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Babies and border controls

Barriers to childcare leave parents and children with no recourse to public funds isolated and destitute - we need free childcare for all


In 1997, Tony Blair promised to abolish child poverty within a generation. By opening a Sure Start Childcare Centre in every community, the government pledged to give every child the best possible start in life.” Almost a generation later, austerity and marketisation have made it harder than ever for low-income families to access quality childcare. Childcare costs have gone up four times faster than wages and 1000 Sure Start Centres have closed in the poorest areas.

In recent years, the government’s Hostile Environment legislation has built new barriers preventing the families who most need it from accessing childcare support. These policies are designed to make life so hard for migrants in the UK that they choose to leave. Since 2012, the ‘‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) condition has prevented around 1.4 million people without indefinite leave to remain from accessing the social safety net, including healthcare and universal credit, pushing many into destitution.

Technically, 15 hours free childcare is provided universally to children who are ages three and four-years-old, regardless of immigration status. A recent legal challenge also extended eligibility for 15 hours free childcare for two-year-olds (which is available to families claiming welfare benefits) to families with NRPF. However, lack of information about what is available, the prohibitive costs of top-up fees’ and fear of data-sharing with the Home Office mean that migrant families rarely take up these places.

Any state-funded childcare support beyond this basic provision is inaccessible for most migrant families. NRPF restricts access to universal credit for childcare, child benefit and tax credits for childcare. Other schemes including 30 hours free childcare for three to four year olds and tax-free childcare are not technically classed as public funds’ for immigration purposes. However other eligibility criteria include residency and employment which are linked to immigration status make them similarly inaccessible.

One of the government’s justifications for the NRPF condition is that it encourages migrants to work rather than relying on benefits in order to promote integration” and prevent burdens on the taxpayer.” However, it is impossible for mothers (who are still disproportionately responsible for childcare), particularly single mothers, to work without childcare. Women constitute an estimated 85% of those applying to have the NRPF condition removed and nearly all of these women are single mothers. Unable to earn an income, or access benefits, migrant mums struggle to survive.

The lack of access to funded childcare also has a severe impact on children’s developmental process and life chances. Unity Project have found that many of the kids they support suffer from diagnosed development delays or impairments, including issues related to language development and motor skills. Even kids who gain British citizenship continue to be excluded from childcare support if their parents are NRPF.

Mums who attend a weekly creche at West London Welcome, a migrant centre in Hammersmith, describe the impact of these policies on themselves and their kids:

Going to nursery would help my son get better at English and make friends. He is naturally very outgoing but when we go to the park he does not speak or play with other kids. It makes me very sad.”

With childcare support my life could have meaning. I could go to college, I could volunteer, I could just sit in the park and chat to a friend. The kids are not developing and I am not either.”

I cannot even afford to buy my child a new pair of shoes. This is because I have no income from work. I can’t go to work because then who would look after my child?”

These barriers preventing families from participating in society are cruel and pointless. Steps should be taken immediately to remove barriers to migrant families accessing childcare support. The Department for Education should change eligibility criteria to extend access to the 30 hours free childcare scheme (which is not classed as a public fund’) for NRPF families. Families assessed by local authorities as in need of support under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 should also be automatically granted recourse to public funds.

Beyond this, quality childcare should be available to all families, regardless of income and regardless of race or immigration status. The government should therefore invest in free, universal childcare for all from the end of paid parental leave to the start of compulsory schooling. In order to ensure that universality extends to families without citizenship, eligibility should not be linked to residency and firewalls should be put in place to prevent data-sharing between childcare services and the home office. A caring state must care beyond borders

Image: iStock

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