Destitution in the UK: how the No Recourse to Public Funds immigration condition affects poverty

Published 23 March 2022 / By Jacqui Broadhead

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In 2020, it was reported that a fifth of destitute households were migrants (JRF 2020). In these cases, the destitution arose primarily from the households' immigration status, specifically the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) condition, which restricts access to the welfare safety net (including most mainstream benefits such as Universal Credit). We cannot hope to tackle poverty and destitution in the UK without considering this group.

Around 1.3 million people are estimated to live in the UK with the NRPF condition attached to their visas. Measuring the size of this population is challenging, as there are no reliable estimates of the number of people without immigration status (who also have NRPF). However, recent estimates vary from 580,000 to over one million (Migration Observatory 2020).

Many people subject to the NRPF condition are self-sufficient; this restriction does not cause a problem. Still, the lack of a welfare safety net means they are always in a more precarious position if their circumstances change. 

There is, however, a local safety net to support children, families, and vulnerable adults, operating essentially as a parallel welfare system administered by local authorities, who receive no dedicated funding for this provision.

This lack of funding leads to wide variations in policy and practice, subject to regular legal challenges. Support is patchy and variable, a threadbare safety net, and does not cover all who need it, for example, single destitute adults without care needs.

In 2015, COMPAS published necessary research on these challenges and limitations for families. But if the situation was challenging in 2015, then there have been a significant number of changes that have affected this creaking system since then. The Windrush scandal and the effects of the so-called hostile environment affected provision, as did Brexit, which brought a whole new group of EU nationals into the NRPF condition. The COVID pandemic's economic, health and social shock has had profound implications. The cost of living crisis and new arrivals from Ukraine will likely place additional burdens.

Any one of these seismic events would have illuminated the need for change. We learned early on in the pandemic the futility of delineating people by immigration status in the face of a public health crisis. Similarly, as the name suggests, the ‘everyone in’ policy asked local authorities to house everyone, regardless of immigration status – creating a new policy reality which may shape future decisions.

It is in this context that we have secured funding for a new phase of research seeking to answer three key questions: 

1) How has the NRPF population at risk of destitution changed?

2) How has local authority provision for destitute (and those at risk of destitution) NRPF migrants changed?

3) How have outcomes for destitute NRPF migrants changed since 2015?

We hope to use the findings of this research to improve local authority policy and practice in providing a safety net for vulnerable migrants regarding funding and commissioning, accommodation, subsistence, provision of information and advice and communications, including providing indicative guidance on ‘minimum standards’ – both for directly supported families and adults, but also the wider NRPF cohort.

We also hope to support the devolved administrations in setting out distinctive NRPF approaches whilst using our evidence base to make a case for change in national NRPF policy through amplifying the voice of local government, using their expertise in delivering this vital service to support policy change.

Through our Inclusive Cities programme, we already have examples of local authorities working to change, from new approaches to service delivery in Bristol, London and Liverpool to collective ambition through the ‘Everyone Home’ collective aiming to set out a countrywide approach in Scotland. We hope this research can help galvanise change at the local level.

Could you be the person to help us to deliver this ambitious agenda? We’re currently recruiting for a talented researcher who can help lead this vital initiative. If you think that could be you, find out more here on our vacancies page (closing date 14 April 2022).