The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con)
My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for securing this important debate. All children should have access to the support that they need to keep them safe and well, regardless of their immigration status. The Project 17 report, which is the subject of this debate, concentrates on local authority support provided for families with “no recourse to public funds” under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989. In particular, it focuses on those families who are destitute because they cannot claim benefits, or access social housing, due to their immigration status. These families turn to local authorities for support under Section 17. It might be helpful if I set out the main points of the Government’s position, as approved by Parliament, when it comes to no recourse to public funds, and then move on to address the recommendations in the Project 17 report that are for central government. I cannot do the latter without including local authorities, which are faced with the challenge of making these assessments and providing support of the right kind when it is required. Quite often local authorities are supporting children at a time when things in their parents’ lives are not as they should be, including the parents’ immigration status. It is therefore important to recognise the priority placed by local authorities on the performance of their duties under the Children Act. These and other measures are vital in ensuring that children have their needs met, regardless of their parents’ status. I note the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Russell, about the LGA’s next campaign.
The Government’s position on no recourse to public funds is 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 promotes integration. I stress that this position has been approved by Parliament in primary legislation, most recently in the Immigration Act 2014. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, and other noble Lords, might like to note the date. To address the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, successive Governments have adopted the general position that persons subject to immigration control should not be entitled to access public funds until they have obtained indefinite leave to remain, reflecting the strength of their connection to the UK. There are, of course, exceptions for certain groups, such as refugees granted temporary leave to remain for a period before they qualify for settlement.
On that basis, no recourse to public funds is a standard condition applied to those staying here with a temporary immigration status. It protects our public funds, which need to be allocated in a fair and rational way, and which are never quite as limitless as people might wish. To balance this, and to provide for exceptions, we have laws which allow for needs to be met, particularly among children and the vulnerable. These too, and the resources involved, need to be applied in a fair, consistent and rational way. For those with a right to remain here established on a human rights basis, no recourse to public funds is a standard condition. It can be lifted, but only on the basis of a personal application. These requests receive careful consideration in the light of the applicant’s circumstances and the welfare of any children involved. This is not the case for those who have been refused leave to remain in the UK and whose appeals have been turned down by the courts. Those individuals are expected to leave the UK and are not eligible for support from public funds. This is an obvious and essential requirement of immigration control.
However, there are sometimes barriers to individuals leaving the UK; for instance, 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 this is necessary to avoid breaches of human rights obligations, and where children are involved. This is the main group brought to our attention by the Project 17 report. The Government’s view is that the right legal framework exists for providing them with support. This reflects that for those with no right to be here the support is available if it is necessary to avoid a breach of their human rights. Underpinning this, support can also be provided under Section 17 of the Children Act when the specific needs of the children of the family call for such supportive intervention. Therefore, families with no recourse to public funds due to the lawful operation of immigration control can still be supported by local authorities when their individual circumstances and the needs of their children require this. Decisions on providing this support are made locally, by the individual local authority concerned.
Therefore, while the Government maintain their position on lawful residence, and that family migration should not create burdens on the taxpayer, various provisions work together so that support can be provided to families in genuine need. Essentially, this can happen in one of three ways. First, asylum-seeking families with children can receive support under Section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 if they cannot provide for their own needs. Secondly, individuals and families with children may also be granted access to public funds by the Home Office, following a request for this, where there are compelling circumstances relating to destitution, the welfare of a child or exceptional financial circumstances. Thirdly and finally, local authorities can also provide basic safety-net support to families with children, using their own powers.
The Government recognise that local authorities are delivering in a challenging environment and have had to make difficult choices as they work to meet the needs of the most vulnerable while balancing the books. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, referred compellingly to this. A further £410 million has been allocated in 2019-20 for local authorities to invest in adult and children’s social care services. This is on top of the forecast core spending power of £46.4 billion available to local authorities this year. Free school meals are available to disadvantaged families in receipt of certain benefits. Eligibility can include those granted refugee status and children of immigrants and refugees who are receiving support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. The Home Office is also able to exercise discretion to grant recourse to public funds where the family would otherwise be destitute, and this can lead to the child becoming eligible for free school meals, depending on the benefits involved.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked about childcare, because the Project 17 report recommended that 30 hours of free childcare should be made available to families with no recourse to public funds. That scheme is intended to help parents undertake paid work or work more hours if they wish and to support working parents with the costs of childcare. A range of free early education entitlements are available to support young children’s learning and development. All three and four year-olds, regardless of their or their parents’ immigration status, are entitled to 15 hours a week of free early education for 38 weeks of the year until they reach compulsory school age. Free early education is also available to some disadvantaged two year-olds, including looked-after and adopted children, those with an education, health and care plan, and children from families who are receiving support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. I noted with interest the point made by my noble friend Lord Moynihan about mental health and education and the Green Paper on children’s mental health. I agree with him on the importance of maintaining good mental health through education. If I can, I will write to him on the Green Paper.
I also note, and support, the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, about the importance of the English language for integration; it is vital. As he said, it is also vital for seeking work and contributing to the economy. Most noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Roberts, Lord Paddick and Lord Watson, talked about asylum seekers not being able to work. Asylum seekers are supported by the Home Office while their applications are being resolved. Although it is right that they should not access the labour market during this time, they are not being required to live without adequate support. The support has been approved by the courts. They are able to work after 12 months if their application is not resolved, and most are resolved within that time. Successful asylum seekers are of course entitled to work. Those who are not successful are not entitled to work, but support is not withdrawn if they have children.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham asked what data is currently collected on the number of children affected by this. Local authorities keep data on the number of migrant families they support, and this includes the number of children. The data can be obtained from the NRPF Connect database owned by the local authority. The impact is mitigated by a combination of measures: principally, it can be lifted because of the needs of children following an application from their parents. This is rational and fair. He also asked me whether, if people are legally here, we should support them. Successive Governments have maintained that access to public funds should be at the point of permanent residence.
I must respond on the phrase “hostile environment”. I have said before that it was coined under Alan Johnson and the term was stopped under my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, is absolutely right that the very term goes to the culture of the department in question, and I hope that under my right honourable friend, myself and other Ministers—