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The prime minister appeared lost for words as he questioned why a working Pakistani family with British-born children and temporary leave to remain in the UK had no recourse to public funds – a longstanding policy for some non-EU migrants that denies them benefits.
Labour’s Stephen Timms told Johnson the couple and their children were being forced into destitution because the husband could not work due to the lockdown and his employers did not access the government furlough scheme.
The PM first questioned why they could not access universal credit or employment support allowance, before saying: “We will see what we can do to help.”
His lack of awareness about the policy was described by critics as “simply astonishing” and “extraordinarily worrying”.
The Children’s Society estimates that more than 100,000 children could be affected by it.
Many of those living under the conditions work in frontline jobs, such as NHS cleaning, social care or food preparation, but have no support to rely on when they are most in need, the charity added.
The Covid-19 crisis has sparked calls for the rules to be suspended to stop families falling into destitution because they cannot work during the lockdown.
But the government said earlier this month the rule ”prevents burdens on the state and the UK taxpayer”.
At the Commons liaison committee, Timms said of the couple: “They both work. They have two children. The husband’s employer didn’t put him on the job retention scheme so he has zero income. His wife is still working but her income is less than their household rent. They have leave to remain in the UK but no recourse to public funds.
“So they can’t get any help at all. Isn’t it wrong that a hardworking law-abiding family like are being forced by the current arrangements into destitution?”
Johnson replied: “Why aren’t they eligible for universal credit or employment support allowance or any of the other...?”
Timms intervened: “It’s a very good question – it’s because they have no recourse to public funds. That’s the condition that’s attached to their leave to remain.
“They have been here for years. Their children have been born in the UK but, because for a 10-year period they have this ‘no recourse to public funds’, at the moment they can get no help at all.”
Johnson then asked where the couple were from, before going on: “And they can’t get furloughed... obviously not...
“I’m going to have to come back to you on that scheme.
“Clearly people who have worked hard for this country, who live and work here, should have support of one kind or another.
“You’ve raised a very, very important point.
“If the condition of their leave to remain is that they should have no recourse to public funds, I will find out how many there are in that position and we will see what we can do to help.”
Mark Russell, chief executive of the Children’s Society, said: “Thank you to the prime minister asking the crucial question – why aren’t hardworking people who have leave to remain in this country eligible for crucial support like universal credit?
“People who work hard for our country should have access to support of one kind or another during these difficult times, which is why we are calling for a suspension to the no recourse to public funds condition.”
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said: “That the prime minister apparently had no idea what “no recourse to public funds” was and meant for people is extraordinarily worrying.
“We’ve called for its suspension in this public health emergency and, with the prime minister promising to look at it, let’s hope that he can persuade the home secretary to think again.”
Liberal Democrat leadership candidate Layla Moran said it was “simply astonishing” that Johnson “seems to have not even been aware of the impact of his own government’s heartless policy”.
“Thousands of families and children are facing extreme poverty and struggling to pay their rent and bills, all because they’re being cruelly denied the financial support they need,” she said. “The government must urgently suspend its no recourse to public funds policy, and ensure no household is left behind.”