The prime minister has rejected calls for the NRPF condition to be suspended during the pandemic, backing up this decision by saying it applies to people in the country illegally.
Nearly 1.4 million people in the UK cannot access public funds due to the condition, with the burden of restrictions falling on people from black, Asian or other minority ethnic (Bame) backgrounds, according to research by Citizens Advice last year.
Campaigners have warned the rule is forcing migrant workers to choose between “financial ruin” or risking their lives to work during the coronavirus pandemic, and called for it to be suspended – but no such move has been taken.
Addressing Mr Johnson during an evidence session with the Liaison Committee on Wednesday, Labour MP Stephen Timms said of NRPF: “In my area it’s one of the factors in the spread of the pandemic. People can’t stop working because they can’t claim social security so they have to carry on working.”
He went on to pose the question: “Shouldn’t this NRPF condition at least be suspended for the duration of the pandemic?”
The prime minister responded: “I totally understand the logic of your argument, but the problem is it’s a very longstanding provision in this country that NRPF conditions should apply for those to instance who are here illegally or unlawfully.
“I think it would be not the right way forward to change that.”
Responding to Mr Johnson’s remarks, Liberal Democrats home affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said they were “outrageous and wrong”, adding: “He should know that it’s a standard condition imposed on most people who come to live and work here on a visa.
“NRPF is particularly damaging during the Covid crisis, preventing many families who have lost their livelihoods overnight from accessing the universal credit safety net. It’s long past time for the government to make this vital change [to lift the NRPF condition] to help keep people safe.”
Minnie Rahman, public affairs and campaigns manager at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, accused the prime minister of “either wilfully lying, or obfuscating the truth” about NRPF conditions.
“He has had these issues raised directly with him by Parliamentarians and civil society countless times in the last year. As the PM should know, these rules apply to 1.4 million people – both those with visas and those without.
“They exclude thousands of families from our social safety net and have pushed people into destitution, homelessness and dangerous working conditions.
“The prime minister’s inaction on this issue is putting migrants lives at risk and jeopardising public health too. He needs to end his political game-playing, and ensure everyone has the safety net they need right now.”
It comes after Mr Johnson was criticised last May for appearing to be unaware of the NRPF condition when questioned by MPs at a different committee hearing.
After he was brought up to speed on what it was, the prime minister replied: “I’m going to have to come back to you on that because clearly people who have worked hard for this country and who live and work here should have support of one kind or another.”
The government has come under pressure to suspend the policy from local councils and the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, both of whom say it has hindered their efforts to help thousands of rough sleepers off the streets during the pubic health crisis and prevent people from falling back onto the streets.
A report by the Work and Pensions Committee last June argued that during a pandemic it could not be in the public interest to expect people – some of whom are key workers and frontline medical staff – to comply fully with restrictive public health guidance while simultaneously denying them full access to the welfare safety net.