Public Interest Law Centre

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19Jul 2021

The Covid-19 inquiry must hear marginalised voices

19th July 2021|Covid-19|

On 12 May 2021 Boris Johnson acceded to mounting pressure by announcing a public inquiry into the handling of the Covid–19 pandemic by the UK government and other statutory bodies.

In the first in a series of blogs, PILC legal caseworkers Izzy Mulholland and Saskia O’Hara consider what the public inquiry should aim to achieve in terms of justice, accountability and representation.

Most remaining Covid-19 restrictions in England are being lifted today despite concerns about the spread of the Delta variant of the virus.

The current estimated UK death toll resulting from Covid-19 is 152,397. While larger countries such as China, Brazil and Russia have experienced higher overall death rates, Britain has one of the highest excess death rates in Europe, and indeed the world.

The impact of Covid-19 in terms of social and economic justice is less straightforward to measure. But it is clear that certain groups—including precarious workers, undocumented migrants and those living in overcrowded or inadequate accommodation—have been disproportionately affected both by the pandemic and the government’s inadequate response to the crisis.

On 12 May 2021, under pressure from campaigning groups such as the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Movement, Boris Johnson announced an independent public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic.

The terms of reference for the inquiry will be published in Spring 2022. The prime minister has said the inquiry will examine decisions made by the government ‘in the cold light of day’ and ‘identify the key issues that will make a difference for the future.’

Are these empty words, or can the government’s public inquiry deliver justice and accountability for those worst affected by the pandemic?

Why a public inquiry?

According to the Inquiries Act 2005 a public inquiry can be called when ‘particular events have caused, or are capable of causing, public concern, or… there is public concern that particular events may have occurred.’

The handling of the pandemic is clearly a matter of significant public interest and concern. This public inquiry must not only provide an opportunity for people in power to ‘learn lessons’: it must also allow those most seriously impacted by Covid-19 to hold the government to account for its role in exacerbating the crisis.

The public inquiry must be fully independent and chaired by a panel with a wide range of experiences and specialisms. It must be given sufficiently broad terms of reference to enable it to consider the full range of decisions taken.

The inquiry must be public with maximum disclosure of documents to core participants. Only through a fully independent investigation into the decisions and actions of the UK government during the pandemic can the executive be held accountable.

PILC and the inquiry

PILC has been active in calling for a public inquiry since the end of the first wave. In July 2020 we sent a detailed letter to the Prime Minister and Home Secretary on behalf of the Law Centres Network. The letter, signed by over 70 civil society organisations, community campaigns and trade unions, demanded an independent, properly resourced and rigorous public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic.

We called on the government to use its powers under s1 Inquiries Act 2005 to announce an immediate inquiry prior to the second wave as well as a longer-term in-depth inquiry.  We called for both the immediate and long-term inquiries to be chaired by a panel representing a wide range of experiences.

At the same time we launched an email campaign urging the government to agree to a public inquiry. Over 600 emails making this demand were sent to Boris Johson and Priti Patel.

On 29 July 2020 we sent a Pre-Action Protocol letter (a first step before legal proceedings are issued) to the UK government, again demanding a public inquiry. On 12 August 2020 we received a response stating that a public inquiry would be announced in due course.

Shaping the inquiry

Now that Boris Johnson has announced a public inquiry, legal and social-justice campaigners must turn our collective attention to shaping its terms of reference.

The pandemic has seen a litany of failures on the part of government, with economically and socially marginalised groups disproportionately impacted.

Among other questions, the public inquiry must ascertain the extent to which the government failed to:

  1. Impose stringent infection control measures (e.g. why were there delays in imposing a lockdown?)
  2. Provide adequate personal protective equipment (had PPE been available, how many deaths could have been avoided?)
  3. Protect frontline workers from the virus (why were industries such as construction forced to continue, and did this place workers at high risk of catching Covid-19?)
  4. Protect care homes from the virus (why did UK care homes suffer such high death tolls compared to other European countries?)
  5. Test, trace and isolate (why did it take so long for the UK to introduce a robust testing system?)
  6. Mitigate the disproportionate impact on BAME communities, non-UK nationals with limited or no eligibility for welfare assistance, homeless people and those in overcrowded or inadequate accommodation (why were BAME communities at greater risk of catching Covid-19?)
  7. Mitigate the disproportionate impact on disabled people (why was there such a disparity between the death rate for people with disabilities compared to those without?)
  8. Protect the Clinically Extremely Vulnerable (CEV) (why was there a lack of clear guidance to schools regarding the implementation of safety and infection-control measures, and what was the impact of this on vulnerable families of the mandatory return to school for all children?)
  9. Protect survivors of domestic abuse (why did it take so long to introduce specific funding for this group)
  10. Protect private renters (why did half a million renters fall into rent arrears in the first 3 months of the pandemic, and what measures were taken to protect them?)

The public inquiry must ask all of these questions. Only an independent investigation that amplifies the voices of those worst affected by the government’s actions and omissions will have the potential to offer justice to the many thousands of unnecessary victims of this pandemic.

We will continue to be active in supporting an independent, properly resourced and rigorous public inquiry. Please check back over the coming months for more blog posts, including testimony from precarious workers and others affected by Covid-19 and the UK government’s handling of the pandemic.

For more information please contact office@pilc.org.uk or 0203 877 0867

17Dec 2020

School attendance for C(E)V households in Covid-19

17th December 2020|Covid-19|

After requests from parents and campaigners, we are publishing the government’s response to our pre-action letter.

We have had a brilliant response to the briefing note on school attendance for vulnerable households during Covid-19, which we published on Tuesday.

The response makes clear that many parents, schools and local authorities were unaware that there was any local discretion in these sorts of cases.

We have therefore decided to publish the government’s response to our pre-action letter. We hope this will help vulnerable households when liaising with schools and local authorities.

The full response can be read and downloaded here. Parts have been redacted for confidentiality reasons.

What does the government’s response mean?

There are two parts to the letter.

Part 1: The government justifies the current guidance

Pages 2-3 of the letter restate the government’s guidance on infection control (i.e. the steps that schools should be taking) and school attendance during Covid-19. The Secretary of State restates his expectation that children should attend school even if parents are shielding/vulnerable.

The response seeks to justify that view by reference to medical evidence and guidance published by the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England.

Part 2: The Government makes clear that, contrary to the published guidance, authorising absence during Covid-19 is a matter of local discretion

This is a really important concession. Previously it was believed there was no flexibility or room for local discretion in this area.

Pages 4-5 of the letter make clear that:

  • Whether leave of absence should be granted is determined by each individual school headteacher or local education authority. This is a matter of local decision-making and is made on a discretionary basis.
  • A child’s absence can be authorised beyond the examples set out in the government’s guidance. The categories of authorised absence contained in the Government’s guidance are therefore not ‘closed’. They are non-exhaustive examples.
  • None of the national guidance from government overrides local discretion and flexibility. Schools have the final say.

This applies to cases involving both clinically vulnerable (CV) & clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) parents. (The response refers to ‘the situation of [our] client’. One of our clients who received this response was a CV parent. The other, who received the same response, was a CEV parent.)

 What can CV and CEV parents do?

  • You can write to your child’s school and/or your local education authority requesting that they exercise discretion and authorise your child’s absence. Ask them to take into account any vulnerabilities and the impact school attendance is having/would have on your family. If possible, you should include supporting evidence, e.g. GP letter
  • You should make clear in your letter that the question of whether leave of absence should be granted is ultimately determined by each individual school head teacher and not central government. Authorising absence is a matter of local decision-making
  • You should also make clear that the government’s guidance does not override the existing school attendance provisions. Absence can be authorised beyond the examples noted in the guidance and can cover your situation (as a CV or CEV parent). You can cite the information outlined here, our briefing note and/or the government’s response to our letter.

The headteacher or local authority may, of course, decide not to exercise discretion in your case and may refuse to authorise your child’s absence. If that happens, their decision may be open to legal challenge.

What are we doing now?

The government is continuing to defending its current guidance, which states that vulnerable parents should still send their children to school. It has failed to make clear that schools and local authorities have discretion.

We will now be pushing the government to:

  • Amend its published guidance to reflect its official position on local discretion in such cases, so that schools can be made aware that their hands are not tied.
  • Change its guidance on school attendance and vulnerable family members. In our view the guidance is irrational and in  breach of our clients’ basic rights.

We will continue to provide updates about our legal challenge.

Thank you very much for all your support!

 

 

 

28May 2020

Covid-19 and the domestic abuse crisis

28th May 2020|Covid-19, Domestic abuse|

What can we expect from the government’s £76m funding pot to support survivors?

A decade of austerity has led to a severe lack of funding for domestic abuse services and a shortage of safe accommodation for those who flee. Specialist organisations have been pushed to breaking point. For survivors, the risk of ill-treatment and even death has increased as a result.

As the UK went into ‘lockdown’, the Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) sector raised concerns about the increased risk of domestic abuse and the urgent need for funding to ensure effective access to safe accommodation during the pandemic. The sector also raised concerns about the disproportionate impact on disabled, working-class, BME and migrant women.

A flurry of open letters were sent to government demanding additional money for domestic abuse services and accommodation. PILC, Solace and more than fifty other organisations wrote to MHCLG. Southall Black Sisters (SBS), Solace, the End Violence Against Women Coalition and others wrote to the prime minister. SBS and Compassion in Politics coordinated a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Finally, the Step Up Migrant Women campaign, a coalition of more than 40 specialist BAME and migrant frontline services, domestic abuse services, social-justice and human-rights organisations, wrote to Priti Patel calling for emergency support to help migrant victims of domestic abuse during the pandemic.

When it became clear that no adequate response was forthcoming, PILC, acting on behalf of Southall Black Sisters and Solace, launched a campaign and legal challenge against the government’s failure to support domestic abuse survivors during Covid-19. Over 750 people sent emails to Priti Patel and Robert Jenrick in support of our campaign.

On 2 May 2020, apparently in response to this sector-wide campaign and the accompanying threat of legal action, the government announced an  additional £76m to support survivors of abuse.

How the £76m breaks down

In total £10m has been allocated to safe accommodation services, with £25m going to help survivors of domestic and sexual abuse access services during the pandemic. £0.7 million will support organisations that provide support to kinship carers, foster carers or to adoption and care leaver provision.   £3m per year until 2022 will fund the work of Independent Sexual Violence Advisers, and a further £3.8m will go to community-based domestic-abuse and modern-slavery services and charities.

The Home Office has also promised £7.8 million in emergency support for charities helping vulnerable children who have been impacted by the coronavirus outbreak, including children at risk of sexual abuse and criminal exploitation. The Department for Education has pledged more than £26.35 million to support vulnerable children, which will go towards supporting the families of disabled children and work to safeguard groups including care leavers and children in the early years.

This funding commitment is a welcome concession. But the fight is far from over. It remains to be seen whether the £10 million allocated to safe accommodation services will be sufficient to cater to the ever-increasing demand, or whether the government will prioritise those organisations that need it most, including BME and migrant-specialist organisations.

Will the government provide adequate funding for services led ‘by and for’ BME women? Or will these vital services be overlooked as they so often are by current funding streams?

Domestic abuse impacts women across society. But those without the financial or physical means to leave are disproportionately affected. BME and migrant women face structural barriers to accessing support when they experience domestic abuse. As a result, they experience higher rates of domestic homicide and are three times more likely to commit suicide than other women in the UK. Some 50% of BME and migrant-women victims of violence experience abuse from multiple perpetrators.

Survivors with insecure immigration status are often prevented from accessing safe accommodation. Women with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) are not eligible for most refuge provision. Under usual circumstances, migrant women on spousal visas can apply for the Destitution Domestic Violence Concession (DDVC), allowing access basic benefits and social housing. But under pandemic conditions, accessing the DDVC will be practically difficult, especially for those women forced to self-isolate with perpetrators. Women with NRPF who are not on spousal visas are barred from applying for the DDVC altogether.

Insecure immigration status is also a significant barrier to the disclosure of domestic abuse. Many migrant women are justifiably fearful that if they report abuse to the police or seek medical assistance, they could be penalised, detained or even deported. This allows some perpetrators to use their partner’s immigration status as an additional form of coercive control.

We know from discussions with specialists BME and migrant organisations that, behind closed doors, the Home Office has acknowledged  the NRPF requirement to be a structural barrier preventing migrant women seeking protection and support when they experience domestic abuse. If that is the case, the government’s lack of protection for migrant women in the context of Covid-19 is even more scandalous.

The £76 million pledged by the Home Office is a step in the right direction. But on its own this money it will do nothing to ensure that all migrant women who suffer abuse can access safe accommodation, regardless of their immigration status. We must continue to fight to ensure that the government prioritises those organisations that need it most, and BME- and migrant-specialist services in particular. We must also push hard for the abolition of NRPF so that nobody’s life is put in danger for want of the right papers.

6May 2020

Covid-19: MHCLG must protect NRPF homeless people

6th May 2020|Covid-19, Housing, Migrants' rights|

PILC and Migrants’ Rights Network have today written to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government protesting MHCLG’s failure to fund and properly empower local authorities to support rough sleepers and other single homeless people with NRPF through Covid-19.
Local authorities have been informed by MHCLG that they are not required to accommodate homeless people with no recourse to public funds and will not be reimbursed for doing so.
This information, and the ongoing failure to provide self-contained accommodation and support to homeless people with no recourse to public funds, is at odds with the homelessness minister’s clear instruction on 26 March 2020 to ‘bring everyone in’.
Leaving people with NRPF homeless during this crisis is not only a moral and humanitarian failure. It is also incompatible with the need for everybody to stay at home and avoid all unnecessary contact with others, as outlined in the government’s own COVID-19 Guidance on Social Distancing.
Local authorities cannot provide essential shelter and support to ‘those with no recourse to public funds who require [it]’ unless they are properly empowered and funded to do so. It is clear that both the lack of clear published guidance from MHCLG and a lack of adequate, ringfenced funding are contributing to the failure to provide support to all homeless people regardless of immigration status.
The letter calls on Robert Jenrick to:
1) Issue formal guidance to LAs making clear that all homeless people must be supported regardless of immigration status and telling them what powers they should use;

2) Make specific, ring-fenced funding available to all local authorities to cover the actual cost of supporting people with NRPF through this crisis; and

3) Instruct, and fully fund, local authorities to continue to accommodate and meet the subsistence needs of all migrants with NRPF after the ‘lockdown’ ends, pending the urgent abolition of the no recourse to public funds (NRPF) regime.
The letter can be read and downloaded here.
14Apr 2020

Covid-19 and destitute migrants – update

14th April 2020|Covid-19, Housing, Migrants' rights|

On March 20th PILC, along with Migrants’ Rights Network, Project 17 and over fifty other organisations, wrote to local authorities in England demanding that they take urgent steps to protect and support vulnerable migrants, particularly those with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) and those experiencing or at risk of homelessness, during the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

On March 26th the homelessness minister wrote to councils directing them to ‘bring everyone in’. Three weeks later, many vulnerable migrants are still without shelter or enough to eat.

Today we have again written to councils in England demanding urgent action on this issue.

Among the issues we are seeing at local level are:

● Local authorities offering hotel accommodation only to ‘verified’ rough sleepers, with the result that many migrant homeless people (e.g. DV survivors, those who squat or sleep on buses) are being excluded from provision

● Housing officers telling destitute migrants that accommodation ‘can only be provided to people with recourse to public funds’

● Homeless migrants being placed in hotels far from their networks, with no/inadequate provision being made for their subsistence

● Homeless migrants being placed in hotels but given no contact details for key workers/housing officers

● Migrant rough sleepers being asked to share rooms and even beds

● Increased ‘gatekeeping’ of support provided to destitute migrant families under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989

● Threats of data-sharing with the Home Office

Central government bears much of the responsibility for the ongoing failure of councils to provide care and shelter to all who need it regardless of immigration status.

MHCLG has failed to provide detailed guidance on how local authorities should support people with insecure immigration status. There is a clear and urgent need for central government to take steps to make it easier for local authorities to provide support, including by amending the Housing Act 1996 and accompanying guidance and removing immigration-status based eligibility criteria for access to welfare benefits.

However the local-authority practice issues we are raising are crucial to the welfare, safety and wellbeing of migrant communities. The ongoing failure to provide appropriate support to all those who need it regardless of immigration status is not only a moral failure and a breach of local authorities’ Public Sector Equality Duty. It also poses a serious public health risk, leaving vulnerable migrants unable to socially distance and, where needed, self-isolate.

We are demanding that local authorities:

● Urgently direct all frontline staff, including housing officers, social services departments and commissioned service providers, to offer non-statutory accommodation and support to all people ‘who are, or are at risk of, sleeping rough, [as well as] those who are in accommodation where it is difficult to self-isolate’

● Make clear to all frontline staff that this support must be provided regardless of immigration status, and that standard legal tests for the provision of statutory support (proof of homelessness, eligibility, priority need, intentionality, local connection) are to be disregarded

● End all ‘gatekeeping’ of support for vulnerable migrants

● Ensure that all homeless people accommodated through the pandemic response are able to meet their basic needs for food, hygiene and travel (where appropriate e.g. for medical reasons)

● Communicate clearly (i.e. in writing in a language they can understand) to all homeless people accommodated through the pandemic response about where, why, by whom and for how long they are being accommodated; and whom they can contact for support in an emergency

● Make language-appropriate provision for people with disabilities, mental health and substance-misuse issues, and other support needs

● Make a public statement to the effect that all of the above support will be provided to all who need it regardless of immigration status; and that information will never be shared for immigration-enforcement purposes

Our latest letter can be read and downloaded here.

20Mar 2020

Councils must protect migrants during the pandemic

20th March 2020|Covid-19, Housing, Migrants' rights|

The UK’s border regime already condemns hundreds of thousands of people to extreme precarity: sofa surfing, rough sleepingand illegal work. Unless urgent steps are taken, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak will have disastrous consequences for undocumented migrants and others with insecure immigration status.

Public Interest Law Centre, Project 17 and Migrants’ Rights Network have today coordinated an urgent joint letter from over 50 organisations calling on local authorities to protect and support vulnerable migrants, particularly those with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) and those experiencing or at risk of homelessness, during the pandemic.

This letter follows a letter to central government, coordinated by Medact, Liberty and JCWI and sent on March 16.

We will provide updates on how local authorities are responding (or failing to respond) as the situation unfolds.