Boris Johnson has hinted that the government will review rules that prevent thousands of migrants living in the UK from accessing a raft of state benefits despite paying taxes here.
The prime minister said people who “live and work here should have support” during the coronavirus crisis, after he appeared to be caught off guard when Labour MP Stephen Timms quizzed him on the long-standing no recourse to public funds (NRPF) rule.
Migrants who have been given the NRPF status by the Home Office are not eligible for most state benefits, including Universal Credit, employment support allowance, housing benefit, help with council tax payments.
The rule, which was toughened up under the coalition government, also denies access to means-tested free school meals for the children of those with the status, and the measure is applied by authorities even where people have leave to remain in the UK and are required to pay tax.
Pressed on the issue at the Commons Liaison Committee, Johnson said: “Hang on Stephen. Why aren’t they eligible for Universal Credit or Employment Support Allowance or any of the other [benefits]?”
Timms replied: “Well, it’s a very good question.
“It’s because they have no recourse to public funds. That’s a condition that’s attached to their leave to remain.
“They’ve been here for years, their children have been born in the UK but, because for a ten year period, we have this no recourse to public funds, at the moment they can get no help at all.”
The prime minister said: “I’m going to have to come back to you on that Stephen.”
But, hinting that he could consider a policy change, Johnson said: “Clearly people who have worked hard for this country, who live and work here should have support of one kind or another.
“But you’ve raised a very, very important point.
“The condition of their leave to remain is that they should have no recourse to public funds. I will find out how many there are in that position and we will see what we can do to help.”
PM 'right to be shocked'
The PM’s pledge to look into the issue has already been welcomed by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Migrants, which has previously urged the Home Office to scrap the rule and warned it could push people into fresh hardship during the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown.
The JCWI’s Minnie Rehman told PoliticsHome: “The prime minister is right to be shocked that migrants, and their families, have been left to fend for themselves during this pandemic.
“We see children and their parents driven to destitution every day, who have been forced to risk their lives in unsafe jobs, and made homeless because they are refused access to the safety net that protects us all.
“We will be holding Boris Johnson to the commitment he has made to help those who have been placed in this situation by government policy.”
Stuart McDonald, the SNP’s migration spokesperson, meanwhile told PoliticsHome that his party would work with the government to ditch the rule in its flagship immigration bill.
He said: “It is absolutely jaw dropping that after umpteen years as Mayor of London, in Parliament, in cabinet and now as prime minister, Boris Johnson appears totally unaware of the plight of people who are prohibited from having recourse to public funds.
“However, looking on the positive side, I’m pleased he seems as mystified as anyone as to why people should be prevented from getting the support they need.
“He has the perfect opportunity to fix things with the immigration bill comes back to Parliament in a couple of weeks, and we’ll be very happy to help him”.
Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said: “That the prime minister apparently had no idea what ‘no recourse to public funds’ was and meant for people is extraordinarily worrying.
"We’ve called for its suspension in this public health emergency and, with the prime minister promising to look at it, let’s hope that he can persuade the Home Secretary to think again.”
Timms has now written to the prime minister to follow up the exchange. He said: "For two months, ministers have been promising to act, but we’ve seen no substantial change.
"The prime minister was clearly surprised to hear that people in this situation can’t claim Universal Credit or other benefits – so I am hopeful that he will now put his foot on the accelerator and offer much needed support to people facing financial hardship."
The hint at a review of NRPF status comes after Johnson last week bowed to pressure, including from some of his own MPs, and announced that NHS and care home staff from overseas would be exempted from a £400 health surcharge that they had previously been expected to pay.