Schools alone cannot fix the damage done to children by poverty - policy change is desperately needed

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

‘The education of our children is crucial for their welfare, their health and their future’, said the Prime Minister last week, confirming the phased reopening of schools on 1st June. Part of the government’s rationale to return children to school as soon as possible has been that those from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds will fall behind the furthest if school gates remain closed. Rightly, the government is concerned that children whose parents are unable to provide effective learning support at home are suffering greatly during the pandemic.

But children’s welfare, health and life chances are also inextricably linked to poverty itself. Research shows that poorer children have worse cognitive, social-behavioural as well as worse health outcomes in part because they are poor, and not just because poverty is correlated with other household and parental characteristics.

This is no less true for thousands of children who face poverty as a result of immigration restrictions imposed on their families as a condition of their stay in the UK. ‘No recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) conditions — as they are known — prevent non-EEA nationals, who do not have Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK, from accessing most ‘mainstream’ benefits like Child Benefit, Universal Credit, Tax Credits and Housing Benefit. This is despite strict criteria already in place to limit benefits only to families that need them and who are on a low income. NRPF conditions apply to most families who are on a visa or have limited leave to remain (LTR), regardless of how long they have been in the UK and even where the UK is clearly their home.

A recent judicial review found the government’s NRPF regime to be in breach of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), leading to inhumane and degrading treatment. The case involved an 8-year-old British boy who had grown up in deep poverty as a result of the NRPF condition applied to his mother’s leave to remain in the UK. As a result of having no access to benefits, he had to move schools five times and was made street homeless with his mother.

Such experiences are common among families affected by NRPF conditions, as highlighted in The Children’s Society’s recent report — A Lifeline for All. As part of the study, we interviewed 11 families in Spring 2019, who were on the ten-year route to settlement and living on a persistent low income.

Most families struggled to meet their children’s most basic needs, such as paying for food, utility bills, rent or buying school uniforms. Despite working as much as they could — one father worked 90-hour weeks — often on zero-hours contracts and/or in key jobs like NHS staff, care workers, cleaners or in food preparation, without access to top-up benefits or vital childcare support, their income alone was not enough to meet their needs. This was particularly difficult for single parents whose income was considerably lower.

When children had additional learning needs, families were prevented from applying for vital support like Disability Living Allowance (DLA). In the current Covid-19 crisis, it’s important to remember that many parents working in key worker roles will not have the benefits safety net to fall back on or supplement their low income because of NRPF conditions.

Most families we spoke to experienced street homelessness, were forced to sleep on the sofa or floors with friends or other families. Most had lived in precarious, unstable and unsafe private rented accommodation. This caused parents great anxiety and fear and made them vulnerable to exploitation. Living in temporary or cramped accommodation and experiencing frequent moves took a heavy toll on children’s wellbeing, particularly where children had additional needs like autism. Recent case studies show how this has been exacerbated during the pandemic.

Despite the deep and persistent poverty that families faced on the ten-year route to settlement, they were still expected to pay thousands of pounds in increasing Home Office application fees and the Immigration Health Surcharge every 2.5 years. We calculated that a single mum with two children would have to pay over £23,000 altogether over ten years to be allowed to settle. A family of five — two parents and three children — would have to pay over £39,000 over the same ten-year period. Not only are children living on a low income but also in high deprivation when so much of their income goes towards fees.

Unsurprisingly many families we spoke to were forced to take on debts or borrow from friends to pay for fees or risked overstaying and becoming undocumented. One single mum who had lived in the UK for 17 years, had a British child and has always worked in social care — including in nursing homes and for the NHS — was forced to take out multiple payday loans and had accrued debts of £15,000. This will be hugely challenging for families during the pandemic who have lost their jobs but whose leave has not been automatically extended. They risk becoming undocumented.

We estimate that there may be hundreds of thousands of children and adults living in the UK without access to the benefits lifeline. Given the government’s intention is to generally apply NRPF conditions to most migrants until they settle (get Indefinite Leave to Remain), based on data provided by the Migration Observatory, we estimated that around 1.1 million individuals including 142,496 children under 18 had some form of limited leave to remain in the UK at 31st December 2016.

Of course, not all children in migrant families are living in poverty or indeed would meet the strict eligibility criteria of mainstream benefits if they were to apply. But the nature of these restrictions — to apply a blanket ban to most benefits — means that those on low income and those who are already at greater risk of poverty such as single parents, ethnic minorities, families with children or those with a disability, suffer the most. Research has shown that children in recent migrant families and separately those who have foreign-born parents are at higher risk of poverty than their peers.

Despite early and consistent calls from parliamentarians and advocates including The Children’s Society, the government has not suspended NRPF conditions during the pandemic. In fact, the government guidance to Home Office decision-makers indicates that NPRF conditions continue to be imposed on new grants of leave to remain, even for families with children despite the duty on the Home Secretary to promote the welfare of children. A return to school may help some of these children to regain a sense of normality, but it won’t change the damage being done by the enforced poverty they face. A change in policy is urgently needed.

Find out more about The Children’s Society’s campaign here.

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