the small minority of families that become destitute and financial consequences for local authorities.
The impact on local authority budgets could be addressed by reducing the time taken to resolve cases, and by targeted, grant-funding from central government, based on an agreed set of criteria and standardised definition of destitution. That support could alleviate the current disincentive for local authorities to recognise that a child is in need and at the same time raise the level of priority within the Home Office for efficient case resolution, creating savings for the public purse. Agreement between local and central government on criteria for funding should lead to less litigation, a further cost saving, and a more consistent approach across local authorities.
Delays in case resolution could be addressed through extended membership by local authorities of NRPF Connect which provides a means to strengthen working relations between the responsible staff in local authorities and the Home Office respectively. Those local authorities that are not members need to be convinced that the financial cost of membership would indeed be quickly repaid by the prompt resolution of their supported NRPF cases; while those that are not members should not find that their cases are, in turn, de-prioritised.
Ways in which local authorities could in turn contribute to the voluntary return of families whose application to stay is rejected could also be considered, including raising awareness of the availability of assistance with return and the eligibility criteria that apply.
Statutory agencies and the voluntary sector, play a vital role in recognising safeguarding risks. Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs), which bring statutory and non-statutory agencies together in each area to foster cooperation and effective joint-working, should consider the particular situation and unmet needs of destitute children in NRPF families in their area and ways to enhance the effectiveness of joint working. NHS services, police, children’s centres and other statutory and voluntary services need to be informed of the potential availability of s17 support.
A series of measures could improve the consistency in local authorities’ screening and assessment processes. The statutory guidance on assessment of children in need should be revised to make specific reference to the particular considerations in the cases of destitute NRPF children and families seeking s17 support, clarifying for staff what they need to know (including in relation to destitution 60 and human rights) without seeking to limit their professional judgement on how the guidance is implemented (Munro, 2014); coupled with training of social workers and case workers on the law and procedures. This would have benefits for staff and families, and for confidence in central government that any funding on these cases is appropriate. The statutory guidance should cover minimum acceptable rates for subsistence, or set a rate linked to an existing benefit level (so that it changes over time), taking into account the cost of meeting a child’s basic needs and the provision of appropriate accommodation to meet the long-term needs of children and families. Authorities could consider the efficiency of demarcating a dedicated NRPF team or social worker as a focal point of expertise and for referral from other agencies.
The lack of capacity in the voluntary sector to provide advice and support could be addressed through referrals across and joint working between organisations that are providers of advice in the children, welfare and refugee/migrant sectors. Funding bodies could consider whether the terms of their funding unintentionally exclude this group, restricting its use to limited categories such as those in the refugee protection system. Finally, the availability of training across the voluntary sector in the complex intersection of immigration and children’s law that governs these cases, and provision of information to the sector on changes in law and guidance, could be addressed.
This report explores a tension between two areas of policy concerning the welfare of children: between provisions in immigration law that exclude some families from accessing mainstream welfare benefits (‘no recourse to public funds’) and a requirement on local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of any child ‘in need’. It sets out the findings of a study that has investigated the challenges to which that tension gives rise, for local authorities and for the children and families concerned. From a survey of local authorities in England and Wales and of voluntary sector support agencies, eight local authority research sites and 92 interviews with 49 service providers and 43 parents (in 41 families), it finds evidence that draws into question whether the intention of the law – to safeguard children in need – is for this group of children always being met.
Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 (s17) is the duty of local authorities in England and Wales to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in their area who are ‘in need’ and to promote the upbringing of such children by their families. The vast majority of cases of children in need, beyond the scope of our study, are related to abuse or neglect, family dysfunction or domestic violence (Department for Education, 2014). However, s17’s scope is broad and can include the provision of accommodation and financial support where families with dependent children are destitute, a destitute child being ‘in need’ for the purposes of s17. Administered by local authority Children’s Services departments, s17 in part functions as an accommodation safety net for families who fall through the gaps of mainstream welfare benefit provision and who cannot access informal support outside statutory services.

A small but growing group whose needs are met under this legislative provision are families that are living in the UK and are destitute, but have no access to welfare benefits, including benefits related to accommodation. The disentitlement to welfare benefits arises because a parent has, as a condition of their immigration status, ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF). ‘Public funds’ here is the legal term for certain ‘welfare benefits’ defined under Paragraph 6 of the Immigration Rules1 and is not to be confused with publicly funded services more generally. Significantly, the support provided under s17 does not fall within the definition of a public fund so that having NRPF does not preclude those families from being considered eligible to receive it. Unusually for Children’s Services departments, they do not act alone in relation to these s17 cases but need to liaise with the Home Office because of its management of the immigration status of the families concerned.

In recent years, some local authorities have seen a rise in the number of NRPF families receiving long-term accommodation and financial support under s17. The NRPF policy affects adults who are subject to immigration control so that parents in these families are from abroad, although a significant minority of their children are British citizens.

Whilst nationals of EEA countries (‘mobile EU citizens’) are not affected by the NRPF policy per se, they are subject to separate eligibility criteria restricting their access to public funds. If they become destitute in the UK and have dependent children, they too may become eligible for safety net support under s17. The profile of families that are excluded from mainstream welfare benefits and receive support under s17 is becoming increasingly heterogeneous, and is explored in depth in this study.