The changing face of NRPF

Published 7 November 2023

By S Khan, Eve Dickson

The changing face of NRPF

When the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson revealed his ignorance of the long-established ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) immigration rule in 2020, seemingly dismayed that many UK residents were locked out of the welfare system during the Covid-19 pandemic, the press had a field day. It was a rare occurrence then to see NRPF make the news, though many grassroots organisations had been desperately trying to get it on the agenda of politicians and journalists for years. While NRPF remains a largely neglected issue, it’s undoubtable that we’ve seen a significant shift in attention towards the policy in recent years, as discussions have increased in research, policy, advocacy, and even in the wider public domain. Yet, the negative effects of NRPF (such as enforced destitution) are more pervasive than we might often understand, and NRPF’s reach is expanding. In this blog, we consider the changing groups of people affected by NRPF and show how new legislation is rapidly altering the policy landscape.

The ‘no recourse to public funds’ condition

Around 1.376 million people with time-limited ‘leave to remain’ and 674,000 undocumented migrants are subject to the NRPF immigration condition, which prohibits access to social housing assistance and most welfare benefits. Amongst those who have been shown to be most negatively impacted are single mothers from former colonial countries (Nigeria, Ghana, Jamaica, Pakistan) and their children, who are often left trapped in conditions of destitution and domestic abuse. Whilst the harmful effects of NRPF are wide-ranging and expanding, less is known about how the restriction impacts other groups such as unaccompanied young people with insecure migration status or, as our colleagues at COMPAS are currently exploring, adults with care needs.

Public debate and advocacy around NRPF has shifted in the last few years. Where before the restriction was little discussed and often only highlighted by small migrants’ rights organisations, NRPF is now increasingly discussed by MPs, parliamentary select committeeshigh-profile NGOs, and media outlets. This is in large part due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which exacerbated precarity for marginalised groups, prompting public debate about migrants’ access to Britain’s welfare safety net and shifting ideas about who was deserving of support (however temporary). But there are other factors at work in NRPF’s changing political status, not least the cost of living crisis, which has driven those who had previously just managed to survive into hardship. Rising concerns around the impact of the condition on British citizen children and the long-standing efforts of lawyers and organisations to challenge the pernicious policy also play a part, as does the recent proliferation of groups advocating for changes to the policy.

Yet, while NRPF is receiving more attention in these debates – albeit often in ways that risk reproducing the hierarchies of deservingness that are at the heart of the policy – it is simultaneously being rapidly expanded to new groups through punitive legislation.

The rapid expansion of NRPF

Recent legislation has facilitated the expansion of the NRPF regime. Since Brexit, European citizens with pre-settled status need to show they have an additional right to reside in the UK (as a worker, for example) in order to claim universal credit or housing benefit, while European citizens arriving in the UK since 01 January 2021, are entirely excluded from accessing public funds. The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 briefly differentiated and hierarchicalised refugees into groups 1 and 2, with a group 2 status providing for a discretionary exclusion from public funds. This policy was dropped in July 2023 and group 2 statuses were reverted to regular refugee status. But the new Illegal Migration Act 2023 will in effect illegalise everyone who enters the UK after 20 July 2023 via “unsafe and illegal” routes, and lock them out of welfare services. This recent legislative attack on those migrating to the UK represents a new frontier of the NRPF policy and its consequences will be devastating for those it affects.

Unaccompanied young people: an overlooked group?

In Shadows, we have been thinking about people with NRPF as an explicit visa conditionality i.e. those with leave to remain subject to the NRPF condition, and others that have NRPF implicitly by virtue of being in the UK without leave to enter or remain, such as people who are seeking asylum, as well as people who have been refused asylum or are in the UK undocumented.

More specifically, we have been thinking about unaccompanied young people who are leaving care without secure migration status – a group often missed in discussions around NRPF and its effects. South London Refugee Association and Coram Children’s Legal Centre (2021) estimate that at least 18,934 looked after children and care leavers in the UK who are not British citizens have potential immigration or citizenship issues.

While all (‘deserving’) children under 18 are in principle entitled to support under the Children Act 1989 irrespective of their immigration status, at 18 they are legally considered (‘less deserving’) adults, which is when immigration legislation ‘kicks in’ (RMCC, 2020). At 18, young people with no valid leave to remain in the UK will become subject to NRPF implicitly.

Under the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, a local authority may continue to have obligations to a ‘looked after’ child (or a child in care) beyond 18  – this is known as ‘leaving care support’  –  upon completion of 13 weeks in care after their 16th birthday. This support can last until the age of 21, or 25 if young people are in full-time education or training. However, unaccompanied young people who qualify as ‘care leavers’ (as they have completed the requisite period of 13 weeks in care), but have their asylum claims refused, appeal rights exhausted and no outstanding immigration application or asylum claim, can be made ineligible for and excluded from care leaving services.

Practices concerning care leavers with no immigration permission to remain in the UK vary significantly across local authorities. Some local authorities withdraw care leaving support (housing, financial etc) shortly after a young person becomes appeal rights exhausted, subject to a Human Rights Assessment (HRA), whereas other local authorities continue to provide leaving care support to unaccompanied care leavers even when they have exhausted their appeal rights and have no outstanding application until they are 21 or over.

Through an ethnographic examination of the experiences of unaccompanied young people with NRPF, we are hoping to uncover the ways in which migration and state welfare regimes, as Valentina Glockner highlighted in our last post, constantly move “young people between inclusion and exclusion; to having your life valued and then have your life deemed disposable; being visible and being rendered invisible; and between wellbeing, protection, and life or death.” By considering this group of young people that have been missed from some contemporary discussions and debates around NRPF, we look to uncover more about welfare bordering, what it produces, and its underlying premise of exclusion.

Taking a comparative approach

We aim to investigate the changing face of NRPF, both in terms of who it targets and how it is contested, whilst remaining attentive to the differentiated effects of the restriction through a comparative approach that examines how parents and two distinct groups of young research participants – unaccompanied young people and those living with parents – experience the everyday impacts of NRPF over time. This involves asking how such children are similarly and differently positioned by immigration and welfare regimes, as well as the overlapping and distinct ways in which they are impacted by NRPF.


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