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Safeguarding Children from Destitution: Local Authority Responses to Families with ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’

This report explores a tension between two areas of policy concerning the welfare of children: between provisions in immigration law that exclude some families from accessing mainstream welfare benefits (‘no recourse to public funds’) and a requirement on local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of any child ‘in need’. It sets out the findings of a study that has investigated the challenges to which that tension gives rise, for local authorities and for the children and families concerned. From a survey of local authorities in England and Wales and of voluntary sector support agencies, eight local authority research sites and 92 interviews with 49 service providers and 43 parents (in 41 families), it finds evidence that draws into question whether the intention of the law - to safeguard children in need - is for this group of children always being met.

Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 (s17) is the duty of local authorities in England and Wales to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in their area who are ‘in need’ and to promote the upbringing of such children by their families. The vast majority of cases of children in need, beyond the scope of our study, are related to abuse or neglect, family dysfunction or domestic violence (Department for Education, 2014). However, s17’s scope is broad and can include the provision of accommodation and financial support where families with dependent children are destitute, a destitute child being ‘in need’ for the purposes of s17. Administered by local authority Children’s Services departments, s17 in part functions as an accommodation safety net for families who fall through the gaps of mainstream welfare benefit provision and who cannot access informal support outside statutory services.

A small but growing group whose needs are met under this legislative provision are families that are living in the UK and are destitute, but have no access to welfare benefits, including benefits related to accommodation. The disentitlement to welfare benefits arises because a parent has, as a condition of their immigration status, ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF). ‘Public funds’ here is the legal term for certain ‘welfare benefits’ defined under Paragraph 6 of the Immigration Rules and is not to be confused with publicly funded services more generally. Significantly, the support provided under s17 does not fall within the definition of a public fund so that having NRPF does not preclude those families from being considered eligible to receive it. Unusually for Children’s Services departments, they do not act alone in relation to these s17 cases but need to liaise with the Home Office because of its management of the immigration status of the families concerned.

In recent years, some local authorities have seen a rise in the number of NRPF families receiving long-term accommodation and financial support under s17. The NRPF policy affects adults who are subject to immigration control so that parents in these families are from abroad, although a significant minority of their children are British citizens.

Whilst nationals of EEA countries (‘mobile EU citizens’) are not affected by the NRPF policy per se, they are subject to separate eligibility criteria restricting their access to public funds. If they become destitute in the UK and have dependent children, they too may become eligible for safety net support under s17. The profile of families that are excluded from mainstream welfare benefits and receive support under s17 is becoming increasingly heterogeneous, and is explored in depth in this study.