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No Recourse to Public Funds | Commons debates

I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for this important debate, and I pay particular tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), who has campaigned on this issue on behalf of his constituents and others across the country with such vigour and determination. I well remember his question to the Prime Minister in the Liaison Committee. It was a moment where he brought to the fore this often hidden issue. He made some important points across the board and reminded us of the particular problems that people with no recourse to public funds had during the pandemic.

I thank everyone for their contributions to what has been a calm and sensible debate on the issues at hand. The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) talked about the particular problem that London boroughs have. As a Croydon MP, I am, I think, in the top 10 for immigration cases in the Home Office, and I have dealt with many people with no recourse to public funds. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) talked about the increase in food bank usage and its disproportionate use. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) talked about that 10-year route to citizenship and the struggles that people have with that.

I should start by saying that we in the Labour party will always value the vital contribution played by migrants, including those here on a short-term visa, in keeping the wheels of our economy turning and the heart of our public services beating. We have a priority to ensure that Government and businesses are investing first and foremost in skilling up home-grown talent to fill job vacancies, but we recognise the vital contribution that migrant workers play in supporting Britain’s economy to strengthen and our people to prosper. That is all part of the firm and fair well-managed system of migration that the Labour party is committed to delivering.

Unfortunately, the policies of the Conservative Government have hit those workers and their families extremely hard, like so many of us. The cost of living crisis that we now face has been difficult for all of us, but it has been particularly challenging for those on low incomes and even more so for those with no recourse to public funds, such as those on short-term work visas who are on the pathway to British citizenship, as has been mentioned, their family members or those seeking asylum. They cannot access critical Government services such as the additional means-tested cost of living payment for poorer households, the additional cost of living payment for pensioners entitled to the winter fuel payment or the disability cost of living payment for people in receipt of disability-related benefits. That has consequences.

The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) talked about research by Praxis from April this year. It found that two thirds of parents surveyed had struggled to afford to feed their children because of the rising cost of living, with 59% having been forced into debt to afford the cost of basic essentials and 50% of those who cannot access public support relying on charities and food banks to meet their basic needs.These statistics are a damning indictment of the mismanagement of our economy over the past 13 years, and of the impact of the cost of living crisis on individuals with no recourse to public funds and their children.

The Labour party recognises that migrant workers and those on low pay often face other specific challenges. The Labour party is particularly concerned about working conditions and enforcement. Many of those affected by this policy are in low-paid work, in which their wages have failed to keep up with inflation, or they are forced into working underground in insecure jobs with precarious conditions.

In this context, it should be noted that there are particular vulnerabilities for people working on the minimum wage, given the lack of robust enforcement action from the Government. For instance, the number of complaints from workers received by HMRC’s national minimum wage unit has more than doubled from 1,500 five or six years ago to 3,300 last year. At the same time, there have been only nine prosecutions for non-payment of the national minimum wage in the entire period since 2015. In a report published in 2021, Focus on Labour Exploitation found that the UK’s overall ratio of inspectors to workers is approximately 0.4 inspectors per 10,000 workers. This is less than half the International Labour Organisation’s recommended ratio of 1:10,000. In practice, this means that a UK employer can on average expect an inspection by the HMRC national minimum wage team just once every 500 years.

Part of the issue is that the Government’s labour market enforcement agencies read like an alphabet soup, with the GLAA, or the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, the EASI, or the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate, and the HMRC’s living wage enforcement team. Does the Minister acknowledge that the level of resources allocated to enforcing the minimum wage and other workplace rights is entirely inadequate to provide adequate protection against exploitation? Will he reaffirm the commitment made in the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto that his party will, before the next election, create a single labour market enforcement body to tackle exploitation and poor conditions?

Further to this, it is the Government’s stated position, as set out in the Immigration Act 2014, that their no recourse to public funds policy is intended to ensure that people support themselves and achieve financial independence. Does the Minister not agree that, unless they have genuine access to adequately paid work, such independence inevitably remains out of reach? Does the Minister accept that it is a shocking indictment of this Government’s record that there is such a high and growing number of migrants facing in-work poverty?

Much has already been said at the start and throughout the debate about the lack of data and the Home Office not routinely collecting data on the overall number of people subject to NRPF restrictions. In December 2022, in a letter to the Work and Pensions Committee, the Immigration Minister wrote that the Department’s transition to a new IT system, scheduled to be completed this year, would provide opportunities to capture more comprehensive data, but that until the transition was complete

“we are unable to make any commitment with regards to what further data we are able to publish”.

Can he tell us what progress he has made on this front, and whether this will include information on the impact of these restrictions on families with children? The Work and Pensions Committee has recommended that the Government improve their guidance and practice on the social security entitlements that people with no recourse to public funds already have, so can the Minister tell us what progress he is making on that?

We of course recognise that the challenges surrounding no recourse to public funds are extremely difficult as these issues are wrapped up in the dire state of the economy under the Conservatives and the weak state of the public finances. When Labour gets into government, we will look very closely at the public finances, the data around no recourse to public funds and the cost of any policy changes. We are looking very carefully at the recommendations from the Select Committee, particularly the two that were highlighted at the start, and I look forward to reading the article in The Times tomorrow by its Chair, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham.

We want to make sure that people with no recourse to public funds, like all others, are free to fulfil their potential in order to play a full and fruitful role in a thriving Britain as part of the firm, fair and well-managed migration system that the Labour party is committed to delivering.