The No Recourse to Public Funds rule is child neglect.

ICRD Researcher Andy Jolly discusses his research with undocumented migrant children in the West Midlands, exploring the broader context of the NRPF rule and how it harms the welfare of children, which he argues is akin to ‘statutory neglect’.

Lynne Mutumba was two years old when she and her mother were found dead in their flat in Gillingham, Kent — having apparently starved to death. The family had no recourse to public funds (NRPF) due to their immigration status, and so weren’t legally allowed to work, claim benefits or access council housing or homelessness assistance. The only means of state support available to prevent the family becoming destitute was from children’s social services under section 17 of the Children Act (1989) — set by the local authority at a subsistence level that was below the level of mainstream benefits.

The family had been receiving help from Croydon Borough Council, who instead of supporting them within the borough, moved the family to accommodation 160 miles away in Wolverhampton, and later to the flat in Gillingham where they died. Despite the extreme circumstances of the deaths, the serious case review into Lynne Mutumba’s death found that “most agencies achieved the standards expected of them ” and the BBC local news described the deaths as “a mystery”. However, although the precise circumstances of what happened in Lynne and her mother’s final weeks are unknown, the deaths were made possible by the way that the NRPF rule actively excludes children from our welfare safety net and hinders the ability of children’s services to safeguard children’s welfare. As the serious case review noted:

“It is clear though 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.”

This horrific tragedy is perhaps the most extreme example of the gaps in welfare provision for undocumented migrant families. However, it is not an isolated case. There have been three serious case reviews into child deaths involving families with no recourse to public funds in this year alone — two of them from children supported by Croydon Borough Council. Even ‘good practice’ guidelines indicate that children should have their immigration status checked before an assessment of need is even completed, in complete negation of the Children Act principle that the welfare of the child is paramount.

Over the past four years, I have been researching the experiences of children and families with NRPF in the West Midlands. You can read some of my findings in a new open access journal article — they make for shocking reading. Nine out of ten families I interviewed didn’t have enough food for a balanced diet, and families described being turned away from support by children’s services because of their immigration status. Even those who received subsistence support from the local authority under section 17 of the Children Act experienced times when they ran out of money. Like Lynne Mutumba, some families had been rehoused in the West Midlands from London - a factor that was identified by Lynne Mutumba’s serious case review as contributing to the families isolation.

Perhaps surprisingly, the families I spoke to rarely blamed individual social workers, and some expressed warmth towards their social worker. Families understood their situation as a structural problem, not about poor individual social work practice. The issue was the exclusion of children with an irregular migration status from most welfare support, and that they are often invisible to child welfare services because of the NRPF rule, the so-called ‘hostile environment’, and years of anti-immigration legislation designed to make life difficult for those without leave to remain in the UK.

So how should we best understand the situation? I want to make the case that the treatment of undocumented migrant children with NRPF is best understood as a form of child neglect. However, unlike most neglect, it is not perpetrated by a parent or carer, or even a result of isolated poor practice on the part of an institution or service. Instead, it is collective, structural neglect resulting from legislation and policy which excludes undocumented migrant children, and which would be regarded as neglectful if perpetrated by a parent or carer.

My latest research article uses the definition of neglect in England as a framework for exploring the experiences of undocumented migrant children in the West Midlands. I interviewed undocumented migrant families with experience of support from children’s services about their experiences and responses were coded against the neglect definition to see if children were experiencing neglect-like symptoms. All families who took part in the interviews had experienced at least one factor which corresponded with indicators of neglect. However, issues around the failure to provide adequate food, clothing and shelter were the most commonly reported by participants. This is concerning because there is evidence to suggest that poor home safety, cleanliness and lack of shelter are the symptoms of neglect that are most likely to result in impaired language and other developmental problems in children.

My research was only small scale, and in one city, but it is a contribution to the growing body of evidence from around the UK in both academia and from charities that the NRPF rule makes it more difficult to safeguard the welfare of undocumented migrant children. If this is the case, and the welfare of the child is paramount, there is only one option open to us.

If the NRPF rule harms children — the NRPF rule should be abolished.

Andy Jolly is a Research Associate at the Institute for Community Research and Development (ICRD) at the University of Wolverhampton. His research interests are in household food security and undocumented migrant children. He was previously a social worker, and coordinated a support project for undocumented migrants at risk of destitution in the West Midlands. His latest article No Recourse to Social Work? Statutory Neglect, Social Exclusion and Undocumented Migrant Families in the UK appears in the current issue of the journal Social Inclusion .

ICRD is based at @wlv_uni, we care about social justice, positive change, evidence-informed policy and practice, working in partnership to improve lives.