By Cameron Boyle
Humane societies ensure that all children are provided for, but that's not a fair description of the UK right now. Destitution, homelessness and desperation are rife. The hopeless situations they find themselves in are unjust and undeserved. They stem from the immigration status of their parents.
The causes of poverty in the migrant community are numerous and complex, but the most prominent is quite simple: the lack of an adequate safety net. There is a No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) condition applied to all migrants who are subject to immigration control and this results in their exclusion from mainstream benefits.
As it stands, the only avenue of support comes via Section 17 of the 1989 Children Act, whereby local authorities are responsible for providing subsistence and housing to all destitute children under their jurisdiction.
Unfortunately, this supposed lifeline is riddled with inadequacies. Not only do migrants face considerable obstacles when applying for support, but the assistance provided is not fit for purpose. Young people report feelings of shame, fear and sadness because of the circumstances they are trapped in, yet their views are given no consideration in decision-making.
The Section 17 assessment process is focused on attacking the parents' credibility rather than prioritising the welfare of the child. A report by Project 17 found that 60% of families were unlawfully refused support when they first approached their local authority. Hostile gatekeeping methods are deployed to prevent migrant families from accessing the help they need. These include attacks on credibility, misinformation, and threats to take the child into care.
Some local authorities have been found to embed immigration officers into their assessment teams, leading to applicants feeling distressed and victimised. In addition, the presence of Home Office officials discourages those in need from applying due to fears of detention or deportation. A report from the Children's Society found that assessments become centred upon the parent's immigration status rather than the needs of the child.
One mother described feeling "worthless and humiliated" after seeking Section 17 support from Lewisham Council, stating "they don’t know how to talk to people". The difficulties involved not only perpetuate destitution, but cause immense emotional distress. Some families were told that their children would be taken into care, something that can only legally occur if there are genuine safeguarding concerns, of which there were not. This constitutes misinformation on the part of the local authority with the intention of scaring parents into not proceeding with their case. To make matters worse, several of these conversations occurred in the presence of the child, causing considerable anxiety and panic.
Section 17 financial support cements poverty rather than alleviates it. A lack of statutory guidance means that the amount of money provided to a family will often fluctuate. The seemingly arbitrary nature of payments is discussed by a Children's Society practitioner, who states that "they just give you whatever money they've got on the day". Project 17 found that in some cases subsistence rates were below the asylum support rate of £36.50 per person per week – the legal bare minimum. Compas found that some local authorities provide financial support for the children but not the parents, something that leads to the overall family unit suffering and remaining destitute.
Eighty-two per cent of the children interviewed by Project 17 stated that they did not have enough money and worried about affording essentials such as food, clothes and medicine. The Children's Society found that some children had a budget of £2 per day. It's simply not enough to live on.
In the words of a local authority employee: "I actually think our service maintains poverty". Government spending cuts have led to councils cutting costs wherever possible, but this should never be at the expense of child welfare. Migrant children are living in indescribably desperate situations. One young person told Project 17 that they feel as though life is "no longer worth it".
The housing provided to migrant families under Section 17 leads to children experiencing illness, misery and insecurity. Young people have reported issues such as cockroach infestations and anti-social behaviour from other residents. Research has found that 64% of properties provided to these families in London are not appropriate for the needs of children.
The emotional impact of living in substandard accommodation with children is devastating. One child described "crying inside" due to feeling unsafe at home. Even more harrowingly, the hideous conditions result in children suffering both physical and mental health problems, with one child telling Project 17 of their whole body aching after sleeping on a floor.
A study by Shelter examined the impact of poor-quality housing on the lives of young people, finding that health and academic attainment are negatively affected. This is corroborated by Project 17, which found many children raised concerns about not having enough space to do homework. Not only this, but Section 17 housing provision often results in a family being placed in accommodation that is a considerable distance from children's schools.
The long journey often necessitates the use of public transport, but due to a lack of subsistence this is unaffordable. They therefore have to make a very early start, but this leads to complete exhaustion, which impairs a child’s ability to function through the school day.
It is wrong that children are stuck in hopeless situations because of the immigration status of their parents. Many children hold British citizenship, but are unable to access support due to their parents having the NRPF condition.
Local authority assessments need to adopt a child-centred approach. The provision of subsistence and housing must be regulated to ensure the wellbeing of all children. The system fails the most basic standards of compassion and decency a society should expect.
Cameron Boyle is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration lawyers in the UK.
The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.