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The conflicting policy agendas of immigration control and ending child poverty

Jonathan Price

Welfare benefit restrictions have been used by the UK government for years in an attempt to manage migration as well as create savings to the public purse. These restrictions are part of a broader package of policies seeking to create a ‘hostile environment’ in the UK for migrants, creating disincentives to migrate to the UK and incentives for certain people to leave. This comes at a challenging time for efforts to end child poverty in the UK, with reports of recent increases in child poverty and an end to progress on this issue made since the 1990s.

A study recently published by COMPAS, Safeguarding children from destitution: local authority responses to families with no recourse to public funds, shows that a diverse group of people live in the UK for years, often in situations of extreme poverty, in spite of welfare restrictions, revealing a relationship between child poverty and immigration welfare restrictions. The study examines the support provided by local authorities to destitute children and families who are precluded from accessing mainstream welfare benefits (the ‘no recourse to public funds’ policy) under Section 17 Children Act 1989, the duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, which can include the provision of accommodation and financial support to families.

It finds that some children and families were living precarious lives in the period leading up to referral to the local authority for destitution support, raising safeguarding concerns for children, with families moving from place to place, sofa surfing and even sleeping in cars. If found to be eligible for local authority destitution support, families are likely to receive low subsistence payments, often for long periods of time. One local authority in the study was providing £35 per child, per week and nothing for parents under their Section 17 duty, which for a family with two parents and one child, amounts to little over £1 per person, per day.

For parents interviewed for our study, this period of hardship came many years after arriving in the UK, having migrated to live with family, to study or to work. This was followed by a deterioration in circumstances, often due to fewer opportunities in the formal or informal labour markets, leading to a crisis in which they became destitute. By this time however, families had invested in staying and many had acquired enforceable rights to remain in the UK. Even in times of extreme hardship, however, the desire to stay can outweigh any push factor caused by the difficulties facing families in making ends meet. Parents interviewed in our study mostly wanted to stay so that their children could continue their education in the UK and grow up in the country they were born in.

Whilst welfare exclusions did not appear to affect parents’ decisions whether or not to stay in the UK, the research shows that such exclusions have the effect that some children are put at risk, and, where their parents are not able to access minimum financial and accommodation support from the state for long periods of time, are at risk of living in poverty. Whilst ostensibly designed to influence the migration decisions of parents, welfare exclusions pose a major challenge to the government’s efforts to end child poverty by 2020.

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