Since the 1 March, 3.1 million people in the UK have applied for Universal Credit due to the ongoing Coronavirus crisis.
It is clear that we are a nation struggling: 1,006,620 payment advances have been granted to new and transfer claimants as people face an unprecedented era of job and income losses.
However, due to a policy introduced by then Home Secretary, Theresa May, there are many people in the UK who are struggling but have nowhere to turn for help. In the past decade, ‘hostile environment’ policies have increasingly ramped up, which includes the controversial No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) rule.
The condition is applicable to people who are not considered habitual long-term residents in the UK, meaning migrants who are in the UK under a visa. People without a permanent immigration status are prohibited from accessing social housing and most welfare benefits, including Universal Credit, child benefit, child tax credits and carers allowance.
Despite the current crisis – and the government’s various financial schemes and adaptations to the benefits system – NRPF rages on with the potential to plunge up to 1 million people in the UK into severe destitution. To the dismay of many, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared shocked when he first heard of NRPF in May. He promised an urgent review into the situation “because clearly people who have worked hard for this country and who live and work here should have support of one kind or another”, but Priti Patel dampened hopes of any such review in Parliament the following week.
And while cross-party MPs are now gathering to press the matter further, very little attention is being paid to the gender-based aspect of NRPF. Although the condition affects most overseas nationals in the country, migrant women and their children are disproportionately harmed.
Studies over the years continue to point to the impact NRPF has on women. For instance, women are more likely to be a single parent and shoulder most of the burden of childrearing and domestic responsibilities. Yet all the standard benefits a single mother might apply for, such as free school meals for their children and tax credits, are unavailable for migrant women. A report by the Unity Project reported that a third of applicants seeking their help are single mothers; and 77% of their cases are single mothers with a child under 10 years old.
Piling on the pressure, single mothers are left to battle insecure work and inflexible employment due to their childrearing commitments. Yet without NRPF and affordable childcare, migrant women struggle to make ends meet. Research even shows that parents with children of preschool age are far less likely to be employed.
Violence against women and girls continues to rocket at an alarming rate during the coronavirus crisis, with new data finding five women a week have been murdered at the hands of an abusive partner or family member since lockdown begun. Yet for migrant women in the UK under a Spouse Visa, there are no safety nets to protect them from harm, which is extremely concerning as data shows an estimated 23 per cent of destitute women experience domestic abuse. Refuges and shelters are normally only able to fund bed spaces through housing benefits, which destitute migrant women have no such access to. As such, the Nowhere to Turn Project (2017) by Women’s Aid discovered there is just one refuge space available for migrant victims of domestic abuse per every region of England.
UK-born children are similarly suffering as a result of the policy. The Children’s Society estimates that more than 100,000 children could be affected. There are reports of parents making heart-breaking decisions between food and nappies, worries over where the next meal will come from – all concerns that no parent should ever face; no circumstances a child should ever be put in.
By eight years old, one boy has lived through many such circumstances. He has moved school five times, been forced into street homelessness, and he’s lived his entire life in extreme poverty due to the NRPF policy. But he’s also taken the government to court – and won. Known only as W in the courts, he and his lawyers argued that the NRPF condition increased the risk of families becoming destitute, just as his family did. They also highlighted the public health risk created by forcing people into overcrowded accommodation or onto the streets, a particularly poignant point given the current circumstances.
This case is exemplary of how the policy affects women and children. W’s mother – known as J in the court – works as a carer for people with mental disabilities and, like many carers, has a low income. As a single mother who is barred from any financial help or housing aid, she struggled to provide for herself and W.
On the 29th of May, the Home Office updated its guidance on NRPF in light of the case. Now, parents with Leave to Remain under a Family Visa can apply for an exemption from the rule. However, it still doesn’t go far enough with parents still needing to prove to their local councils that they face ‘imminent destitution’. While for some the lifting of the condition may change their lives, for many others, it won’t.
It is important to note that migrants facing destitution can already ask for support – but the system is severely broken. Applicants reportedly fall victim to the ‘postcode lottery’ as local authorities are either ill-advised or lack the funds to help. Project17 discovered six in ten families are refused such help, and the process only serves as another complicated set of hoops for vulnerable people to jump through.
So, whilst some families may be able to navigate the notoriously difficult Home Office rules and prove their destitution, many more will continue to suffer in silence. With NRPF having already disproportionately created issues for women, it will likely be women who suffer the most during the pandemic too.
To make the system fair, at least during COVID-19, all migrants should be relieved of the condition. People in the UK should be able to apply for Universal Credit and jobseeker’s allowance as per their circumstances, not their immigration status, similar to that of those with British citizenship.
Until then, No Recourse to Public will remain a disgraceful, discriminatory policy at the best of times – and for many law-abiding, legal migrants who live, work and contribute to our communities, this is the very worst of times.
WeAreTheCity covers the latest female centric news stories from around the world, focusing on women in business, careers and current affairs. You can find all the latest gender news here.