PM urged to tear up rules stopping migrants claiming Universal Credit
Boris Johnson has been urged to rip up rules preventing thousands of migrants living in the UK from accessing benefits aimed at softening the blow of the coronavirus crisis.
The Liberal Democrats have joined dozens of Labour MPs as well as London mayor Sadiq Khan in demanding an immediate pause to the ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ (NRPF) immigration status.
It follows warnings that ministers are shutting vital workers out of accessing Universal Credit and putting them at risk of breaching social distancing rules.
Migrants who have been given the NRPF status by the Home Office are not eligible for most state benefits, including Universal Credit, housing benefit, help with council tax payments, and access to means-tested free school meals for their children, even if they have been granted leave to remain in the UK.
The status does not curb access to NHS treatment or state schools.
But a new letter sent to the PM and Home Secretary Priti Patel by Lib Dem MP Christine Jardine - seen by Holyrood sister publication PoliticsHome - warns migrants could be forced to break strict guidelines aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 because they cannot access funds to top up their income.
The party’s home affairs spokesperson wrote: “The government’s measures to strengthen the Universal Credit safety net are vitally important for those whose incomes are hit during the coronavirus crisis. However, migrants subject to the ‘no recourse to public funds’ rule cannot access this crucial support.
“We urge you to lift that rule for the duration of the crisis, so migrants – like everyone else – are given the financial support they need to stay at home.”
NRPF status was first introduced in 1999 to curb access to state help for people who are subject to immigration controls.
But campaigners say its use was dramatically expanded under the Coalition government and now applies to many migrants granted limited leave to stay and work here, including the family members of settled UK citizens.
The Home Office has not published figures on the number of people affected by the rules, but research carried out by the Children’s Society in 2016 estimated that some 50,000 households with dependents had a member affected by the status.
Jardine told PoliticsHome: “It’s important in this crisis that we don’t overlook those who have come to our country and make an enormous contribution - not least to the NHS - and need government support to help them get by.”
She added: “That is why the Liberal Democrats have written to the Prime Minister to demand clarity as to whether migrants in the UK have recourse to the same employee protections as UK nationals. We are also seeking a guarantee that no one will have their personal information shared with the Home Office for immigration purposes if they contact the NHS for testing or treatment.
“Such guarantees are the only way to ensure that no one is forced to put their health at risk by continuing to do non-essential work, and that anyone who is severely ill feels able to seek treatment without fear.”
The party is also calling for assurances that there will be “absolutely no sharing of personal information from the NHS to the Home Office for immigration purposes” in a bid to ensure migrants have “nothing to fear” from seeking medical help during the outbreak.
The latest call comes after London mayor Sadiq Khan wrote to Johnson warning that “tens of thousands” of Londoners with NRPF status - “including delivery drivers, cleaners and NHS staff” - risked being denied state help.
And he urged the Prime Minister to “suspend the condition of NRPF” to stop migrants having to ignore social distancing rules aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus as they seek work.
Khan said: “They are unable to access the welfare safety net they need, despite paying into the system through taxes. These are people who have lived in the UK for many years, often with children born and brought up here.”
Labour MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark Neil Coyle, whose own constituency office deals with “weekly” cases of people needing help because of limitations imposed by the status, told PoliticsHome Khan was “right to call on the Prime Minister to do the right thing at this tough time”.
He added: “The hostile environment leaves many families with nothing. It is inhumane at the best of times. In the middle of this national emergency a more sensitive approach is required to prevent tragedy.”
Last week scores of MPs put their name to a letter organised by Labour backbencher Taiwo-Owatemi calling on ministers to pause the status, with shadow Cabinet ministers including Dawn Butler, Barry Gardiner and Diane Abbott among those backing the bid.
Responding to the latest calls, a government spokesperson said: “The government is supporting people through this crisis and nobody should find themselves starving or destitute.
“Measures we have brought forward such as rent and mortgage protections, and food vouchers are not considered public funds and can be accessed by those migrants with leave to remain who meet the eligibility criteria.
“In addition, failed asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute and are temporarily unable to leave the UK are provided with accommodation.”
Officials meanwhile confirmed that people with NRPF status will be eligible for help under the Treasury's new Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which is designed to keep people in work by directly funding staff wages in coronavirus-hit firms that keep staff on their books rather than laying them off.