Amendment 53

Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill - Committee (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 9:45 pm on 14th September 2020.

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Lord Rosser:

Moved by Lord Rosser

53: After Clause 4, insert the following new Clause—“Exemption from no recourse to public funds(1) This section applies during the current Covid-19 pandemic, as defined by the World Health Organisation on 11 March 2020.(2) Section 3(1)(c)(i) and (ii) of the Immigration Act 1971 cannot be applied to persons who have lost rights because of section 1 of and Schedule 1 to this Act.(3) This section may not be disapplied unless a resolution is passed by each House of Parliament.”Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause would delay application of No Recourse to Public Funds rules during the current pandemic and until such time as Parliament decides.

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

My Lords, many non-UK nationals with leave to remain in the UK, such as people on work or family visas, are subject to the no recourse to public funds condition. This prohibits them from claiming a large number of benefits. The condition also means that some British children whose parents have NRPF, due to their immigration status, are effectively unable to access many benefits, as they are unable to make a claim in their own right.

Most non-EEA national migrants with temporary permission to remain in the UK have no recourse to public funds. To keep within the scope of this Bill, Amendment 53 would prevent no recourse to public funds being applied to EEA and Swiss nationals; that is, those who lose rights under Part 1 of the Bill during the current pandemic and then until such a time as Parliament decides. Before I proceed any further, I ask the Minister, when he responds, to say whether an EEA or Swiss national with pre-settled status, rather than settled status, would be subject to NRPF.

Since April, we have been calling for no recourse to public funds to be suspended for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. We asked the Government to lift NRPF as a condition on a person’s migration status, in order to ensure that nobody was left behind in the public health effort undertaken in the fight against coronavirus.

Nearly six months since the national lockdown was announced, towards the end of March, local lockdowns are still required and today sees a retightening in national restrictions on social gatherings. This is a reminder that the pandemic has not gone away. Indeed, the number of new cases of the virus has risen sharply in the last week or so, and the full extent of the economic impact is probably still to come. What the coming winter has in store for us pandemic-wise is unknown, but there appears to be a general consensus, including in government, that the situation is more likely to deteriorate than to improve.

The Migration Observatory estimates that, at the end of last year, more than 175,000 children lived in families affected by no recourse to public funds, and that more than 1.3 million people had held valid visas that would usually have no recourse to public funds conditions attached to them.

The Children’s Society has said that thousands are facing “extreme poverty” during the pandemic, due to their families having no recourse to public funds. A significant number of the parents the Children’s Society is supporting are front-line key workers in the NHS and social care sectors.

Citizens Advice has reported that the number of people seeking advice on NRPF has doubled during the pandemic, and that it has been approached by people facing an

“impossible choice of returning to work while ill, shielding, or living with someone who is shielding or losing their income.”

In June, the Home Affairs and Work and Pensions Select Committees recommended that the Government should “immediately suspend NRPF” for the duration of the pandemic on public health grounds. That is very similar to what we are seeking as far as Amendment 53 is concerned .The Work and Pensions Committee reported:

“As a result of the no recourse to public funds condition, many hardworking and law-abiding people are being left without a social safety net and at risk of destitution and homelessness.”

In saying that, the Select Committee was also pointing out that NRPF was hitting people who are working legally in the UK and raising their families here, with many being key workers or front-line medical staff.

In response to a question from the chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee on 27 May, the Prime Minister said:

“Clearly people who have worked hard for this country, who live and work here, should have support of one kind or another … I will find out how many there are in that position and we will see what we can do to help.”

The silence since then suggests that little or nothing has been done, or will be done, to help.

In June, when asked by MPs, including Select Committee chairs, for an official estimate of how many people are affected by “no recourse to public funds”, the Home Secretary did not know. The Home Office does not hold these figures, which is perhaps a reflection of the importance, or lack of it, that the Home Office attaches to people with NRPF during the current pandemic in particular. Perhaps the Government will provide us with the figures in their response.

The Government are not unaware of the risk of destitution that NRPF is posing, particularly in the current situation. In March, the Local Government Minister, Luke Hall MP, wrote to local authorities calling on them to

“utilise alternative powers and funding to assist those with no recourse to public funds who require shelter and other forms of support due to the Covid-19 pandemic”.

All too typically, though, this was not backed up with any clear instructions, guidance or funding, even though it was telling local authorities that people with no recourse to public funds should now have such recourse. The result has been inconsistency in application and authorities unable to do as asked, due to the effects of austerity and cuts in government funding, leading to a patchy postcode lottery.

As the Government will no doubt say, it is possible for families to apply for their NRPF conditions to be lifted when, due to a change in their circumstances, they are facing destitution—that is, assuming they know that it is possible, and how, and to whom, to apply. I understand that, in the first quarter of 2020, 843 applications were received for this relief; in the second quarter, 5,565 were received. This shows, on the Government’s own figures, that thousands of people are now in need of relief from no recourse to public funds. Will the Government, in response, either confirm that they do not know the answer or say what percentage of those on NRPF 5,565 represents, in respect of how many of the 5,565 applications the NRPF conditions were lifted, and whether they were lifted fully?

Support groups report that the process to have no recourse to public funds lifted is lengthy, complex, not available to all, and includes too high a burden of proof. Indeed, the Home Affairs Select Committee has recommended that the evidential burden for a change in circumstances due to the pandemic should be reduced.

Until now, the Government’s answer on this issue has been that those on NRPF are able to access the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the Self-employment Income Support Scheme. Of course, that assumes that those on NRPF are aware of this, and that they are eligible to benefit from the schemes. Could the Government say how many of those on NRPF have accessed the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the Self-employment Income Support Scheme, and what has been the average payment made?

Leaving that aside, the Chancellor is shortly and prematurely closing these schemes, to the detriment of working people and whole sectors across our economy. What support will those with no recourse to public funds have access to then, particularly during this pandemic? The straightforward solution is surely for the Government to accept the terms of Amendment 53, and not apply no recourse to public funds during the pandemic and then until such a time as Parliament decides. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Lister of Burtersett Baroness Lister of Burtersett Labour 10:00 pm, 14th September 2020

My Lords, I rise to speak in support of Amendment 53, to which I have added my name, which was moved so ably by my noble friend Lord Rosser. I am sure that I also support Amendment 73, but that has not been explained yet.

The recent report of the Food, Poverty, Health and Environment Committee identified those with no recourse to public funds as particularly vulnerable to food poverty and insecurity. The impact on children has to be of particular concern.

A pre-Covid study of children and food by the Child Poverty Action Group—of which I am honorary president—found that children in families subject to the rule were among the most deprived in the study. Both children and their parents were going hungry, and denial of entitlement to free school meals was a particular problem. One child said of his hunger that

“it was like I got stabbed with a knife and it’s still there.”

Another explained:

“Sometimes you don’t have enough energy, you cannot cope in the classroom so you have to, like, try and rest a bit. You just put your head on the table and you end up falling asleep in the classroom and you get in trouble for it.”

The partial concession, which allowed some children in families with NRPF to claim free school meal support this summer, was very welcome as far as it went. But what possible justification could there be for withdrawing it now that these children are back at school, with the pandemic very much still with us? A letter from 60 organisations to the Education Secretary last month put it very well; it said that

“the Covid-19 pandemic simply exposed the precariousness of daily life for thousands of NRPF families, where the absence of a safety net leaves them only one crisis away from catastrophe. No matter where the next few months lead us, this basic fact will not change. Meanwhile, the effects of this crisis will continue to be felt for years to come. While much effort is being made to ensure children do not fall behind, without access to free school meals many children in NRPF families will face having to make up for half a year of lost learning on empty stomachs, at a time when they may still be struggling to cope with the mental and emotional aftershocks of lockdown.”

As we have heard, the Government have devolved to local authorities much of the responsibility for this extremely vulnerable group, without willing them the means to provide the support needed and without providing clear enough guidance during the pandemic. In particular, as the Work and Pensions Committee noted, there is lack of clarity on whether local welfare assistance funds, which have been boosted during the pandemic, count as public funds for these purposes. Could the Minister provide a definitive clarification on this?

Another concern, as we have heard, is the lack of official data. There has been an exchange between the chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, the UK Statistics Authority and the Home Office on the issue. While it is welcome that the Home Office has now published data on the change of condition applications, this is only a rough indicator of the extent of hardship caused and the data need to be disaggregated. Could the Minister undertake to see what can be done to improve the provision of data, possibly in consultation with the Children’s Society, which has done a lot of work on this? Without it, how can the Home Office assess the impact of the policy?

The amendments raise important social policy issues, but more fundamentally they raise crucial human rights issues. As Project 17 and Sustain point out, the UK Government have signed up to a number of international human rights standards that uphold the right to food, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I agree with them that, to uphold these obligations,

“our Government should ensure that all children, regardless of immigration status or any other characteristic, are able to access food in a dignified way and this should include universal entitlement to healthy free school meals.”

Of course the “no recourse” rule does not only affect access to food—for example, there are serious concerns about its impact on survivors of domestic abuse, which we will be raising when the Domestic Abuse Bill is with us—but the right to food is crucial to both healthy development and education.

Amendment 53 is a very modest amendment—indeed, some might say too modest—but it could make a real difference to a significant number of extremely vulnerable people, including children and women subject to domestic abuse. The Work and Pensions Committee suggested that the total number exceeds a million, of whom at least 100,000 are children. Moreover, as the committee underlined and my noble friend has already pointed out, there is a very strong case on public health grounds for the immediate suspension of the rule at least for the duration of the outbreak.

I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that the Government are giving serious consideration to the recommendations of the Work and Pensions Committee and the Home Affairs Committee, and will not dismiss this amendment in the frankly complacent way that the Immigration Minister did in the Commons, with reference to “a range of safeguards” that evidence from a range of organisations indicates simply are not sufficient to prevent severe hardship and destitution.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I support Amendment 53 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, which is also signed by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, and the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, and Amendment 73 in my own name. I thank her for offering her support before I had even spoken to it; that is much appreciated.

To be speaking on these two amendments in what is Universal Basic Income Week around the globe has both an irony and an extra importance. Universal basic income would be an unconditional payment going to everyone accepted as a member of our society. No recourse to public funds, together with universal credit, is the extreme other view: conditionality that can deny people the most basic support that they need and human rights, such as the right to food, which the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, just referred to.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, cited what I believe are figures from Citizens Advice showing that 1.4 million people are on visas, or have received visas, that may leave them having no recourse to public funds and therefore, in the age of Covid-19, intensely vulnerable. This is not just a human rights issue; it is an issue of public health. If you face your children going hungry and you have Covid symptoms but you could go to work, what do you do? That is a very difficult situation and one that potentially puts everyone’s health at risk. As other noble Lords have said, this is a very modest measure to apply in the special circumstances of Covid-19 when so many other things in our society have had to adjust and flex.

However, I want to speak chiefly to Amendment 73, which, as I alluded to earlier, is part of a package with Amendments 71 and 72. Together they create a situation where the end of freedom of movement could not be brought in until people who were newly affected by the hostile environment were freed from that environment. As I said previously, this is something that Liberty has done a great deal of work on, and I appreciate its support on this matter.

In the previous debates, the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, spoke about the situation where people—most likely women—trapped in abusive relationships are in a very difficult situation if they cannot access evidence of their status. Of course, this is also true if they have no recourse to public funds and, over many years, I have spoken to many people—particularly workers in refuges—who have been left greatly distressed by their inability to help people in the most desperate need because they are in a situation where they have no recourse to public funds. People make choices to remain in abusive relationships because their other option is hunger and homelessness—a situation where they are also highly vulnerable to abuse.

So we need to think about what kind of society the UK is. I believe that we should be a society with a universal basic income; one where everyone has access to the support that they need. However, in the meantime, Amendment 73 would spare people being newly affected by the hostile environment of “no recourse to public funds” and spare them the impacts of this.

I am well aware that, with the Minister, we are on something of a merry-go-round and back to saying that this is discriminatory. Of course, I would absolutely welcome it and be delighted if this was to be applied to everybody affected by “no recourse to public funds”. However, in the meantime, I have put down the amendment that I have been told is what is allowed within the scope of the Bill. “No recourse to public funds” is now a dreadful sentence being inflicted on innocent people through no fault of their own. That is true under Covid and all the time, and I suggest that this is something we cannot allow to continue.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, both of these amendments seek to do something that I think very much aims to right the injustice of a million people—100,000 children, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, was saying—having no recourse to public funds. For many of them, in a time of Covid, that means no food and potentially no heating, which is a danger to the most vulnerable in terms of, “Are they going to starve, are they able to get food that they can then cook from a food bank?” Because one of the real difficulties that you hear so often from people running food banks is that people say, “Please can I have some food that does not need to be cooked because I cannot actually afford to cook anything”. So we are talking about people who are going to be very vulnerable.

The hour is late, and I do not wish to detain the House for very long, but we have already heard that this is about social policy, public health and human rights. What sort of a country are we if we allow children to go to school who cannot be fed and say, “Well, I’m terribly sorry, you can’t have free school meals because your parent has no recourse to public funds”? Whatever choices the parents have made—whether they could or could not go home to another country—the child under 18 has no such say; their rights need to be taken into consideration.

These amendments are limited. We are talking about a time of global pandemic. The amendments are not asking for people to be taken out of “no recourse to public funds” in perpetuity, but the current context is that the economy is in a very, very difficult situation and many people who thought they had a job—perhaps on an hourly basis or possibly a zero-hours contract—may find there are no hours and they may not have been furloughed. Can the Government not find it in their heart to deal with these people fairly? It may be a question of immigration law saying that, normally, it is not right for these people to have recourse to public funds—whether that is right or not is for a wider debate—but, in the narrow context of EU nationals who find themselves still in the UK and unable to access public funds in the current context of Covid, please can the Government think about acting?

Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour 10:15 pm, 14th September 2020

My Lords, I warmly congratulate my noble friend Lord Rosser and the other signatories to this vital amendment. The new clause they have described would delay application of “no recourse to public funds” rules during the current pandemic and until such time as Parliament decides. That is a high purpose.

While I enthusiastically support the amendment, as Amnesty and other non-governmental organisations working on the front line remind us, there is a need to look at the importance of providing access to welfare support for all people in the group with which we are currently concerned during the current and future pandemics to ensure that people lawfully in the UK whom it is plainly anticipated will remain here, such as people permitted to stay by reason of their private life and people who have joined family for purposes of settling, are not left destitute.

Of course, while Amendment 73 provides an opportunity to examine the wider implications, I stress again that the NGOs are right to insist that we need to look at all those who are put in jeopardy by circumstances out of their control such as the pandemic, and measures taken in response to it, as well as illness, accident, redundancy and changes to immigration rules, or things that people have been given no or insufficient opportunity to plan or prepare for. This is an utterly humane and sensible amendment and I do hope it finds favour with the Government.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Immigration)

My Lords, Covid has proved a desperate situation in so many different ways. One of the telling impacts is on individuals who have no recourse to public funds, not just for them as individuals but, as other noble Lords have said, in the context of public health, if they have to go to work, or to collect food from a food bank or other donors. The position is diametrically opposed to the UBI universal benefit, to which reference has been made. There is a lot to be said for that.

On Amendment 73, it occurred to me to ask what the policy aim is, because it reads as a hostile environment measure. What is the purpose of applying the no recourse rule to people whose future clearly lies in the UK? It is hard not to come to the conclusion that it is about starving them out.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who spoke on this group of amendments concerning exemption from no recourse to public funds. I will reply to Amendments 53 and 73 together because they are quite similar in nature. I recognise the strength of feeling on this issue, particularly in the light of the challenges that many people face as a result of the current pandemic, as noble Lords have talked about. I genuinely welcome noble Lords’ desire to ensure that those most in need, particularly children, are supported at this time but I am afraid that I cannot accept these amendments. I will go through the reasons why.

As noble Lords will know, most migrants visiting, studying, working or joining family in the UK are subject to a no recourse to public funds condition until they have obtained indefinite leave to remain. Individuals here without leave are also subject to the condition. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked for numbers. I am afraid that these numbers are not part of the published statistics, but I know that Home Office analysts are looking at the data to determine what figures could be reduced.

The noble Baroness also talked about the provision of data. In his letter to the UK Statistics Authority, the Home Office chief statistician committed

“to further investigate the administrative data we hold to assess whether it can provide any meaningful information on the issue of hardship specifically”.

However, given the fluid nature of migration, it is quite difficult to provide an accurate figure of how many people are subject to NRPF, but we will do our best to get some meaningful figures.

The policy is based on the well-established principle that migrants coming to the UK should be able to maintain and support themselves and their families without posing a burden to the welfare system. It is designed to assure the public that controlled immigration brings real benefits to the UK and does not lead to excessive demands on the UK’s finite resources. In exempting a significant cohort from the no recourse to public funds condition, even for a limited time, the new clause proposed by Amendment 53 would undermine this policy and increase the pressure on those resources. Depending on how far into 2021 and beyond this new clause continued to apply, it may also act as an incentive for EEA citizens who are not covered by the withdrawal agreements or other immigration leave to attempt to come to the UK to access benefits and services to which they would not otherwise be entitled.

Nevertheless, the Government absolutely recognise the importance of supporting those in genuine need. Existing exemptions and safeguards are in place to ensure that lawful migrants who are destitute or at imminent risk of destitution can receive support, including the option to apply to have the no recourse to public funds condition lifted. During the pandemic, as noble Lords will know, the Government have gone further by introducing measures such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme—the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, referred to this—and the self-employed income support scheme to support people, including those with no recourse to public funds.

More than £4.3 billion has been allocated to local authorities in England to support them in delivering their services, including helping the most vulnerable, with further funding for the devolved Administrations. As the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, alluded to, the Government have also temporarily extended the eligibility criteria for free school meals to support families with NRPF, in recognition of the difficulties that they may be facing during these unique circumstances.

Those individuals with leave under the family and human rights routes can apply to have the condition lifted through a change of conditions application. The Home Office is prioritising and dealing with these applications compassionately, as shown by the 89% of 5,665 applications accepted in the second quarter of 2020, due to exceptional changes that some individuals faced in their financial circumstances. We cannot say what percentage of these with NRPF the 5,665 represents.

I turn to Amendment 73, which would extend the exemption beyond the current pandemic. Under our new global immigration system, EEA citizens coming to the UK will be subject to the same requirements as non-EEA citizens, including the same conditions restricting access to public funds. The effect of this proposed new clause would be to maintain an immigration system that provides preferential treatment regarding access to benefits and services to EEA citizens over most non-EEA citizens. This is not the Government’s intention, creating a system that is not fair and does not reflect the will of the British people, demonstrated by the EU referendum and, more recently, the general election.

To answer the question of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, I can say that those EEA citizens who are already resident here, or who are resident by the end of the transition period, can apply to the EU settlement scheme. This allows them to access benefits and services in the UK on at least the same basis as they were before being granted that status, so EEA and Swiss nationals with pre-settled status are not subject to NRPF. That significantly reduces the need for these amendments.

I understand the need to protect the vulnerable, especially during this time, and particularly in cases involving families or children, but there are already measures in place to provide this support. These proposed new clauses would also undermine the intention to create a global unified immigration system which treats EEA and non-EEA citizens equally. For the reasons I have set out, I hope that noble Lords will be happy not to press their amendments.

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

I am sure that the Minister will not be surprised to hear me withdraw the amendment, but there are one or two comments I would like to make in reply. The first is to thank her for responding to the question I asked at the beginning. That answer confirmed that an EEA or Swiss national with pre-settled status would be able to apply for benefits and would not be restricted in being covered by NRPF—at least that is what I took from her response.

The Minister has confirmed—I am sure she will correct me if I am being unfair—that the Home Office does not really know how many people are affected by NRPF. At least, if it does know, it is still pondering whether to reveal the figures. On behalf of the Government, she said that, of the 5,665 who had asked for assistance for the NRPF conditions to be lifted, 89% had had that agreed. I do not know from that answer how much they were seeking and how much they actually got. If it was not very much or nowhere near what most people would regard as adequate, 89% would frankly not mean a great deal. It would be helpful if the Minister indicated, either now or subsequently in correspondence, what the average payment was and whether, in making the application, people had indicated how much they needed and the extent to which that need had been fully met.

I will not labour the point because in much of what I said I was not producing new arguments; I was quoting what other organisations have said about the effect that the pandemic is having on families with “no recourse to public funds”. The Children’s Society, Citizens Advice and indeed the Home Affairs Select Committee and Work and Pensions Select Committee have referred to the immediate impact on those affected of “no recourse to public funds” during the pandemic. Basically, they say that action needs to be taken now as far as the pandemic is concerned.

I repeat that only because it was, after all, the Government, through the Local Government Minister, who wrote to local authorities asking them to utilise alternative powers and funding to assist. Therefore, clearly the Government recognised that there was a problem. However, despite what the Government keep saying—it is said across the board—about how much they have given local authorities, we all know that local authorities have suffered badly from austerity and cuts to funding. Just producing a figure and saying that local authorities have received so much is not an indication that local authorities have the money to be able to do what the Government wanted them to do in relation to assisting those on NRPF with additional funding.

What I found a bit depressing—I was going to say “particularly hard to take”, but I do not mean it in that sense—was to hear the response to an amendment which simply seeks to say, “Please do something during the period of the pandemic and until such time as Parliament decides otherwise”, meaning that how long it goes on for is in the hands of Parliament. However, in response to what I would have thought was that fairly limited objective, what I got back from the Government was all about an alleged burden on the immigration system, undermining the policy and encouraging more people to come here.

I ask the Government not to use that argument. The amendment is particularly about the situation during this pandemic, and it is then in the hands of Parliament to decide how long it goes on for. Frankly, with the majority that the Government have, I would not have thought that they would have too much problem in getting their own way once the pandemic ends. This is about a short-term measure to cover the pandemic, and, frankly, I only regret that the Government’s response was to trot out the usual things about wanting uniformity of policy and about it being a burden on the immigration system, undermining policy and encouraging more people to come here. It would not do those things. Admittedly, I do not know how long the pandemic will go on for, but it is a proposal to address a relatively short-term situation being made worse by the pandemic—a situation to which many organisations, including Commons Select Committees, have drawn attention. Something ought to be done to address it.

I have expressed my regrets about the response, but, as I said I would do at the beginning, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 53 withdrawn.

Photo of Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Deputy Chairman of Committees 10:30 pm, 14th September 2020

We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 54. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division should make that clear at the end of the debate.