No Respite from Public Destitution

Ademola Bello discusses why the modern welfare state is unfit for purpose. 

On the 7th of May 2020, in the midst of pandemic, a young British boy was fighting in court for his humanity in the eyes of the British state. He won that fight and hopefully paved the way for many others to be recognised as deserving of inalienable freedoms from destitution and deprivation. The boy in question was 3 months shy of his 9th birthday, born in the United Kingdom. His crime? The misfortune of being born to a woman without British citizenship. She is a Ghanaian migrant, one of the care workers we clapped for on Thursdays. She had lived in the UK since 2009 caring for the mentally disabled. Yet during her time of need she was repeatedly shunned by the state.  During one such time they were made homeless.

The state does not always make you homeless through physical force. When methods for people to seek redress are shrouded in layers of bureaucracy and the burden of proof – for example, to prove you are about to be made destitute – is shifted onto the individual. The state has no need for force. Each requested form and document provide social injury through a stream of paper cuts.

One such bureaucratic tool is the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) stipulation. NRPF is a condition applied to migrants in the UK which means they are ineligible to almost all forms of mainstream benefits and social safety nets that can be accessed by citizens. NRPF sits contextually within a wider framework of policies enacted as part of the hostile environment. Policies that were driven forward by a government trying to satiate a perceived national appetite for reduced immigration numbers. 

The idea being to reduce the number of people moving to the UK to live off the welfare state as opposed to working. In reality, what NRPF does is trap families and individuals who are already in the country into a cycle of deprivation. These are people who already contribute to the public purse through taxation yet are not allowed any respite from that purse when they need it most.

The Migration Observatory estimates that up to 1.4 million people could be impacted by NRPF. Further research commissioned by the Unity Project – a charity that works to support families impacted by NRPF – shows that women, particularly single mothers are disproportionately affected by the condition since childcare restrictions prevent them from working. There is also a disproportionality associated with children from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. Although the Home Office does not publish data on the nationality and ethnicities of children, the report states that 95% of British children who are supported by the Unity Project and other external NRPF organisations fall under the category of BME. These are children who should have the exact same level of support as their peers in the country but instead are disadvantaged by state policy which leaves them exempt from free school meals and more likely to live in overcrowded and inadequate housing. 

American economist Milton Friedman once observed that liberal immigration cannot exist with a welfare state. This logic seems to be what drives UK immigration policy. It expects people to fit into neatly defined boxes of minimum income thresholds, constant employment, and permanent self-sufficiency. There is no proper contingency for when people fall out of those boxes. Once people are in the country legally why treat them so grotesquely? It creates an underclass of people who are easily exploited and subjected to inhumane and degrading conditions as was found with the young boy at the start of this piece.

When asked to provide an estimate of migrants who cannot access any benefits due to NRPF, the Home Office declined, a decision criticised by the chair of the UK Statistics Authority. One must wonder whether a government agency not able to provide simple numbers on the amount of people it could possibly be leaving destitute is fit for purpose.

Ademola Bello is an aspiring writer with a passion for politics and what it can do to shift the world towards justice.

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