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Fury as Boris Johnson fails to understand government’s own immigration policy

Prime minister accused of ‘either wilfully lying, or obfuscating the truth’ about no recourse to public funds condition

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 14 January 2021 17:44 GMT
Boris Johnson accused of claiming NRPF rule aimed solely at illegal immigrants

Boris Johnson has prompted fury after wrongly suggesting all migrants barred from state support under the Home Office’s no recourse to public funds (NRPF) policy are in the UK unlawfully.

The prime minister has rejected calls for the NRPF condition to be suspended during the pandemic, backing up this decision by saying it applies to people who are in the country illegally.

NRPF is a condition applied to people in the UK with a temporary immigration status who are eligible to live and work in the country, but who are prevented from accessing state benefits in order to “protect public funds”. It is also automatically applied to those without legal status.

Nearly 1.4 million people in the UK cannot access public funds due to the condition, with the burden of restrictions falling on people from black, Asian or other minority ethnic (Bame) backgrounds, according to research by Citizens Advice last year.

Campaigners have warned the rule is forcing migrant workers to choose between “financial ruin” or risking their lives to work during the coronavirus pandemic, and called for it to be suspended – but no such move has been taken.

Addressing Mr Johnson during an evidence session with the Liaison Committee on Wednesday, Labour MP Stephen Timms said of NRPF: “In my area it’s one of the factors in the spread of the pandemic. People can’t stop working because they can’t claim social security so they have to carry on working.”

He went on to pose the question: “Shouldn’t this NRPF condition at least be suspended for the duration of the pandemic?”

The prime minister responded: “I totally understand the logic of your argument, but the problem is it’s a very longstanding provision in this country that NRPF conditions should apply to those for instance who are here illegally or unlawfully. 

"I think it would be not the right way forward to change that."

Responding to Mr Johnson’s remarks, Liberal Democrats home affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said they were “outrageous and wrong”, adding: “He should know that it’s a standard condition imposed on most people who come to live and work here on a visa.

“NRPF is particularly damaging during the Covid crisis, preventing many families who have lost their livelihoods overnight from accessing the universal credit safety net. It’s long past time for the government to make this vital change [to lift the NRPF condition] to help keep people safe.”

Minnie Rahman, public affairs and campaigns manager at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, accused the prime minister of “either wilfully lying, or obfuscating the truth” about NRPF conditions.

“He has had these issues raised directly with him by parliamentarians and civil society countless times in the last year. As the PM should know, these rules apply to 1.4 million people – both those with visas and those without.

“They exclude thousands of families from our social safety net and have pushed people into destitution, homelessness and dangerous working conditions.

“The prime minister's inaction on this issue is putting migrants lives at risk and jeopardising public health too. He needs to end his political game-playing, and ensure everyone has the safety net they need right now.”

It comes after Mr Johnson was criticised for appearing to be unaware of the NRPF condition when questioned by MPs at a Liaison Committee hearing last May.

The government has come under pressure to suspend the policy from local councils and the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, both of whom say it has hindered their efforts to help thousands of rough sleepers off the streets during the pubic health crisis and prevent people from falling back onto the streets.

A report by the Work and Pensions Committee last June argued that during a pandemic it could not be in the public interest to expect people – some of whom are key workers and frontline medical staff – to comply fully with restrictive public health guidance while simultaneously denying them full access to the welfare safety net.

A government spokesperson said: “As the prime minister said, the provision of NRPF is a long-standing one which has been upheld by successive governments and applies to a wide range of migrants, including those here unlawfully.

“Abolishing it would not be right, but we have taken decisive action to support people through this pandemic, including those with NRPF, through measures such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. 

"Families with leave under family and human rights routes can also apply, free of charge, to have no recourse to public funds conditions lifted and we encourage anyone eligible to submit an application.”

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