Support for children and families with ‘no recourse to public funds'

This project explored a contradiction between a requirement in immigration law that excludes some families from accessing support from the welfare state (‘no recourse to public funds’) and a provision in the Children Act 1989 (Section 17) that requires local authorities to provide services to safeguard and promote the welfare of any child that is 'in need' and to keep families together.

The report was based on a survey of 137 Children’s Services departments in England and Wales, a survey of 105 voluntary sector organisations and 92 interviews in eight local authority research sites. 

While central government determines who may access mainstream welfare benefits, it is local government that provides a safety net for some children whose parents have been excluded. An estimated 3,391 such families and 5,900 children were supported under local authorities’ Section 17 Children Act 1989 duties in 2012/3. Whilst local authorities have a statutory duty to protect children in these circumstances, they receive no central government funding to account for this specific cost.

Subsistence rates for some families being supported under Section 17 were found to be extremely low – sometimes just over £1 per person, per day.

The study found that most of the families had some form of lawful status or were awaiting decisions from the Home Office on immigration claims. It highlights the poverty in which many of these children and families live for prolonged periods whilst receiving this support, and significant local disparities in the provision of care for vulnerable children. It also demonstrates that while some local authorities gave primacy to the needs of children, others gave greater weight to the immigration status and credibility of parents in determining eligibility for support. 

The researchers make a series of recommendations for measures that should be taken to reduce the risk to children and costs to local authorities – including reducing the amount of time taken to assess immigration cases; increasing awareness of voluntary return programmes and their eligibility criteria; and reviewing minimum acceptable rates for subsistence, taking into account the cost of meeting a child’s needs.

Project details



Dr Sarah Spencer, Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, University of Oxford

Grant amount and dates


January 2013 - June 2014



Safeguarding children from destitution: local authority responses to families with ‘no recourse to public funds

Executive summary (PDF)

Full report (PDF)