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Dysfunctional system and lack of a welfare safety net pushes migrant destitution in the UK to a record high

14 May 2024

A major study conducted by the University of Oxford's Global Exchange on Migration and Diversity (GEM), has identified a 150% increase in destitute migrant families accessing local authority support, in less than a decade. These families find themselves excluded from the mainstream welfare safety net due to their immigration status and includes an estimated 10,500 children.

The ‘Understanding Migrant Destitution’ study, undertaken by the GEM team based at the University of Oxford's Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) and funded by abrdn Financial Fairness Trust, looked at the impact of the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) policy on UK local authorities, in the financial year 2021-22.

The report identifies a lack of joined-up policymaking between central and local government alongside rapidly increasing numbers of people subject to the NRPF policy, which restricts access to most mainstream benefits such as Universal Credit, housing benefit and child tax credit. At the end of 2022, almost 2.6 million people living in the UK held visas with the ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) condition – an increase of over 1 million in just two years. The NRPF condition is attached to most visa types for non-UK citizens immigrating to the UK, and most of these people will not be economically vulnerable. But for the small minority who are, the lack of a welfare safety net places them at a high risk of destitution.

The number of people subject to the NRPF policy has increased sharply since Brexit with a rise in the number of destitute European families and vulnerable adults seeking local authority support and there are concerns numbers will increase further, as the Illegal Migration Act comes into force.

The findings provide the first UK-wide baseline of the vulnerable and destitute migrant population supported by local authorities, who are excluded from the mainstream social security safety net, despite facing destitution. It also provides the first UK wide estimate of the number of destitute vulnerable adults with care needs who are supported by local authorities. Case studies for vulnerable adults included people who have lived and worked in the UK for decades, but were no longer able to work due to health issues, people with complex health and care needs and people with a terminal illness, including people who have died waiting for their case to be resolved.

The report found that over half (53%) of people supported by local authorities in 2021/22 were in Greater London. Evidence from Wales and Northern Ireland indicates a rise in cases but analysis has been hamstrung by challenges with social care data collection. Scotland’s devolved policies provide better evidence of the increasing level of need, which they have sought to address through Scotland’s Ending Destitution Together strategy: despite these policies the report shows numbers there are still on the rise. Challenges in data collection mean that all estimates are likely to significantly undercount the scale of need.

Jacqueline Broadhead, Co-Director of the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) and Director of the Global Exchange on Migration and Diversity, said: “We estimate that in 2021/22, local authorities provided financial support to 18,000 destitute people locked out of the mainstream welfare safety net, including 5,400 families, 10,500 children and 2,700 vulnerable adults and at an estimated annual cost of £102 million for local authorities. However, we know this is only the tip of iceberg as many people remain locked out of all welfare safety nets, unable to ever access social care, refuges or places of safety.”

The report shows that this population in England and Wales has risen by over 150% since 2012/13, whilst estimated costs for local authorities supporting families has increased by almost 230%. This comes at a time when many councils are under severe financial strain, with councils receiving no dedicated funding from central government for this support.

Lucy Leon, Researcher at GEM, said: “The Home Office NRPF policy has created a situation where local authorities are left to provide a parallel welfare safety net for vulnerable destitute migrants, but one which central government doesn't underwrite. As a result, the services that are provided are inconsistent, don’t meet people’s needs and are often wrongly refused to people in dire need.”

Mubin Haq, Chief Executive of the abrdn Financial Fairness Trust, said: “During an intense squeeze on living standards, we have seen record growth in the numbers unable to access our social security safety net. This is clearly leading to many families facing profound hardship.”

Whilst the report did not look at whether the NRPF condition overall is fit for purpose, it calls for significant improvements to fix a patchy and dysfunctional local safety net, including providing funding to social care departments, developing local leadership to tackle migrant deprivation and the importance of listening to and including migrant voices when designing services, building on the learning of the Windrush Lessons Learned review.

Read the research