Apart from the community spirit that has manifested itself and seems, at least where we live, to be surviving, there aren’t a whole lot of positives to take from the lockdown. One of the few positive outcomes has, ironically, been the product of a kind of double negative: as the pandemic’s very negative social and economic pressures have increased, some of the more pernicious aspects of government policy, particularly towards migrants, have been forced out of the woodwork and into the unforgiving spotlight of public scrutiny.
Yesterday’s bumbling and inarticulate performance from our Prime Minister during his meeting with the Parliamentary Liaison-Committee shone a light on NRPF (‘no recourse to public funds’), one aspect of the Home Office’s virulent ‘hostile environment’ policy that I wasn’t aware of. The fact that the Prime Minister obviously didn’t have a clue about it either in no way lessens my sense that I should have known about it, but at least it was his, rather than my, ignorance that the Labour MPs Jess Phillips and Angela Eagle variously described as ‘quite phenomenal’ and ‘unbelievable’. The bottom line with NRPF is that until immigrants are granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK they are not entitled to benefits such as Universal Credit or the Employment and Support Allowance.
This was raised at the meeting by Stephen Timms, Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee in the House of Commons, who cited the case of a couple in his constituency with two young children. The parents came to UK from Pakistan and have both been here working full-time for seventeen years, during which the two children were born. Through all that time they have been paying income tax and National Insurance and, on top of those, paying exploitative visa fees and the NHS surcharge. Renewing their visas every two and a half years costs them around £4000. Because after 17 years they still haven’t been granted indefinite leave to remain in UK they, like over 100,000 other families, still have no recourse to public funds. This means that the father lost his job when the lockdown was imposed because he couldn’t furloughed. The family immediately lost 60% of their household income. The money the children’s mother earns isn’t enough to pay their rent. Whether by design or mere incompetence, it has taken the Home Office ten months so far to process their application for indefinite leave to remain.
The Home Office justifies a policy that is driving so many families towards destitution under lockdown on the grounds that “this has long been established as being in the public interest”. The same could obviously, and for far longer, have been said of the death penalty, until it was belatedly recognised that it wasn’t in the public interest after all and was duly abolished. The Home Office claims to have a much higher purpose in implementing NRPF than the obvious one of trying to deter immigration by squeezing as much out of immigrants as possible: “Those seeking to establish their family life in the UK must do so on the basis that prevents burdens on the State and the UK tax payer. It is right that those who benefit from the State contribute towards it.’ Contributing to the state by propping up our NHS and social care services, or our hospitality and agriculture industries, isn’t enough. Paying income tax and National Insurance in addition to that, like the rest of us, still isn’t enough. On top of that, immigrants still need to pay extortionate visa fees and an NHS surcharge (regardless of whether they happen to work in the NHS) for the privilege of being allowed to remain in UK to listen to xenophobic politicians ranting against immigration. And their NRPF status can go on for seventeen long years.
Having learnt at the meeting about the policy of the government he leads, Johnson promised to look into the matter. That has as much chance of making any difference as Matt Hancock’s promised review of the fines handed out to people who had, like Dominic Cummings, broken the lockdown regulations. So the pandemic is resulting in injustices being revealed in all their ugliness. But injustices aren’t only unjust in times of emergency, even if those are often the times they reveal themselves most starkly. Now that the spotlight has been shone into this dark corner of the hostile environment, it will be difficult for anyone, even Boris, to get away with knowing nothing about it.