Nadhim Zahawi responds to an adjournment debate on local authority responsibilities under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 for families with no recourse to public funds owing to their immigration status.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Nadhim Zahawi)
Let me begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) on securing this important debate today. A number of colleagues intervened on her, and I thank them for the points that they made—the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen), for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), and for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham). The message that I want to convey to local government is that all children should have access to the support that they need to keep them safe regardless of immigration status. Our main interest tonight is the discharge by local authorities of the important responsibilities under section 17 of the Children’s Act 1989, for which I am the Minister responsible. I need first of all to say a word about how the “no recourse to public funds” condition comes into this.
The Project 17 report, which has helped to inspire this debate, concentrates on local authority support for families with no recourse to public funds under section 17 of the 1989 Act. In particular, it focuses on families who are destitute because they cannot claim benefits or access social housing owing to their immigration status. Those families turn to local authorities for support under section 17. They are, though, not the main group to whom the responsibilities under section 17 are applied, and we must not lose sight of the fact that these responsibilities of local authorities involve many more groups, who also have needs.
Some of the questions raised by the hon. Member for Edmonton and other hon. Members are based entirely on immigration status issues. I will ensure that they are brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, and I have her assurance that she will write to hon. Members in response to questions that were entirely immigration related.
What it is perfectly sensible for me to do this evening is to set out the main points of the Government’s position, as approved by Parliament, when it comes to the “no recourse to public funds” condition. The position is quite simply that those seeking to establish their family life in the UK must do so on a basis that prevents burdens on the taxpayer and that promotes integration. That position has been approved by Parliament in primary legislation and is reflected in the immigration rules. The application of the “no recourse to public funds” condition to those with a temporary immigration status is, therefore, a standard means of pursuing that legitimate objective.
The Project 17 report and hon. Members who have spoken this evening have drawn attention to the fact that, for a certain group of families, the “no recourse to public funds” condition did not used to be automatically applied to their status, and that it is now. That is true. In their changes to the immigration rules in 2012, the Government acted to correct an anomaly whereby some groups were not expected to be self-sufficient. That was entirely necessary to ensure that the Government could fulfil their intention for incoming families to establish themselves here without needing access to our limited public funds.
The Government’s view is that access to public funds should still be available, but not automatically. For those now coming to the UK, therefore, no recourse to public funds is a standard position. But I must make it clear that there is scope in immigration legislation for family life and private life applicants to request that no recourse to public funds should not be imposed, or that it should be lifted once imposed. Those applications are given very careful consideration in the light of the applicant’s circumstances and the welfare of any children involved. Of course, that does not apply to those who have been refused leave to remain in the UK and whose appeals have been turned down by the courts. These individuals are expected to leave the UK and are not eligible for support from public funds.
Sometimes there are barriers to individuals leaving the UK—for example, the difficulty of obtaining documentation from their own national authorities. Parliament has accepted that, as a result, they may qualify for local authority support where that is necessary to avoid breaches of human rights obligations, and where children are involved. This is the group whose support needs are brought to our attention by the Project 17 report. The Government’s view is that the right framework exists for providing them with support. There will be occasions when the support is provided in order to avoid a breach of the adult’s human rights. There will also be occasions when support is provided under section 17 of the Children Act, because it is the specific needs of the children of the family that call for such supportive intervention. This means that such families are supported by local authorities, even if they have no recourse to public funds. However, these decisions are made locally, according to an individual local authority’s protocol and assessments.
Although the Government’s position is that those seeking to establish their family life in the UK must do so on a basis that prevents burdens on the taxpayer and promotes integration, nothing in any of the legislation prevents the provision of support to those in genuine need, whatever their immigration status and at whatever stage they are in their migration journey. The Government have an impressive track record of ensuring that those who are in genuine need are supported appropriately.
The Home Office provides specific support under section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 to families with children who have come to seek asylum and cannot provide for their own needs. Individuals and families with children may also be granted recourse to public funds even if their leave would otherwise be subject to an NRPF condition, where there are compelling circumstances relating to destitution, the welfare of a child or exceptional financial circumstances. Local authorities may also provide basic safety net support to families with children using their own powers, if it is established that there is a genuine need that triggers an obligation under human rights or children’s legislation.
The hon. Lady mentioned local government funding. I recognise that Enfield and other local authorities are delivering in a challenging environment, and have had to make really tough, difficult choices as they work to meet the needs of the most vulnerable. I welcome the further £410 million in 2019-20 for local authorities to invest in adult and children’s social care services. That is on top of the more than £200 billion until 2020 made available at the 2015 spending review for councils to deliver local services, including children’s services. Of this, Enfield is currently forecast to have core spending power of £236 million for 2019-20—an increase of about 1.7% on the previous year. I would like to assure you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that my Department is continuing to work closely with the sector to build the strongest evidence base for long-term children’s services funding as part of the spending review.
The hon. Lady mentioned free school meals. Let me reiterate—it is important to put this on the record, because many people will be listening to this debate outside this place—that where a child is in need, for example because they are homeless or the parent cannot afford to meet the family’s basic needs, families with the NRPF condition are not prevented from getting additional help from their local authority’s social services department. To establish eligibility for assistance, the local authority must undertake a child in need assessment. It is clear that many local authorities are doing the right thing and delivering free school meals for those children.
Again, I thank the hon. Lady for securing this important debate. We have a shared ambition, I think, to ensure that the most vulnerable children have the safety net and stability that they need to enable them to thrive in their homes and in their families.