Charities have called for an end to potentially hundreds of thousands of migrant parents being denied access to vital free childcare because they are categorized as ‘not present' in the UK.
A letter sent to Education Secretary Gillian Keegan, signed by 21 organizations supporting families and released exclusively to the PA news agency, said the current restrictions on support could have “severe consequences” for vulnerable children.
Denying many families free childcare because of their immigration status is also at odds with the government's effort to boost the workforce and economic activity, the letter added.
The regulation currently prevents children, many of whom live in disadvantaged single-parent households, from accessing extensive early years support considered critical to their development, despite being UK citizens themselves.
The ‘no recourse to public resources' condition applies to most people on temporary visas to stay in the UK and means that, in most cases, they cannot access benefits and most childcare support despite working and the payment of taxes.
The condition does not apply to refugees or people who have entered the UK under programs to protect those fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
New research by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford found that the number of people in the UK not claiming public benefits had risen by more than a million since 2020 to 2.6 million at the end of 2022.
Among newly arrived immigrants, most of whom are not expected to rely on public resources, nearly 100,000 were found to be living in economically vulnerable households with dependent children.
The childcare restrictions are contained in a regulation dating back to 2016 which states that parents who do not claim public funds are “treated … as not in the UK”.
These parents can take advantage of the universal offer of 15 hours a week of free childcare for three- and four-year-olds, but they cannot access the 30 hours of free childcare for this age group available to most working parents – yet even if they work the required number of hours.
They will also not be able to take advantage of the Government's rollout of extended free childcare, which will see all eligible parents access 30 hours of childcare a week for children aged nine months and over until they start school by September 2025. .
This will exacerbate the impact of the government's restrictions, which are already preventing thousands of parents from working enough hours to support their families and leaving them at high risk of poverty, the groups said.
The letter, led by migrant support charity Praxis and signed by organizations such as Save the Children and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, highlights a number of studies which suggest that the cost of childcare poses a greater barrier to migrant parents than other groups.
Single immigrant parents – the majority of whom are women – in particular suffer from reduced labor force participation rates due to their exclusion from government support for childcare costs, the letter said.
It adds: “The complex treatment of those parents who can be proven to be resident in the UK as ‘absent' in the country makes it harder for them to find work, increase their hours and contribute financially.
“It also creates a vicious cycle of exclusion, compounding the already higher-than-average risk of economic hardship and material deprivation faced by migrant households.
“Any barrier to the ability of these parents to work, including the lack of financial care for children, can have serious consequences due to their lack of access to the social safety net.”
The letter also sounded the alarm about the effects on children's development.
He said: “Children in migrant households are already significantly more likely to experience poverty and deprivation than their counterparts and may be further excluded by other factors such as language, making their access to good quality early education of the utmost importance.”
Josephine Whitaker-Yilmaz, head of policy and public affairs at Praxis, said the organization knows of children with special needs who are unable to access early childhood education because of the “small print” on their parents' visas, resulting in a “long-term lasting effect on their development and their future ability to learn.”
He added: “We recently spoke to an NHS nurse who has a child on the autistic spectrum.
“Her child really needed early years education to develop vital language and learning skills, yet she was cut off from this vital service because of tough immigration policies.”
Praxis chief executive Sally Daghlian said including migrant workers to support childcare costs was a “no-brainer”, particularly as the parents live in the UK and have the right to work.
He added: “This would enable parents to better contribute their skills to the labor market, including in sectors experiencing recruitment problems, enable households to increase their incomes and bring great benefits to children.”
Meghan Meek-O'Connor, senior policy adviser on child poverty at Save the Children UK, said: “Children should not be excluded from the benefits of childcare simply because of their immigration status.”
A government spokesman said: “The government expects migrants coming to the UK to be able to support themselves and be accommodated without the support of public funds. However, there are strong and important safeguards to ensure that vulnerable people can get support.
“In September 2022, we extended eligibility for the 2-year entitlement to disadvantaged families without recourse to public funds, subject to income thresholds broadly equivalent to those for families accessing benefits.”