Hostile environment leaving UK-born children street homeless, finds report

Government accused of prioritising immigration control over children’s rights as report shows families forced to sleep in churches, buses and A&E departments due to ‘gatekeeping’ practices

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Tuesday 19 February 2019 01:12 GMT
Not Seen, Not Heard: Project 17 releases campaign to support children of immigrant parents

The government has been accused of prioritising its “hostile environment” policies over children’s rights after it emerged UK-born children are being left street homeless due to the immigration status of their parents.

Thousands of youngsters are living in extreme poverty as local councils wrongly deny support to parents who, under Home Office rules, have no access to welfare benefits because they are subject to immigration controls, according to a report by a charity.

Project 17 found that in some cases, families in London – many with children who were born in the UK – have been forced to sleep in churches, on buses or in A&E departments because they have been wrongly denied support due to “gruelling” and “hostile” assessment processes.

Local authorities are obliged under Section 17 of the Children’s Act to safeguard and promote the welfare of children “in need” – a provision that has become a safety net for youngsters whose parents have no recourse to public funds (NRPF) due to their immigration status.

But the charity said pressures of austerity and cuts to councils’ budgets have made many local authorities unwilling to provide this support, leading them to use “gatekeeping” methods and subject families to “unprofessional and disrespectful” treatment to deter families from accessing it.

Why is the Home Office getting so many immigration decisions wrong?

The report states: “Support under section 17 is increasingly hard to access and local authorities are employing various strategies to refuse families with NRPF support.

“Misinformation, attacks on credibility, intimidation, aggression, and disrespect on the part of local authorities leaves families destitute and at high risk of exploitation.”

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said the report was a “cruel indictment” of the government’s hostile environment.

“Funding cuts to local authorities are having the most severe effects on families and leaving vulnerable children in the most destitute circumstances,” she added. ”The hostile environment must end.”

Six in 10 of the families supported by Project 17 have been unlawfully refused Section 17 support when they first approached their local authority. Of the 17 children interviewed as part of the report, a quarter had been left street homeless by a local authority.

In one case, an eight-year-old boy and his mother were continually refused Section 17 support and had no option but to sleep in a church for six weeks until the Home Office granted them access to public funds and they were able to access housing support.

In another case, three siblings aged seven, five and one had to sleep on night buses with their mother after they were evicted from their flat due to rent arrears because she had lost her right to work. In the mornings, she would take the children to McDonalds to brush their teeth.

When they went to the council for help, they were refused support because two of the children did not have immigration applications pending, which was due to the fact that their mother could not afford the application fees.

Figures from the Children’s Society show that over a two-year period in 2016, more than 50,000 individuals with dependents had the NRPF condition applied to their leave to remain in the UK. The condition can be applied to someone if they have certain types of visa or have no valid leave in the UK.

People with NRPF cannot access mainstream benefits such as jobseekers’ allowance, housing benefit and child tax credits, and they are unable to make homelessness applications or be placed on local authority housing registers.

Amy Murtagh, interim director of Project 17, said: “All children deserve to have a home and enough to eat, regardless of their parents’ immigration status.

“Local authorities need to do better at meeting their legal duties to children in need. Migrant families often struggle to access Section 17 support, facing hostile gatekeeping tactics. If support is provided, often it is inadequate to meet children’s needs.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The welfare of children is one of our top priorities and our immigration system will always protect families with children from becoming destitute.

“Support will never be withheld if the welfare of a child is at risk due to a family’s financial circumstances.

“We also work closely with local authorities to assist them with applications for support from migrants, helping to reduce the financial burden placed on local authorities and ensuring applications for Leave to Remain are assessed promptly.”

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