No data, no recourse: How a lack of information limits access to support for vulnerable families
Project 17 works to end destitution among migrant children. We work with families experiencing exceptional poverty to improve their access to local authority support.
Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 enables local authorities to provide support to children who are ‘in need’. This support has become an essential safety net for families who are unable to access mainstream welfare support due to immigration status— families with ‘no recourse to public funds or ‘NRPF’. Unable to access the usual government support they need to look after their children, families in this situation are at high risk of homelessness, exploitation and abuse. Yet our experience shows that local authorities are routinely failing these families, with many children being left street homeless or without enough money to eat. Joel*, age 9, recalls what happened to him when he and his mother were wrongly refused section 17 support: “We had to keep going to McDonalds every night and we would also go to A&E. I would have to wear my school clothes and sleep like that.”
The pressures of austerity and budget cuts have left local authorities cash-strapped and overwhelmed. As a consequence, many local authorities resist providing such support to migrant families. Between 2017-18 Project 17 supported 134 families in London to request section 17 support from a local authority. 79% of these families were unlawfully refused support when they first approached the local authority, while 31% were wrongly refused an assessment. These refusals left families without enough money to meet the basic needs of their children, in unsafe and unsuitable accommodation, and in 7% of cases, families became street homeless.
Hostile ‘gatekeeping’ methods and gruelling assessment processes have been introduced to deter families from accessing section 17 support. The families we work with are routinely unable to access essential support that they are entitled to, and the results are devastating.
The hyper-poverty that families with ‘no recourse to public funds’ face, and the difficulties they experience when trying to access local authority support, remain hidden issues. There is no publicly available data on how many families with ‘no recourse to public funds’ are living in the UK. Some families have NRPF because a restriction has been placed on their visa, yet the Home Office has refused Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests about how many families have been granted leave to remain with a ‘no recourse to public funds’ condition on the basis that it ‘would have to undertake a manual trawl through every individual case record to obtain this data as it is not recorded in reportable field on our case management system’. They have also refused requests about how many families with a no recourse to public funds condition subsequently apply for access to public funds due to destitution.
Local authority data collection in this area is similarly poor. Grave concerns about the lack of transparency and accountability in the way local authorities are refusing families with NRPF are compounded by poor data recording practices and failures to respond to FOIA requests. Despite the fact that 26 of the 32 local authorities in London are members of ‘NRPF Connect’—a data management system dedicated to ensuring councils can effectively manage data on their NRPF caseload and communicate with the Home Office about specific cases—last year 31% of these local authorities refused to respond to an FOIA request about their NRPF caseload. Again, this was on the basis that data was not stored in an electronically retrievable way and would thus require a manual trawl.
Over a third of London local authorities were unable to provide information on how many assessments of families with NRPF they had conducted over a 6-month period. Some local authorities responded with inaccurate information. For example, one local authority claimed that they did not record data on NRPF households but this was contradicted by a separate FOIA response they provided, demonstrating that they did gather the type of data being requested. When challenged, the information officer reported that the NRPF team manager was responding to FOIA requests using data ‘off the top of their head’ because the Council did not formally record data on families with NRPF. This ‘estimated’ data included the number of families supported under section 17 and the cost of providing such support each year between 2011-2017. Worryingly, in response to further FOIA requests six months later, 10 London local authorities provided data that contradicted the information they provided in the previous response.
The lack of transparency and accountability at a local government level has led to systemic hostile ‘gatekeeping’ of essential support for families with no recourse to public funds. The failure to meet these children’s essential needs is a form of statutory neglect  which will inevitably lead to longer-term health and social issues for children and their families.
*Names have been changed in order to protect the identities of children
 No Recourse to Social Work? Statutory Neglect, Social Exclusion and Undocumented Migrant Families in the UK, A. Jolly, August 2018)