If Boris Johnson is baffled by Britain's cruel migration laws he should change them

Satbir Singh

An hour into his hearing in front of parliament’s influential liaison committee on Wednesday, the prime minister is likely to have felt a moment of relief as the examination moved on from the scandals of recent days.

Then, an earnest, urgent question from Stephen Timms, Labour MP for East Ham, brought Johnson’s attention to the plight of a couple in Timms’ constituency. The husband had lost his income during the Covid-19 crisis and the wife’s income was less than their monthly rent. With “No recourse to public funds” stamped on their visas, they were unable to access any support as they worked out how to make ends meet and provide for their two children (both born in the UK) and the threat of destitution hung over them.

“Er, hang on, Stephen,” Johnson replied. “Why don’t they, why aren’t they eligible for universal credit or for employment support allowance?”

It wasn’t even in the top five most reported takeaways from the hearing, but for many people, this moment (captured live on TV) was simply unbelievable. “They have no recourse to public funds,” responded Timms, who then did his best to explain to the prime minister that though they paid taxes and abided by the same laws as everyone else, most people who move to Britain from elsewhere (and anyone without documented status) are explicitly prohibited for up to 10 years from seeking the protection of the social security safety net in a time of personal or national crisis.

No recourse to public funds (NRPF) was introduced by New Labour in 1999. In 2012, Theresa May expanded it to include even those who moved here to live with their British families. The policy has been debated and defended more than 200 times by both Labour and Conservative governments, and at least 80 times since Johnson became prime minister. Timms and other MPs have repeatedly raised the risks posed to families with NRPF, only to have their concerns brushed off by ministers. At the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, dozens of concerned organisations wrote to Priti Patel, the home secretary, urging her to suspend the policy. We are yet to hear back from her. And, though the public may be forgiven for having never heard them, the very words “no recourse to public funds” are deeply, often painfully understood by anyone who has moved to the UK, including at least 100,000 children.

When the usually verbose prime minister can’t find words to defend something, you can safely conclude that there are none. But the real kick in the chest, for anyone with NRPF who has worried about making ends meet in a crisis, will have come from learning that he didn’t even know that the policy (or the people it affects) existed. That ministers and advisers hadn’t thought it was important enough to tell the prime minister that people were contracting and dying of Covid-19 because they were forced to work by NRPF conditions or that an eight-year old British boy needed to sue the government to stop his family from starving during a pandemic. Or worse still, that perhaps they had told him and he just hadn’t thought it was important enough to pay attention or remember.

The ability to turn a blind eye, to enjoy the luxury of not knowing what your choices mean for the lives of others, is a recipe for bad government. And governments of both main parties have found it far too easy to turn the screws on migrants to satisfy the baying crowd before looking the other way. So what else does the prime minister not know about how his government treats migrants and our families?

As the soon-to-be-married father of a newborn son, does the prime minister know that if you are a migrant married to a British national, you cannot live here with them until they reach an income level that’s out of reach for 40% of workers in this country? Does he know that thousands of British children grow up without a parent as a result? Does he know that, since 2012, if they make it here, these families have to go through five or 10 years of further fees, applications and appeals in order to stay together? Does he know that pregnant women can still be indefinitely detained for immigration enforcement purposes and without a trial if a Home Office official wills it so? Does he remember that he voted for this?

Does he know how difficult successive governments have made it to stay documented, by hiking visa and citizenship fees year after year, introducing new complexities into the application process, pulling the right to legal aid and forcing people into the hostile environment

Does he remember voting for the 2016 Immigration Act, which created the offence of “illegal working”, criminalising undocumented people for being exploited, rather than cracking down on exploitative employers or giving workers a level playing field to avoid exploitation? And does he know how many of those forced into undocumented status are doing essential work today? Does he know, when he claps on a Thursday evening, that essential and non-essential workers from all over the world, from nurses and cleaners to shop workers and delivery drivers, are not protected by many of the government’s Covid-19 schemes and are often forced to do dangerous work at minimum wage and maximum risk because there is no other way to feed their families?

Related: Home Office's denial of benefits to migrant families unlawful, court rules

Does he know that – at the height of a pandemic – people without secure status are still afraid to go to the doctor after ministers spent a decade writing and trumpeting laws that exclude them from the NHS?

I’m not asking these questions just to make a point. When the prime minister said yesterday that anyone living and working in this country “should have support of one kind or another”, I agreed with him and I want to believe he means it. I hope he takes swift action, as he did last week when he ordered the home secretary to reverse her position on charging NHS workers to use the NHS and threatening to remove the families of dead health workers.

I want to know if he knows about these policies. And if, as I suspect, he cannot bring himself to defend them, I want to know how he plans to make things right.

• Satbir Singh is chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants