Safeguarding vulnerable children with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF)

Andrew Jolly explores the role of social work when working with children with NRPF and what more can be done to protect them.

16/03/21

Safeguarding vulnerable children with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF)

In March 2016, two-year-old Lynne Mutumba and her mother Lillian Oluk were found dead in their flat in Gillingham, Kent. At the inquest the coroner recorded an open verdict. The examinations suggested that Lillian had been suffering from malnutrition and Lynne was dehydrated. There was also no food in the house at the time of their deaths. Although Lynne had been born in the UK, her mother had No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) due to her undocumented immigration status, and was restricted from taking on paid work or claiming mainstream benefits.

The subsequent serious case review found that most agencies who were working with the family achieved the standards expected of them. However, the review also proposed that “lawful and efficient responses are not always enough to compensate for the very particular vulnerabilities of the extremely marginalised group represented by those who have no recourse to public funds”. The review found that the vulnerabilities of children with NRPF are so high that the law cannot ensure that the basic needs of these children can be met. We cannot know for certain the exact circumstances of the deaths, but social workers were not able to respond adequately to prevent them.

The role of social work
People with NRPF aren’t allowed access to benefits or the majority of other mainstream welfare support including housing because of their immigration status. The specific groups of migrants this applies to range from those who are undocumented or whose leave has expired, to EU nationals not currently economically active, and through to people who have been granted leave but with the NRPF condition attached -- an increasingly common status granted by the Home Office.

No entitlement to welfare support can mean it’s difficult to provide basic care to children or meet adults’ care needs to a satisfactory level. However, ‘Child in need support’ under Section 17 of the Children Act is not a public fund in the Immigration Rules. This means local authorities can provide accommodation and subsistence alongside other support to children and families who face homelessness or destitution directly due to this restriction on their immigration status.

However, in many cases social workers remain unsure or unaware about this entitlement so families can often be refused support erroneously. Some local authorities practice ‘robust front door’ policies in order to make it more difficult for families to get the support they need, and even when support is provided, analysis by Hackney Migrant Centre found that housing is often substandard or inappropriate for children (Threipland 2015). Additionally, an analysis of levels of subsistence support under Section 17 found that on average families were 61% below the poverty line (Jolly 2019).

What can social workers do?
Social workers should strive for ‘migrant aware practice’ that recognises migrant children as children first and foremost and also understands the unique vulnerabilities that children in families with NRPF face.

Firstly, social workers should ensure that they understand the NRPF rules and regulations, and the various immigration statuses that people can have, and not assume that someone can’t have support because they are not from the UK. It is vital that families have good quality immigration advice from a solicitor or an Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC) registered Immigration Advisor. Without this, families can find it difficult to confirm or regularise their status and can consequently get stuck in a situation where they are in long-term destitution.

Secondly, social workers should take destitution seriously. Children with NRPF will usually fall into the category of children in need. However, as they are not able to access the welfare safety net, their needs -- and the risks of not providing support -- may be much higher than other children. Social workers should ensure that families have access to adequate food, and that their accommodation has suitable facilities to cook balanced meals for the whole family.

Finally, social workers should consider supporting campaigns for policies and legislation that protect children with NRPF. The North East London Migrant Action (NELMA) campaign for children with NRPF to be able to access free school meals, and Project 17’s Charter for children living in families with NRPF are both good examples.

In the current political climate, it is vital for social workers to think critically about policy and how systemic issues impact on the children and families that we work with. The Global Definition of Social Work defines the job as a human rights profession, and social workers are not border police. Social workers as a collective need to look at addressing the policy context in which we work, both in our practice and together as a profession.

More information about NELMA’s campaign for free school meals can be found at www.nelmacampaigns.wordpress.com

Find out more about Project 17’s work at www.project17.org.uk

More information about NELMA’s campaign for free school meals can be found at www.nelmacampaigns.wordpress.com

Find out more about Project 17’s work at www.project17.org.uk

Andrew Jolly is a research associate at the University of Wolverhampton.

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