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Priti Patel has refused to scrap a rule that denies migrants welfare support and is leaving some destitute because they cannot do their jobs during the coronavirus lockdown.
MPs have warned that the “no recourse to public funds” rule is punishing migrants who have worked and paid taxes in the UK for years.
Even Boris Johnson last month appeared not to understand the rule and was almost lost for words as he questioned why a working Pakistani family with British-born children and temporary leave to remain in the UK could not access public support.
The prime minister said he would find out how many people are affected by the longstanding rule, which applies to non-EU migrants, and “see what we can do to help”.
But Patel rejected calls to temporarily scrap the policy for the duration of the pandemic, and denied it has a disproportionate impact on Black and minority ethnic (BAME) people.
She insisted local authorities provide a safety net and pointed towards rent protections and the government’s furlough scheme as examples of support migrants can access.
But acting Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said some migrants are denied the support outlined by Patel under the rules.
Davey told the Commons: “The home secretary doesn’t get it.
“People who have worked here, paid taxes here for years, are being denied support and are falling into destitution.
“People who have lost their jobs or seen their income slashed can be excluded from the very protections the home secretary cites.
“Given that this rule disproportionately impacts people in our Black and minority ethnic communities the hardest, will the home secretary now suspend the ‘no recourse to public funds’ rule for the duration of the pandemic?”
Patel replied: “The answer is no.
“Local authorities have provided a basic safety net.”
She went on: “It is wrong to imply safety nets are not in place.”
SNP home affairs spokesperson Joanna Cherry said suspending “no recourse to public funds” would be a “concrete step towards tackling the inequalities” highlighted by the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the world.
But Patel said: “Now this policy of ‘no recourse to public funds’ is one of many policies and it is right, as a government, that we look at all policies that affect all communities in the round without singling one particular policy out.”
She added: “If I may, I think it is wrong to characterise it as a policy of racial discrimination.”
Labour MP Chi Onwurah said the rules were leaving women in her Newcastle Central constituency unable to buy food and nappies for their children.
The government needs a refresher course in its own policies.
“The prime minister [...] doesn’t know what it means.
“And the equalities minister and apparently the home secretary think it means lots of help and support is available.
“In Newcastle today, ‘no recourse to public funds’ means a mother unable to buy food or nappies for her baby, a British citizen, in the middle of a pandemic with no help available.
“Does the home secretary know that?
“Does she care?”
Patel said Onwurah was “completely wrong”, stressing “public health measures are available”.
The Children’s Society estimates that more than 100,000 children could be affected by the rule.
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 has found.