By Tamlyn Monson I Coventry University | 11 May 2023
Wednesday 26 April 2023 saw the launch of a guidance document on supporting Barking & Dagenham residents who are subject to the ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ (NRPF) condition. The audience included representatives of the council and voluntary sector, and a number of residents with lived experience. I was among several members attending from a local network aimed at improving support for migrants in the borough, an initiative supported by BD_Collective – a network of networks that supports change in the borough. Also attending were members from various local community and support organisations, including Ultimate Counselling, The Source, Community Resources and Marks Gate Relief Project.
The NRPF condition is a restriction imposed by the Home Office on immigrants to the UK, which prevents them from accessing the ordinary safety net of state welfare support that citizens and formally ‘settled’ people can if they are faced with hardship or destitution. Being subject to the NRPF condition is particularly difficult for anyone who falls on hard times, becomes homeless, loses their job, or – in the case of an asylum seeker for instance – is not permitted to work due to Home Office Policy. Together with work restrictions imposed by the Home Office, the NRPF condition creates structural inequalities within the populations these organisations serve, inequalities that cannot be fully addressed at the local level, although their impacts are felt locally. So the NRPF condition also poses difficulties for council and voluntary sector services seeking an inclusive approach to supporting residents.
My year of ethnographic research in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham in 2021-22 showed how the needs of such residents often remain under the radar. It also suggested that service providers are often unclear what support is legally permitted, and what is actually available locally, to people with no recourse to public funds. As the first step to fill this gap, this guidance is a cause for celebration. It was co-produced through a Place-Based Partnership of council and voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) stakeholders, with Dagenham-based refugee-led organisation Ultimate Counselling leading an engagement with 157 residents subject to NRPF conditions and conducting a survey of 131 frontline staff.
When Ultimate Counselling director Sarah Kasule shared the key themes that emerged from focus groups with residents, I noticed strong overlaps with ReROOT* research findings on barriers and enablers for new arrivals in the borough. I highlight three of them below.
Residents’ Language Capacities
My research for ReROOT found that this is a borough where many residents struggle to speak, read or understand English, but signposting – both verbal and visual – is seldom multilingual. In addition to this, key helplines of the NHS and Citizens Advice Bureau do not feature the option of interpretation before launching into recorded English messages that must be navigated to access them. Hospitals issue jargon-laden letters in English to families who cannot understand their content. Landlords of dispersed asylum housing expect asylum seeker residents to simply sign tenancy agreements written in complex English regardless of their language proficiency. Significantly, against this backdrop, Sarah Kasule announced that this guidance document will be made available in the main languages spoken by participants in the co-production.
Barriers of Knowledge and Digital Access
Lack of digital literacy and lack of local know-how were key blockages which came up over and over again in my research for ReROOT. Sarah Kasule highlighted similar barriers for many residents with the NRPF condition. She highlighted how lack of access to smart devices, data or digital literacy were key barriers to accessing statutory services, and pointed to residents’ lack of knowledge in terms of both what they were entitled to or how to navigate systems to solve housing problems for instance. This resonated strongly with findings from the ethnographic research, where I met people who were unaware that they could access free primary healthcare, or incorrectly believed they could not access the Citizens’ Advice Bureau because the organisation’s name suggested that the service was for ‘Citizens’ only.
The Role of Social Connections
Another finding from ReROOT research was that the right social connections can help offset the barriers of language, digital access and know-how, but that many marginalised newcomers did not have the social connections they needed to overcome these barriers. In a similar way, Sarah Kasule highlighted the theme of social isolation, noting for example that many participants in the focus groups did not have friends or family to help them when they arrived, and that asylum seekers arriving alone in dispersed accommodation were given no support to form connections in the local area . She illustrated the important role of social connections when she explained that knowledge gaps often persist because residents with no recourse to public funds are socially isolated, or because the people that they know are also unaware of their rights and entitlements.
The two hour event was eye-opening for some attendees because it included residents whose lives and challenges are usually out of sight. Single parents had to bring their children to the event, including a child with special educational needs, which brought some noise, challenging behaviour, and interruptions of mothers’ participation. The barrier to inclusion caused by lack of childcare support was tangible. A group of homeless non-English speaking men were present, and an interpreter communicated their desperate request for help with GP registration and more toilets in Barking. The latter request in particular seemed to cause confusion, perhaps because the majority of attendees have homes, and are less dependent on public water and sanitation infrastructure. It was clear that few attendees shared the experience of one man I spoke to during my research. He was sleeping under a bridge, in an area with no 24-hour toilet. At night, when the local shopping centre and library were closed, he would have had no choice but to suffer the indignity of urinating or defecating outside. Yet, rather than empathy, he received a notice that treated these indignities as a form of anti-social behaviour he was committing. He was forbidden to sleep there anymore.
Fortunately, the voices of participants were heard. Head of Universal Services, Zoinul Abidin, responded in closing that the council would consider the toilet question, and would also consider bringing GPs to community hubs to register new patients who were struggling to access them. Together with the commitment by the council’s Director of Community Participation and Engagement, Rhodri Rowlands, to keep the NRPF guidance document alive by revisiting it in 12 months time, it was reassuring to see this expression of Barking & Dagenham’s commitment to the council’s vision of ‘No one left behind: we all belong.’