Hard times: For the last seven years British governments have cut spending on public services, which has hit the poorest households hardest. Image by Joe Giddens/PA Wire/PA Images
One Friday evening last summer, Rhea* and her children walked through a north London neighbourhood. It was around six o’clock, pubs and bars on the high street were already heaving, customers holding glasses spilled onto the streets.
Grace* was nine, the boys, Benny* and Joseph*, were four and seven. They carried their belongings in rucksacks and bags. Rhea led them away from the noise of rush hour traffic, down a side street, the bars thinned out into residential houses. “We don’t have anywhere to go,” she told them. “Don’t be frightened. Cooperate.”
Their latest troubles had begun three months before when their rented flat flooded. Water poured through the ceiling, the children’s beds got soaked. A fire officer said there was a problem with the boiler and the flat was unsafe. Rhea and the children stayed with a friend for the night. Next day she called the council for help.
Council staff didn’t point blank refuse to help. They dodged and prevaricated. It took a week and angry tears before Rhea could get an appointment to be assessed. (The assessment is a statutory duty related to the children’s needs. It ought to have determined whether the family qualified for temporary housing and subsistence while the flat was fixed.) Rhea expected a formal meeting, questions, a decision. But it wasn’t like that. Instead the council response was piecemeal, random, frightening.
Rhea and her children bounced from one temporary home to another. Briefly, home was a bed-sit, one of five in a terraced house with a shared kitchen and bathroom. In the other bedsits lived a woman with a baby, another mother and her two children, and an elderly man who had mental health problems.
It didn’t feel safe.
The children were eating dinner one evening when there was a knock at the door. Their social worker. She fired questions: Why are the children eating pizza? Who bought it for them?
Still no help.
Rhea was on the bus taking her son to nursery when one day when her phone rang. More questions.
At the doctors having a blood test to find out why her eyesight had dimmed. Another phone call. The council. You must come in now. They needed to ask her more questions. If you don’t attend, it will be marked as non-compliance, which will invalidate your claim. Off she went.
Except for the couple of times the council gave Rhea a food bank voucher, the interrogations rarely translated into actual help. We don’t have a house, can you find somewhere else to sleep? Can you come back tomorrow? Why are you here?
Some nights Rhea and the children slept on sofas. They slept three nights in a church. Weeks went by and the family still had nowhere to live, and no access to the flat. The children’s school provided uniforms for Grace and Joseph. Grace’s school continued to feed her. The outstanding school dinner fees were added to Rhea’s debt. (A year later that’s around £400).
Rhea had turned to the council because she needed help. Eventually the council would turn her away, but before that Rhea was subjected to what felt like trial by local authority staff. She was judged, accused, threatened.
Councils are rationing services in sometimes random ways, making assumptions about whether people are deserving or undeserving
This wasn’t a case of one bad experience. Stretched local authorities are forced to prioritise services. By design or by accident, council officers are rationing services in sometimes random ways, and making assumptions about whether people are deserving or undeserving.
Since the 2007 financial crash, British governments have pursued a policy of austerity, making deep cuts to services for people in crisis. In the June 2010 budget George Osborne announced cuts so severe that even the BBC’s Nick Robinson called the Chancellor’s statement a “massive gamble economically and politically”.
Pain is spread across groups, mostly falling on women, and mostly ethnic minority women. Grace, Benny and Joseph are among the growing number of British children growing up in poverty. If planned tax and benefit changes go ahead, by 2020, their lives will become even harder.
And the cuts will hurt Grace and her brothers more than most children. Here’s why.
When you look at the cumulative impact of tax, welfare benefits and spending polices since 2010, it is black and brown women who lose most. The Women’s Budget Group and the Runnymede Trust, who’ve done this analysis, predict that if austerity continues, by 2020, Asian women in the poorest households will be worse off by £2,200. That’s twice the loss of white men in the poorest households. The richest white men would lose £400.
Black and Asian lone mothers would lose £4,000 and £4,200 a year on average by 2020. That is around 15 and 17 per cent of their net income.
“The data produced by these models tells a powerful story — showing clearly that across all income groups BME women have experienced greater losses in proportion to their income than white women or BME men,” say the Women’s Budget Group.
The report combines economic analysis and interviews with working class women and young people in Manchester and Coventry. Their stories chime with Rhea’s. The system punishes them more than it helps.
Asian women will be worse off by £2,200. Twice the loss of white men in the poorest households. The richest white men would lose £400
Cuts to housing benefit and tax credits have made it harder to pay for food and housing. Jobcentre staff and other state representatives can make women feel pressured, punished, unworthy. Women may be sanctioned by mistake, driven into debt, forced to stay in violent relationships to avoid destitution.
Meanwhile social housing is in short supply. Rhea needs a home. She is a full-time single mother of three living in destitution on the brink of homelessness. Yet two local authorities hesitated before even considering finding her somewhere to live.
Why is this happening?
Under the new Housing and Planning Act councils must prioritise the provision of homes for sale (starter homes for first time buyers) over social housing. When the Act was first published in October 2016 it was billed part of a “national crusade to get 1 million homes built by 2020”, transforming “generation rent into generation buy”.
Small comfort for anyone who can’t afford to buy their own home (in London, where Rhea lives, the average house price is £480,000, Even with the 20 per cent discount promised under the Act’s starter home policy, a household would need an annual income of more than £100,000 to find a mortgage).
The small print of the Act is still being worked out, but councils are already turning people away, especially women. When challenged about their duties to the most vulnerable councils are quick to point out the pressure they are under. The government cut funding for local authorities by 50 per cent between 2010 and 2015. The deepest cuts per head have fallen in the most deprived areas.
And as central government funding shrinks, councils are forced to ration the support they give. Some local administrators are even refusing to carry out their statutory duties to help survivors of domestic violence, destitute migrants and their families, homeless people and others in dire need.
One London councillor asked Rhea why she had children in the first place. Collectively the council officially denied that it had a duty to house her. And five times Children’s Services tried to split up the family.
The first time was very soon after she became homeless.
“The option we have now, we want to take your children,” one of the officers told her. “We have got accommodation, but only for your children.”
Rhea had spent the day pleading with council staff, being passed from department to department, waiting for hours, being told to come back another day. But Rhea refused to leave. She had nowhere to go, her children were by her side.
The children will go into foster care, they said, we just need you to sign an agreement.
“No way,” Rhea was furious. You have to sign, they said.
“I can’t sign anything. You can’t separate me from my children,” she said, in tears.
More talking, she felt the pressure to give her children away. Why am I here? It’s because of these children. They can’t, I will never.
Rhea’s head hurt. The children began to cry.
“If you can kill me, then you can take them. If you can’t then no.”
Hours passed. Rhea continued to protest, she lay on the floor, crying and refusing to leave. The council officers threatened to call the police, then they did. Rhea asked the officer: “Am I a criminal?” He said she wasn’t.
Things could have turned even worse. But then Grace, in tears, said she had a friend at school, they could stay with her. Or what about the woman that helped us last time?
A council officer seized on that, demanded the woman’s contact details, phoned her and fired questions at her. It didn’t seem right. She was just a kind acquaintance who had put the family up once before. Then she passed the phone to Rhea, who pleaded. The woman said: “I don’t want them to take your children, just come.”
After that Rhea kept the children with her whenever they weren’t at school. But Grace worried they might be taken away from their mum while they were at school. All three of the children cowered when the social worker came to see them. The fear of separation stayed with them.
Rhea knew this and tried to reassure them the Friday night they traipsed through those north London streets. She wanted them to feel safe. They wouldn’t go to the council this time, they would go the police. “Don’t be frightened. The police are your friend.”
Rhea and her family walked into the police station, a grand redbrick building with high curved archways. Rhea told them her story. The council had finally said no and refused to house them nearly a month ago. They spent three weeks with a stranger, but she’d asked them to leave. They’d gone to Shelter, the homelessness charity, who were helping them to apply for housing with another local authority, but meanwhile they were homeless.
A police officer told them: “We are here for crime, not housing.”
“Whatever,” Rhea said. “This place is safe. That is why I am here. It is safe for me and my children and I am here.”
That June, just a few miles across London, Theresa May, the new Prime Minister, stood outside Number 10 Downing Street and seemed to signal a kinder, more responsible style of government. She wanted to help the “just about managing” and tackle “burning injustices”.
Was that just talk? The cuts have continued, the country’s much-needed social safety net is in tatters.
May did commission a “race audit”, a collection of statistics showing how different ethnic groups in Britain experience health, education, justice and employment. The report, published in October, confirmed what so many people know by experience: life is tougher in Britain if you are from an ethnic minority and/or poor. Children on free school meals from black and Asian backgrounds do well in school, but as they get older their outcomes change. For the worse. They face harsher, more punitive treatment in the courts and in prison. They face a tough and discriminatory jobs market. Pakistani and Bangladeshi British people are the least likely to be in employment. Fewer than half of people from Black Caribbean, Bangladeshi and mixed backgrounds own their home. This is compared to more than two thirds of people from a white or Indian background.
Rhea’s experience isn’t exceptional. The statistics, the government’s own evidence, all suggest that inequality and poverty is growing, social security nets are being shredded. Rhea knows what this feels like. Her children, growing up black and in precarity, have all this to overcome.
As a migrant Rhea is subject to the ‘hostile environment’ policies designed to make life in Britain tough for the poorest migrants. Policies spearheaded by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary. The idea is to restrict access to public services in order to deter people from coming to the UK.
Transferring ‘gatekeeping at the border’ to ‘gatekeeping access to services’, is how migration experts describe it. That deliberate hostility, enshrined in law, policy and practice, seeps into how people think and behave.
Rhea’s experience illustrates the impact all this can have.
Rhea is 39 and came to Britain in her late twenties. Her three children were born in the UK. When she became homeless Rhea realised she had no access to public funds because she’d overstayed on her travel visa. Before this she worked, had a normal life. It was only in crisis that she was forced to turn to the state. She is in the process of regularising her status. It’s been more than a year since the Home Office wrote to say they were considering her case. Grace, who was born in the UK, must apply for citizenship too. For this Grace’s application Rhea will need to find £973.
As someone with ‘no recourse to public funds’ she can’t access mainstream welfare benefit like housing benefit, jobseekers allowance or working tax credits. Nor can she access social housing or homelessness assistance. Her children are affected too. A child can access public funds only when they turn 18. Before that child benefit and other child-centred support is awarded to their main carer. If their main carer has no recourse to public funds, they receive nothing. Free school meals count as a public fund, so Grace, Benny and Joseph don’t qualify, not even when they were destitute and homeless.
How many children are affected by this? The hardship faced by those families with ‘no recourse to public funds’ is not captured by the race audit. But two studies from 2015 and 2016 offer some insight.
Free school meals count as a public fund, so Grace, Benny and Joseph don’t qualify, not even when they were destitute and homeless
A study by Oxford University academics published in 2015 reveals a tension between child safety legislation and Home Office policy towards migrant families. Councils have a duty to support vulnerable children. They also have to administer aspects of the hostile environment. As one local authority staff member told researchers, “A negative attitude towards them as a client group can be reinforced by the Home Office saying they should all go back…”.
Restrictions on benefits for migrants goes back decades. The Labour government formally restricted access to the bulk of mainstream welfare and support for many migrants within the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999.
Families with no recourse could still potentially access accommodation and some support from social services under the Children Act 1989, providing the household contained a ‘child in need’. But then in 2002, the Labour government amended the law to further restrict the ability of EEA nationals and undocumented migrants to rely on this safety net. At the same time they further complicated the process local authorities use to assess whether families receive help. It can take many weeks.
Then Theresa May made life even harder.
In changes to the Immigration Rules introduced in 2012, she made ‘no recourse to public funds’ the default position for many migrants granted ‘limited’ (up to ten years) leave to remain in the UK.
And so the number of low-paid, precarious or unpaid migrant workers with children subject to benefit restrictions grew. At the same time government pushed the financial burden off its shoulders and onto local authority social services’ departments. Councils were left to administer a complex assessment process under the Children Act and support those children, and their families, whose destitution had reached such a level that they were assessed as being ‘in need’.
How many families are affected? The Oxford University study, carried out by COMPAS, estimates that local authorities supported roughly 3,391 families with no recourse to public funds, including around 5,900 children in 2012/13.
More than 50,000 people with dependents were denied access to public funds between 2014 and 2015, according to the Children’s Society. How many children were turned away? Nobody was counting.
The charity estimates that there are approximately 144,000 undocumented children living in England and Wales, more than half are born in the UK.
“They [no recourse families] have generally been in the UK for a considerable period of time, are well integrated and were not reliant on the state until a crisis provoked their referral,” the COMPAS report says. “Precarious living and relationships of dependency expose some parents and children to exploitation.
“Where support is provided, subsistence rates are well below minimum welfare benefit levels and below those provided for refused asylum seekers. Accommodation is often in B&Bs, which local authorities acknowledge are unsuitable for the welfare of the child. Parents’ reasons for remaining in the UK despite the hardship and insecurity it entails largely relate to the future education and welfare of their children.”
A report by the Children’s Society echoes this and brings fresh evidence of the increasing destitution of no recourse families. Councils place barriers to them receiving any support. Children are left hungry and without lunch for school, they are made street homeless, and forced to live hours from school. The charity says: “These children and their parents face extreme levels of destitution and risk which are multiple and varied including living in unsafe accommodation, being unable to afford food and engaging in informal sexual relationships for small amounts of money.”
Councils receive zero funding from the Home Office to cover the millions they now spend on families with no recourse. Lawyers say that changes (yet to be introduced) contained in Theresa May’s Immigration Act 2016 will make things even worse.
That night at the police station in June 2016, an officer gave Rhea and her children an interview room. The boys slept. Grace watched her mum phoning everyone she knew. She called the council’s out of hours number. They told her the case had been closed and hung up.
What happens now? You can imagine the unhappy ways that Rhea’s story goes from here.
But Rhea’s quest had already led her to a Sunday meeting in East London. She’d met other women like her: “There are lots of people going through this. A lot of women. Everybody is scared.”
She had begun to understand the law and what was happening to her. “Before all this I didn’t know about no recourse. I didn’t know anything.”
The group, called Nelma, offers solidarity, a place to eat, relax and talk and the kind of practical support that Rhea wasn’t getting from the council. It was set up by volunteers from migrant drop-in centres across north London, volunteers alarmed by the accelerating damage being done to the people who came to them for help.
Nelma offers solidarity, a place to eat, relax and talk and the kind of practical support that Rhea wasn’t getting from the council
They were meeting destitute asylum seekers, migrants fallen on hard times, homeless pensioners who have lived in Britain all their lives told they have to pay for NHS treatment, Eastern Europeans worried about the implications of Brexit.
They were meeting people with no recourse to public funds who were being denied support from the council. More and more frequently, they were hearing that people were being treated with something worse than discourtesy: contempt.
The volunteers started an accompanying service, so that people wouldn’t have to go alone to meetings with the council. They take notes, offer emotional support, act as a witness.
“It’s really quite dehumanising. People come to these appointments already in difficult emotional situations, already facing destitution,” says Sophie, a Nelma volunteer. “They are faced with aggressive questioning, bullying tactics. Often social services bring the attitude that if you are asking for support you must be lying. Trying to catch people out.
“The atmosphere can be very very tense. And very very exhausting. And it often goes on for days. Often at the end of the day the council will say, ‘We can’t support you. You need to come back tomorrow with all this evidence.’”
That is evidence of destitution. In the form of an eviction letter, bank statements, proof of residency.
When Rhea needed proof of her destitution, Nelma helped her gather it. When the council refused to believe her old flat was unsafe, Nelma called the fire station and got a statement from the officer who inspected her flat and told her it wasn’t safe.
Nelma activists don’t see themselves as service providers or a charity. Sophie, a researcher in her day-job, said:
“We want to address the wider injustice of no recourse to public funds, we think it should end. The wider injustices of council gatekeeping practices. These practices are obstructing routes to support for some of the most vulnerable people in society. We want to help people navigate this really difficult situation but we also want to call attention to injustices of that situation in the first place and campaign for change.”
After a frantic weekend of calls, Rhea and her Nelma friends managed to secure a meeting at a different local authority for Monday morning. Rhea worried that the whole humiliating process would start again.
But this social services staff member behaved professionally, informed Rhea of her rights and what to expect. A social worker visited the children’s school. The council gave her a bus pass and a Sainsbury’s voucher. Over the next month the family stayed in four B&Bs, each day Rhea sent a text to find out where they would be sleeping that night. Eventually, last winter, the council found them a temporary flat close to the children’s school. It was nearly five months since they’d left their flooded flat.
The struggle isn’t over for Rhea and her children. They remain subject to immigration control, the hostile environment, the daily bombardment of the message: you are undeserving, you have brought your troubles upon yourself. As one Nelma member puts it: “If you don’t have status you are nobody”.
It’s hard not to internalise that message, Rhea says, to become depressed and defeated. But the comradeship she has found through Nelma, have helped her to resist.
Rhea hands leaflets out to other mothers at school, joins in protests, supports others, spreads the word. Her children inspire her. “They are innocent. In this life, there are some things you can’t make a choice of. Where you are born, who gave birth to you. You can’t choose.”
*Names changed to protect identity.