Local Government Welfare Responses to Children and Families who Have ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ February 2013 – June 2015


These two studies explore entitlements and exclusions to welfare benefits and public housing for children and families who, because of their immigration status, have restricted access to welfare state services. The larger study focuses on the policies and practices of local authorities in England and Wales whose duties include the operation of a safety net for destitute children and families who are excluded from mainstream welfare support. The aim of the research is to establish an authoritative evidence base on such local authority support provision to this group, to explore variations in policy and practice, and to inform future policy and practice at national and local levels. The research is complemented by a smaller, comparative study, published in September 2014, which explores how local authorities and NGOs respond to the needs of destitute children and families who have restricted access to welfare benefits and public housing in two cities in Spain and Germany: Madrid and Berlin.

Principal Investigator

Sarah Spencer


Jonathan Price


Nuffield Foundation
At Home in Europe Programme
Open Society Foundations (OSF)

Professionals' Advisory Group

The study in Berlin and Madrid was undertaken with the assistance of Elisa Brey at Complutense University, Madrid.

News & Media

Sticking plaster solutions? City-level responses to destitute migrant families
Blog | COMPAS Communications

Norway’s not so cuddly welfare state
Blog | Sarah Spencer

Immigration Bill 2015-16
Sanctuary Social Work News (pp. 8-11) | 5 Jan 2016

Failed asylum seekers could be restricted from Children Act support under new plans
Community Care | 17 Nov 2015

Government’s immigration plans ‘shift burden to council social workers’
CommunityCare | 24 Sep 2015

Children trapped in poverty by UK government’s ‘dysfunctional system’
Guardian | 3 Jun 2015

Thousands of children in Britain being forced to live on £1 a day
Independent | 3 Jun 2015

Migrant Destitution Is Not the Answer to the Welfare Question
OSF Voices | Jonathan Price | 23 Sep 2014

The Hostile Environment
COMPAS Anthology | Jonathan Price | Feb 2014



England, Germany, Spain, Wales






There is a range of academic literature in the social policy and migration fields which informs these studies, in particular on the background and implementation of the Children Act 1989, the evolving relationship between the welfare state and immigration controls, and the way in which community networks and civil society are a source of support outside of the public sector.

The changing relationship between state, family and child since the landmark Children Act of 1989 is explored in the literature, including Tunstill (1995), Statham and Aldgate (2003) and Parton (2011). In particular, they look at how the role of local authorities to protect and safeguard children has changed according to dominant social policy thinking of the time.

One cause of variation in practice between and within authorities is the exercise of discretion by local service providers or ‘street level bureaucrats’, a term coined by Lipsky in 1967. Subsequent literature has critiqued the theory (Howe, 1991) and explored the ideas in more contemporary contexts, including those relating specifically to services to migrants (Evans and Harris, 2004; Marrow, 2009; Van der Leun, 2006).

Our studies highlight the internal contradictions of the state, which simultaneously excludes and includes migrant families from the welfare state, with the state undermining its own sovereignty as a result (Chauvin and Garcés-Mascareňas, 2012), as well as the need to reflect a human rights ethic, enforced by the courts (Guiraudon 2000; Boswell 2007).

The evolving relationship of welfare states and migration policies more generally and comparatively across Europe is also explored in the literature, including Esping-Anderson (1993), Bommes and Geddes (2000) and Sainsbury (2012), as is the role of support beyond the state through migrant networks (Cvajner and Sciortino, 2010).

Bommes, M. and Geddes, A. (ed.) (2000) Immigration and Welfare: Challenging the Borders of the Welfare State, Routledge

Boswell, C. (2007) ‘Theorising Migration Policy: Is there a third way?’, International Migration Review 41(1): 75-100.

Chauvin, S. and Garcés-Marcareñas, B. (2012) ‘Beyond Informal Citizenship: The New Moral Economy of Migrant Illegality’, International Political Sociology, 6: 241-259.
Cvajner, M. and Sciortino, G. (2010) ‘A Tale of Networks and Policies: Prolegomena to an Analysis of Irregular Migration Careers and their Developmental Paths’, Population, Space and Place 16(3): 213-225

Evans, T. and Harris, J. (2004) ‘Street-Level Bureaucracy, Social Work and the (Exaggerated) Death of Discretion’, British Journal of Social Work, 34: 871-895

Guiraudon, V. (2000) ‘The Marshallian Triptych Reordered: The Role of Courts and Bureaucracies in Furthering Migrants’ Social Rights’ , in Bommes, M. and Geddes, A. (eds.) Immigration and Welfare: Challenging the Borders of the Welfare State, Routledge, 72-89

Howe, D. (1991) ‘Knowledge, Power and the Shape of Social Work Practice’, in Davies, M. (ed.) The Sociology of Social Work, Routledge

Lipsky, M (1983) Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services, New York: Russell Sage Foundation

Marrow, H.B. (2009) ‘Immigrant Bureaucratic Incorporation: The Dual Roles of Professional Missions and Government Policies’, American Sociological Review 74(5): 756-776

Parton, N (2011) ‘Child Protection and Safeguarding in England: Changing and Competing Conceptions of Risk and their Implications for Social Work’, British Journal of Social Work 41(5): 854-875

Sainsbury, D. (2012) Welfare States and Immigrant Rights: The Politics of Inclusion and Exclusion, Oxford University Press

Statham, J and Aldgate, J (2003) ‘From Legislation to Practice: Learning from the Children Act 1989 Research Programme’, Children & Society, 17(2): 149-156

Tunstill, J. (1995) ‘The Concept of Children in Need: The Answer or the Problem for Family Support?’, Children and Youth Services Review 17(5-6): 651-664

Van der Leun, J.P. (2006) ‘Excluding Illegal Migrants in The Netherlands: Between National Policies and Local Implementation’, West European Politics, 29(2): 310-326


The main study uses a mixed-method approach. This includes a literature review; a mapping of the law and policy relating to migrants subject to No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) condition; surveys of the 174 local authorities with social services responsibilities in England and Wales; an electronic survey of voluntary sector service providers; and 92 semi-structured interviews with parents, local authorities and advocates in eight local authority areas. Workshops were held in London and Manchester in order to consult a broad range of stakeholders on the research method and research questions, and to present emerging findings before preparation of the final report.

For the smaller, comparative study, 55 interviews were conducted across Berlin and Madrid with social workers, lawyers, welfare rights advisors, voluntary sector advocates and integration specialists across the statutory and NGO sectors. These were conducted over two weeks of fieldwork in each city during summer 2013, in each case three months apart.


A certain degree of inclusion in the provision of welfare benefits for migrant families can be found in Berlin and Madrid, including for refugees; those with subsidiary humanitarian status (granted in that country); some third-country nationals; asylum seekers; some mobile EU citizens and those with a longer period of residence. Moreover, certain forms of statutory accommodation and financial support are not subject to any immigration restrictions, namely support for those fleeing domestic violence and winter shelters.

Two key problems were nonetheless identified in the study:

1. The consequences of gaps in the legal framework that primarily affect migrants with irregular status, some mobile EU citizens and families with shorter periods of residence. These include destitution and other associated safeguarding concerns.
2. Where migrant families do enjoy entitlements to benefits they can still face exclusions resulting from poor implementation of policies. This includes inconsistency of practice, excessive gatekeeping and, in the case of Madrid, the failure to carry out statutory duties due to limited capacity following the financial crisis. Similarly, poor implementation can lead to destitution and other associated safeguarding risks. In Berlin, where accountability mechanisms exist, this appears to have little impact on initial decisions, with inconsistency and gatekeeping taking place in the welfare services of both cities.

Formal attempts to address the destitution of migrant families are evident in policies that formalise irregular status in effort to bring families within the scope of statutory accommodation and financial provisions. The same is also true of accommodation projects, funded by the state but provided by NGOs, which aim to take families in crisis off the streets and integrate them back into labour markets or state services through intensive case working support.

Findings for the England and Wales study are forthcoming.


The Berlin/Madrid report was disseminated widely using COMPAS’ and Open Society Foundations’ (OSF) existing networks, as well as through the contacts established during the research process. Two round table events were held in Berlin and Madrid  to present the research findings to participants and policymakers.