Boris Johnson
Johnson appeared confused by the question

A senior Greenwich councillor has turned on the prime minister after he appeared not to know about a government policy that leaves council taxpayers paying to support people who are refused benefits.

Boris Johnson appeared not to know about the “no recourse for public funds” (NRPF) policy, which stops thousands of migrants from claiming most benefits, when quizzed by MPs yesterday afternoon. NRPF rules were toughened under Theresa May’s “hostile environment” policy as home secretary, and are been applied to a range of migrants, including some with leave to remain who are paying taxes.

They are denied access to benefits including universal credit, employment support allowance and housing benefit, while their children are denied free school meals. A range of other laws mean they have to go to local councils for support – and town halls do not get any of this money back from the government.

Chris Kirby, Greenwich’s cabinet member for finance, said on social media: “The cost of NRPF to local authorities around the country is colossal. Ludicrous that the PM – who is a London MP and was Mayor of London – doesn’t know what NRPF is.”

“The cost to Greenwich of NRPF in recent years has been £4.6m in 2016/17, £4.2m in 2017/18, £3.7m in 2018/19 and over £3m last year – that’s not including officer time spent procuring housing, for example. That cost is borne entirely by the Greenwich taxpayer.”

He said Johnson was welcome to visit Greenwich “to learn about what NRPF is, the colossal monetary and human cost of it and the damage it does to life chances and community cohesion”.

Johnson was stumped when the East Ham MP, Stephen Timms, raised the plight of a couple in his constituency who both work but are affected by both the policy and the coronavirus crisis. Timms said the husband now had zero income, the wife’s income was less than their household rent, but they could not get help because Home Office officials had given them limited leave to remain with no recourse for public funds.

He asked Johnson: “Isn’t it wrong that a hard-working, law-abiding family like that is being forced by the current arrangements into destitution?”

“Hang on, Stephen,” Johnson replied. “Why aren’t they eligible for universal credit or employment support allowance or any of the other – forgive me….”

Timms explained that the couple were originally from Pakistan, but their situation applied to many other people.

Johnson said: “Well, look, I’m going to have to get back to you on that one, Stephen. Because clearly people who work hard for this country, who live and work here, should have support of one kind or another. But you’ve raised a very, very important point.

“If people’s condition for their leave to remain is that they should have no recourse to public funds, I will find out how many there are in that position and we will see what we can do to help.”

Kirby said on Twitter: “Was once in a GLA event discussing housing when he was Mayor of London. Boris had to ask an assistant what Nil Recourse to Public Funds meant and why it was such a problem. We all sat there open mouthed at his ignorance. Incredible and yet completely unsurprising that he hasn’t remembered.”

The exchange would also indicate that Johnson had not read a letter sent to him by 98 MPs, including Greenwich & Woolwich’s Matt Pennycook. Erith & Thamesmead’s Abena Opping-Asare, Lewisham Deptford’s Vicky Foxcroft and Lewisham East’s Janet Daby, urging him to pause the policy during the coronavirus crisis.

Last year, the co-ordinator of the Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network, which runs the Migrant Hub at Woolwich Common Community Centre, told councillors that Greenwich should offer free school meals to all children to help the families of migrants who are denied benefits.

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