Two years of skimped-on promises, but some light as well. Let’s keep up the pressure for change over Haringey’s treatment of destitute migrant families!

Since mid-2016 NELMA and others have been trying to hold Haringey Council to account for the local authority’s systematic poor treatment of destitute migrant families seeking social services support under s17 of the Children Act 1989.In November 2016 NELMA met with Cllr Elin Weston, Cabinet Member for Children’s Services. We brought to Cllr Weston’s attention the use of unlawful ‘gatekeeping’ tactics to deter destitute migrant families from pursuing their entitlement to support under Section 17.

We showed Cllr Weston evidence of Haringey social workers:

  • threatening to take children away from their parents and into care despite there being no child protection concerns;
  • using aggressive (and sometimes racist) language and other bullying tactics to deter families from pursuing an application for support;
  • threatening families with deportation despite there being no legal basis upon which to do so;
  • falsely claiming that families are precluded from support on account of their immigration status.
  • Intimidating vulnerable families through inquisition-like meetings with ‘anti –fraud’ officers and embedded Home Office workers.

We pointed out to Cllr Weston that the refusal of support—or delays in accessing support—can have a devastating impact on destitute families with no recourse to public funds, placing children and parents alike at serious risk of street homelessness, malnourishment, exploitation and mental distress.

In response to our concerns Cllr Weston promised to investigate standards within Haringey’s NRPF team. She also promised to ‘set up a meeting between the NRPF team leader and NELMA’.

 The promised meeting never transpired and Cllr Weston ignored follow-up emails from NELMA for six months (November 2016-May 2017).

Meanwhile, in December 2016, over 60 people attended a demonstration arranged by NELMA in protest at Haringey Council’s failure to meet its obligations to destitute children. ‘No more broken promises!’, we shouted, but for a long time it seemed like nobody was listening.

In June 2017 Sarah Alexander, Haringey’s assistant director of safeguarding, sent NELMA a one-page letter telling us she was ‘satisfied that the service [provided to destitute migrant families] is well managed and compliant with requirements’.

Given that Haringey had been presented with a detailed dossier of concerns many months before, this brief response felt like an afterthought—and an insult to the families who had been courageous enough to share their experiences

NELMA and Project 17 asked to meet with Sarah Alexander to explain in detail (as we had to Cllr Weston months earlier) why we disagreed with her assessment.

During a meeting held in June 2017 Sarah Alexander changed her tune somewhat. She acknowledged that a problematic culture had developed in Haringey’s NRPF team and promised an independent review. She also (that old chestnut!) assured us that most of the problems in Haringey’s NRPF team had been caused by social workers and managers who were no longer employed by the local authority.

NELMA and Project 17 provided evidence for the independent review, which was conducted by an independent social worker and shared with Haringey in November 2017.

After which—silence.

Between October 2017 and March 2018 NELMA and Project 17 wrote to Sarah Alexander repeatedly asking for her to share a summary of the review’s findings. Nothing doing.

Separately, on 30th October 2017, Project 17 attended a meeting of Haringey’s children and young people’s scrutiny panel to push for change on the issue.

Councillors on the CYP scrutiny panel—particularly Cllr Mark Blake—were appalled by what they heard. (Strangely, given that NELMA had met with Cllr Weston, cabinet member for children and young people, almost a year earlier, this seemed to be the first most people in the room had ever heard about the issue.)

Just this month, after pressure from councillors on the scrutiny panel, the executive summary of the independent review of Haringey’s NRPF team was shared with the voluntary sector and activist groups who had been calling for it for so long.

(Unfortunately, the executive summary is written in civil-service jargon rather than English, so you have to read between the lines to stay awake. But if you can keep your eyes open, it’s pretty damning stuff.)

The independent social worker identifies significant failings in the way Haringey’s NRPF team works with destitute migrant families. She documents how vulnerable families feel they are treated as “second class citizens” by Haringey and how children and parents alike live in fear of Haringey social workers. Families spoken to for the review report:

  • being provided with accommodation that is of poor quality and unsafe
  • being given insufficient money to live on; and
  • being moved from borough to borough without planning or notice.

The review concludes by saying that ‘performance concerns’ had led to the formulation of ‘exit strategies’ for a number of staff members, and by noting (amusingly) that social workers from the No Recourse to Public Funds team should be given training on ‘what “no recourse to public funds” means’.

In March 2018 Haringey’s children and young people’s scrutiny panel published their own review of how Haringey treats children from families with no recourse to public funds.

(Again, this review feels either toothless or tactful depending on how you read it. Sometimes it’s hard not just to be grateful that somebody in power is paying attention.)

The scrutiny panel report makes ‘recommendations’ rather than criticisms, but reminds Haringey’s NRPF team that ‘the fundamental principle that should underpin all of the Council’s activity is that it should be humane’.

The report also notes that:

  • Subsistence levels for NRPF families do not compare well with other London boroughs and are lower than those that advice suggests is appropriate. There also appears to be no clear rationale for how they have been set.
  • Haringey needs to develop a culture of working in partnership with voluntary sector migrants-rights organisations

What conclusion should migrants’ rights campaigners take from these protracted efforts to make the powers-that-be in Haringey sit up and take notice of human rights abuses in the borough? Should we be satisfied with these reviews and reports?

One conclusion might be that the work of small organisations and groups like Project 17, Haringey Welcome and NELMA is essential in holding statutory services to account—and that grassroots groups are stronger when we work together. The experience of destitute migrant families with NRPF is at least on Haringey’s agenda these days, which it isn’t in many other parts of London.

We hope that the new political order in Haringey will sustain this interest.

At the same time there’s anecdotal evidence that not much has changed at the front line.

We know a destitute mother who went to Haringey social services this month to ask for help because she and her daughter faced homelessness. The response? ‘We can’t help you because you have no recourse to public funds.’

And no one—not even Haringey’s own children and young people’s scrutiny panel—is being allowed to see more than the first two pages of the independent review into the NRPF team. We’ve been told it’s far too confidential. You’d think Sarah Alexander had never heard that documents could be redacted to protect personal data…

If we really want to make local authority civil servants and elected officials take seriously the rights of migrants with NRPF, we need to do more to support campaigning by affected individuals—who often face multiple barriers to speaking up but without whose leadership campaigns like the one described in this blog will go nowhere fast.

As one NELMA member writes: ‘When you don’t have papers, they treat you so badly, like you are not a person, or like you are irrelevant. We are all human beings – it doesn’t need to be like this.’

The task for NRPF campaigners in 2018 is to put undocumented voices at the front and centre of our activism, both at borough level and nationwide.