Written evidence submitted by NRPF Network, Islington Council
- The No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) Network, hosted by Islington Council, has a membership of over 5500 local authority and other practitioners access the UK. We provide advice and guidance to local authorities on statutory support for destitute families, care leavers and adults with care needs who, due to their immigration status, have no recourse to public funds.
- This submission addresses the approach of Immigration Enforcement to resolving the cases of people who are in the UK without leave to remain and who are receiving support from their local authority, as well as the wider impacts that immigration policies have on residents who are in this position. The fact that a significant proportion of residents have no recourse to public funds due to their immigration status is a longstanding issue of concern for councils across the UK, with more attention recently focused on this due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Key points:
- The majority of people who are accommodated by local authorities when social services duties are engaged under the Children Act 1989 or Care Act 2014, and who are known to the Home Office, are non-EEA nationals with no leave to remain in the UK.
- Despite 77% of households exiting social services’ support following a grant of leave to remain, on average, support is provided for a period of two years, demonstrating that people face many difficulties achieving this inevitable outcome. Low return numbers show that a person’s situation of destitution in the UK is rarely going to be resolved by a voluntary or enforced return to their country of origin.
- The Home Office committed to prioritise local authority supported cases in 2010. Although partnership working between local government and the Home Office has led to an overall reduction in costs, more needs to be done by central government to reduce this financial pressure on local government and to promote the wellbeing and integration of people who clearly have a future in the UK.
- Immigration policies and processes, and the lack of free legal advice, make it difficult for those who do not have status, including children, to secure their residence rights or citizenship. As a result of being excluded from mainstream services, people are more susceptible to discrimination, exploitation and abuse. Entrenched destitution in the community creates additional financial burdens for local authorities and civil society, as well as potentially posing significant public health risks.
Local authority support for destitute people with no recourse to public funds
- Local authorities play a vital role in alleviating destitution and preventing homelessness by providing housing and financial support to adults with care needs, families and care leavers who are excluded from mainstream benefits due to their immigration status. This support for people with no recourse to public funds (NRPF) is provided by social services when statutory duties are engaged under:
- The Care Act 2014 (adults with care needs)
- Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 (families)
- Leaving care provisions of the Children Act 1989 (care leavers)
Equivalent legislation applies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
- The groups supported by local authorities that have no recourse to public funds include:
- People with leave to remain that is subject to the NRPF condition
- People without leave to remain e.g. visa overstayers, illegal entrants, Appeal Rights Exhausted (ARE) asylum seekers
- People who are undocumented but have an entitlement to remain in the UK that is not evidenced, for example, ‘Windrush’ cases
- EEA nationals who are not subject to the NRPF condition but who are ineligible for benefits
- The provision of social services’ support to people who do not have leave to remain is limited by Section 54 and Schedule 3 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. This places a bar on the provision of social services’ support to people who are living in the UK ‘in breach of immigration laws’ when they are able to return to their country of origin to avoid a situation of destitution in the UK. However, when there is a legal barrier or practical obstacle preventing the person’s return, this bar is lifted and the local authority will be required to provide support when duties under the Care Act 2014 or Children Act 1989 are engaged. The local authority will establish this by undertaking a human rights assessment.
- The majority of people provided with social services’ support are those who are without leave to remain but are unable to return to their country of origin due to a legal barrier or practical obstacle. Legal barriers include: outstanding applications and appeals made on human rights grounds, and judicial review action. Practical obstacles include: inability to travel due to a medical condition or mental incapacity, inability to obtain travel documentation etc. In most cases, return is not currently practicable due to travel restrictions and public health risks relating to the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Central government does not fund local authorities for providing this support, so costs are fully met through council budgets.
- During the current public health crisis, local authorities have also accommodated adults with no recourse to public funds on public health grounds, at the request of the Government to fulfil the ‘everyone in’ strategy to protect rough sleepers and other vulnerable homeless groups. Emergency accommodation provision has therefore placed a new financial burden on local authorities, some of whom are already reporting that the Government’s Covid-19 funding is insufficient to cover revenue losses and the additional costs incurred in providing support to vulnerable residents. Finding sustainable outcomes to prevent people from returning to rough sleeping will be more difficult for local authorities to achieve without clear legal powers and suitable funding.
Data on NRPF households supported by local authorities
- The NRPF Network, on behalf of Islington Council, project manages the NRPF Connect database which is currently used by 69 local authorities across the UK to obtain immigration status information from the Home Office and prioritise case resolution. NRPF Connect provides the only national data source of no recourse to public funds households that are supported by local authorities. More information about the operation of this system is set out at paragraph 14.
- The annual data report for the financial year 2019-2020 is currently being prepared for publication. Headline data shows that, at the end of March 2020:
- 61 local authorities were supporting 2450 households at a collective cost of £44 million/year
- Where immigration status has been recorded, 1017 out of 1762 family and adult households were non-EEA nationals with no leave to remain (61%)
- The average time a household received support for was 733 days
- 29% of households received support for 1000 days or longer
- Out of the 1956 adult and family households that had their support withdrawn by social services throughout the year:
- 1507 (77%) were granted leave to remain enabling the household to transfer to mainstream benefits and housing services and/or undertake employment
- 39 (2%) were non-EEA nationals who returned to their country of origin, funded by either the Home Office or local authority
- Across the year 2019-20, local authorities saw a collective reduction in costs of £118,900 week (12%) due to a decrease in the number of households receiving support by the year end. However, this cost saving alone is insufficient when a significant proportion of households remain supported for such long periods of time whilst awaiting a final outcome on their immigration claim.
- The data shows that the majority of households receiving local authority support will be granted leave to remain in the UK. This is usually granted on human rights grounds (family or private life) on the 10-year settlement route. Despite the Home Office being made aware of the local authority’s involvement, households are supported, on average, for two years. Delays in resolving cases can be attributed to the limited availability of free immigration advice and immigration processes which can be a barrier to making a claim, for example, unaffordable application fees and a fee waiver process that is difficult to satisfy. Any delay in achieving a final outcome prolongs the insecurity felt by vulnerable individuals and families, and results in direct costs to the local authority. As these data trends broadly replicate those that were reported in 2018-19, this remains an ongoing challenge for local authorities.
Resolution of local authority supported cases
- The Secretary of State confirmed in 2010 that cases involving applicants who are supported by local authorities would be prioritised, and that decision making processes would be reviewed having regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children who are in the UK, including timely decision making.
- The NRPF Connect database became operational in October 2013. It was set up in order to enable local authorities to obtain immigration status information from the Home Office in a transparent, centralised and efficient way, and to reduce costs for local government by enabling the Home Office to identify and prioritise local authority supported cases. 69 local authorities currently use the database on a voluntary basis, paying a small subscription fee to Islington Council to cover operating overheads, including user-support, training and web-hosting charges levied by a third party IT company.
- Within the Home Office, the primary team using the database is the Data and Sanctions Team (DAST) within the Interventions & Sanctions Directorate. A team of approximately six staff operate the database, providing a central point of contact with local authorities and liaising with other Home Office teams to check information and the progress of outstanding claims. Casework support is also provided by a dedicated NRPF Team in Returns Preparation, with staff able to access the database to assist the resolution of cases that are deemed suitable by the Home Office for this team to process. A small number of local authorities have also opted to pay for Home Office On-site Immigration Officers (OSIOs) in addition to using NRPF Connect.
- At an operational level, the database functions well. In 2019-20 DAST responded to 17,950 requests for immigration status information, a 17% increase from the previous year, with average response times marginally exceeding the agreed timeframes set out in the service level agreement. However, as more local authorities have joined and those that are using have added on new caseloads, for example, care leavers, the capacity of the Home Office team to meet demand is under strain. The increasing volume of work has led to more instances where the service level agreement timeframes have been missed and in December 2019 Chief Executives of eight councils have raised this concern in a letter to the Director of Immigration Enforcement.
- Timely immigration status information helps a local authority to identify the correct support routes for a household and to establish whether the exclusion to support referred to in paragraph 6 applies. The overall reduction in caseload across 2019-20 is welcome and can be attributed to the individual efforts of local authority and Home Office staff to help people navigate complex immigration processes, but there is scope to achieve more if there is support at a political and policy level. Until a more strategic way of progressing cases is undertaken, a rapid reduction in caseload and costs is unlikely.
- It is unclear what processes are followed by the Home Office when a person becomes ‘appeal rights exhausted’ and has no further outstanding claims. There may be an opportunity for teams, such as the returns preparation team, to review cases and grant leave to remain where there are grounds to do so. If the high number of long-standing cases could be resolved, it may be possible to focus on the involvement of the family returns unit where this is appropriate, although it is unclear how effective this would be as at present, only 2% of households undertake return, with the majority being granted leave to remain.
- When a household is not pursuing any further claims to remain in the UK and there is no legal barrier or practical obstacle preventing return, the local authority can legally withdraw support, as described at paragraph 6. However, in practice, where a household reaches this position and does not voluntarily take up return or is not subject to Home Office enforcement action, the local authority is presented with a challenging situation to manage, as the consequence of withdrawing support would be that a vulnerable adult, care leaver or family is left destitute and homeless. Due to ongoing duties to safeguard the welfare of children, families in this position are usually provided with ongoing support and local authorities focus efforts on assisting the family to seek legal advice given that the majority of households will be granted leave to remain.
- The Government has been clear that there must be no return to rough sleeping yet has not provided councils with any solutions with regards to preventing this for those who have been accommodated who have no leave to remain or limitations on their access to homelessness assistance and welfare benefits, other than to advise that return to country of origin may be an option. However, we know from our data that in most cases there are highly likely to be legal barriers and practical obstacles preventing return and there has been no information given about what intervention or support the Home Office will be providing to facilitate returns, where this is taken up. There is also insufficient funding for independent immigration advice to be offered to all rough sleepers voluntarily considering a return to their country of origin, where this might have long-term immigration implications including their eligibility for settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme.
- Following an inquiry into the funding of children’s services, in May 2019, the Housing Communities and Local Government Committee recommended that the Government to review its relevant immigration policies and processes by December 2019 to consider where delays in the resolution of local authority-supported cases can be reduced. This recommendation remains valid in 2020 in recognition that more could be done to reduce the time taken to process immigration claims.
- Where a significant proportion of residents have no access to employment and basic services then this leads to concerns regarding exploitation, criminality and community cohesion. During a global pandemic this also poses significant public health risks that in turn could contribute towards the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on BAME communities.
- Local government has previously presented the Government with a series of policy recommendations which, if taken up, would minimise the negative impacts that immigration policies have on child poverty, integration and community cohesion. For example, reducing immigration and citizenship fees and providing free legal advice through legal aid would mean that people who are currently without leave to remain, including children, who may have an entitlement to a form of status or British citizenship, will be more easily able obtain this. 
- Research undertaken by the University of Wolverhampton estimates there to be 215,000 undocumented children in the UK. Research into the number of undocumented children in the UK was last undertaken in March 2011 and estimated that there were 120,000 undocumented children in the UK. This suggests that the population of undocumented children in the UK increased by almost 56% between March 2011 and March 2017. It is estimated that around half of all children with insecure immigration status were born in the UK. The report also estimates that only around 10% of the estimated 215,000 undocumented children aged under 18 in the UK have applied to secure their immigration status. Since 2012 there have been only 15,177 applications to the Home Office for settlement on family life grounds, for children and young people, and 6,131 on private life grounds.
- Furthermore, with more than 900,000 eligible EEA citizen children thought to have been living in the UK in 2017, only 412,820 children have been granted status under the EU Settlement Scheme by 31 March 2020. The complexity of many cases still to be resolved without long-term funding for specialist advice services and the additional barriers create by COVID-19 restrictions risks a huge increase in the number of people left without secure immigration status in 2021.
- Many others whose income has been affected by COVID-19 may struggle to pay the required immigration fees to maintain their immigration status, pushing them into debt and/or insecure immigration status. Migrant workers are disproportionately represented in low-paid, precarious and informal work. People who are struggling to provide for themselves and their families are at higher risk of exploitation, often fearful of reporting abuse as they must prioritise their income in order to continue a subsistence standard of living. The human right and public health implications of this have become recently very visible in Leicester garment factories where workers have been allegedly been subject to exploitative working conditions.
- It is difficult to attribute requests for local authority support directly with specific ‘hostile environment’ measures but as these will have an impact on a person’s ability to self-support they are likely to be a factor in causing destitution and homelessness. In 2018-19, requests for local authority support recorded on NRPF Connect increased by 17% compared to the year before and 2019-20 data shows that the number of referrals has not reduced. It is also concerning that whilst these sanctions continue to be applied, voluntary return rates remain low.
- An example of how the right to rent policy has a consequence for local authorities has been highlighted in legal challenges brought by two families against their respective local authority following a refusal to support on the basis that the families had the means to access accommodation in the private sector. However, in each case the court ruled that this would not be possible due to the right to rent provisions, so even where a family has a source of income, in order to meet the needs of children under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 a local authorities may be required to provide accommodation when a family has no right to rent and there is a legal barrier or practical obstacle preventing them from leaving the UK. 
- Local leaders have also raised concerns about how the hostile environment policies are compounding health inequalities during the COVID-19 pandemic, enable destitution by refusing access to mainstream benefits, and have also been evidenced to encourage discrimination against BAME and migrant communities. NHS charging and associated immigration checks by healthcare officials have been show to deter and delay vulnerable migrants from seeking the healthcare that they need.
- As the Inquiry sets out in its terms, the Home Office is unable to assess whether its measures to prevent people from access support have any meaningful impact on how likely a person is to return to their country of origin but there is mounting evidence that those same policies create vulnerabilities and risks around discrimination, exploitation and abuse. Entrenched destitution in the community creates additional financial burdens for local authorities and civil society, as well as potentially posing significant public health risks.
- The Home Office undertakes a more strategic approach to the resolution of cases where people without leave to remain are supported by local authorities in order to significantly reduce the costs incurred by local government in the short-term, for example, by conducting a one-off case resolution exercise to systematically grant indefinite leave to remain to individuals or households receiving local authority support where regularisation of immigration status is outstanding.
- In the longer term, costs could be significantly reduced for local authorities if the:
- Government reviews policies that give rise to migrant destitution and child poverty, or that hinder the integration of people who will go onto being recognised as having a future in the UK through grants of leave to remain on settlement routes.
- Home Office takes appropriate action when a person become appeal rights exhausted, including an immediate review of their case by the Returns Preparation Team to determine whether leave should be granted, and if not, a referral to the family returns service.
- Continue supporting the development of the NRPF Connect database to help save local authorities money, in the absence of any other centralised system.
- The Government must prioritise supporting children and young people to access residency and citizenship so that they don’t end up vulnerable to grooming, exploitation and enforced removal – often to countries they have never been to. The Windrush scandal exposed the barriers facing people who have lived in the UK for many years, including a complex application process, a lack of awareness of the system, cuts to legal aid and the high cost of applications.
- The recommended action needs to be taken urgently to relieve the financial pressures local authorities are currently experiencing in delivering support to people with no recourse to public funds and to provide sustainable outcomes for those who have been supported during the pandemic to prevent a return to rough sleeping.
 Birmingham City Council v Clue  EWCA Civ 460, paragraph 84
 R (on the application of N) v Greenwich London Borough Council (2016) QBD (Admin) – extempore judgment; R (U (Children)) v Milton Keynes Council  EWHC 3050 (Admin)