Rita (not her real name) remembers when it first began to unravel for her and her two children. It was December and she had an appointment with the social services team at her local London borough. She was struggling to pay for their accommodation and needed some help.
Rita arrived at the meeting and alongside the social worker, there also was an immigration officer from the Home Office, a tactic now used by some local authorities to intimidate families. These officers are highly rewarded - Freedom of Information (FOI) requests from Haringey council shared with openJustice show they are paid as much as £80,000 per year for their work. The purpose is intimidation, with a meeting about the needs of children turned into one about immigration status.
This was a threat Rita felt. She did not know her rights and after years of working in the UK, she was worried she might be separated from her children or even deported without them. Because of her immigration status, she had been classified as having no recourse to public funds, which meant she wasn’t getting any benefits. She was living in temporary accommodation and told the government officials that she needed help with her rent "otherwise I was going to get kicked out of my property and my kids were going to be homeless”. Rita tells openJustice, almost three years after the event, sitting in the living room of her home, her teenage daughter and young son watching Japanese cartoons on the sofa while we talk.
She didn’t know it at the time, but even as a Jamaican migrant without British citizenship, Rita and her family were entitled, under section 17 of the Children Act 1989, to a continued, if basic, level of support from their local authority. The law provides that it is the “general duty of every local authority” to “safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need”, as well as to “promote the upbringing of such children by their families”.
This provision of the Children Act forms the basis of the work done by Project 17, a group that works to end destitution among migrant children. “We work with families who are experiencing exceptional poverty or homelessness because they are blocked from accessing mainstream welfare or social housing by immigration rules”, says Abi Brunswick, director of Project 17, which has also successfully pressurised a number of local authorities into stopping the deployment of uniformed Home Office staff in meetings like the one Rita had.
One father and mother pretended to their children they were making a documentary about homelessness
In many cases, families find that having survived for a long time through a combination of resilience, social networks and cash in hand jobs, they end up having to sleep in churches, night buses or accident and emergency departments. One father and mother pretended to their children they were making a documentary about homelessness.
These families are usually being treated unlawfully by their local authorities because they are not being given the support the law stipulates they should receive and, following almost a decade of cuts to local government budgets, pressure on local authorities is intense. Since 2010, 60p in every pound given to local government by central government has been cut.
On top of this - and because of it, as a way of saving money - migrant families entitled to help are undermined. “Local authorities will often ask these families everywhere they lived over the last ten years and will then use things like not knowing the post codes as proof that they didn’t live there,” says Clare Jennings, director of public law at Matthew Gold. OpenJustice has heard of cases in which migrants have their social media accounts pulled apart, accused of lying based on “evidence” found on platforms like Facebook. In one case, a mother who had not been with the father of her children for many years, was accused of trying to con a local authority into supporting her because the authority found a picture of her and the father online.
Project 17 helped 300 people in such situations last year. They told us about a mother who was made homeless, along with her newborn baby. She had been in the UK for ten years and had been unable to regularise her immigrations status. Once her son - who is British - was born, the friends she had been living with could no longer accommodate her. She could have made an immigration application based on her child’s nationality but as legal aid is no longer available in immigration cases, she was unable to afford the legal help, nor the extortionate Home Office application fee.
Initially she was told by the local authority to “go back” to where she came from - a former British colony where, like so many others, dire economic and political circumstances had left her with no option but to leave and seek a better life elsewhere - and that her child would be taken into care in Britain. Unlawful and racist language was used against her.
With advocacy from Project 17, she and her baby were provided with support under section 17 of the Children Act. Accommodation was found for her and she was given a little money. But as often happens, the support she was provided did not meet the needs of her and her child. She had to share a bed with her baby, who kept falling out of it. The money was often delayed and she was regularly unable to buy food and nappies. Eventually, with help from Project 17, a cot was provided and she was awarded some compensation.
Meanwhile, soon after Rita’s meeting with social services in the run up to Christmas she got a phone call from the agency running the property she lived in. It was January and although the local authority had been paying her rent they had emailed the agency to tell them that they wouldn’t be doing this anymore. That night, Rita was told she and her children would be evicted from the property on Friday. This was Tuesday.
The local authority had decided to cut costs by illegally taking her children away
On Thursday, someone from the property agency came to the house while Rita was getting her son, then aged three, ready to go to nursery. The agency worker told her to hand over her keys and when Rita refused, he called the police. The police arrived and told her the council wouldn’t help pay her rent and that the agency had the right to evict her.
Rita handed over the keys, with all her belongings still in the property. For weeks, she and her children moved from one sofa to another. Feeling desperate, Rita went to a police station in a neighbouring borough, but was told that she still had to deal with her local borough. She spent the whole day at the police station with her children. She was told her family would be broken apart.
That night, Rita’s children were taken from her and put into the care of her mother, who, she says, had been threatened with the prospect of having her grandchildren put into care. The council didn’t have a court order and Rita had signed no documents giving them permission to take her children away.
For the next eleven months, Rita continued to stay on the sofas of friends while her children were kept at her mother’s house. “I was feeling suicidal at times”, she says, adding that, like a lot of people in her type of situation, she was treated differently because she’s not British, white or middle class.
“Most people that work for the government look at some people’s situation like it’s not real, because they aren’t going through it. They do it in the job centre as well. For one minute put yourself in someone else’s shoes before judging them. They’re hurting people and making people more vulnerable to all sorts of stuff.”
It was Project 17 that saved Rita. She found them online, called their hotline and the group became her advocate, finding her a solicitor paid for by legal aid, which itself has seen devastating cuts over the last few years. Abi Brunswick and her colleagues gave Rita a clear idea of her legal rights, of where and how she had been treated unlawfully, and took over contact with social services.
Rather than keeping the family together and providing Rita and her two British children with the basic support they needed in order to stay in their accommodation, the local authority had decided to cut costs by illegally taking the children away. Threatening to take the children away is another tactic that local authorities use to deter families, Project 17 told us. Rita says that this prospect hung over her for a while, with social services repeatedly referring to it.
With the law firm Matthew Gold representing her, Rita won an apology and a settlement of £12,500 from the council. The verdict came as a result of the duties required of the local authority under section 17 of the Children Act and also under article 8 of the Human Rights Act, which protects the right to private and family life.
Now reunited with her children, Rita tells us that if she hadn’t have found Project 17, she would be in the same predicament now.
Sitting in the living room of her new accommodation, things have certainly improved for her. She works as a cleaner at a hospital now, hoping to be able to go back to college to complete her studies in health and social care. She hopes to become a midwife. She would consider returning to Jamaica but the flights are too expensive and her children are settled here. It’s a cold night when we meet and it’s easy to see why you might want to be free of Britain.
Rita lights up when talking about Project 17. After dealing with so many people who saw her as a second or third class citizen, here was a group of people ready to stand up for her. To be treated as someone real, it’s all she was asking for.
This article is part of the Unlawful State series where we investigate unlawful decision making by the UK government. We also hear from pioneering NGOs using the law to tackle the problem. See here for more.