People who are granted leave to remain on the British National (Overseas) visa route will be able to apply for a change of conditions to have the ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) condition lifted if they become destitute or are at imminent risk of destitution, following a change to the Immigration Rules. This is a very positive development, following concerns raised by local authorities about the impacts of excluding people, who are likely to establish a future in the UK, from being able to access basic welfare services should they lose their income - a very real risk whilst the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic continue to be felt.
What is the British National (Overseas) visa route?
The British National (Overseas) - BN(O)- visa route opened for applications on 31 January. Following recent political developments in China affecting the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents, the UK Government has established this route to enable people from Hong Kong who have BN(O) status to settle in the UK with their close family members.
BN(O) status is a type of British nationality that Hong Kong residents were able to acquire before the handover of the territory to China in July 1997. People with BN(O) status do not have the right of abode in the UK and are required to meet the entry requirements set out under the relevant categories of the Immigration Rules if they want to visit, study, or work in the UK.
The new BN(O) visa route allows holders of this status and their close family members to obtain leave to enter for five years, or for two years and six months. They may subsequently extend their leave and can apply for indefinite leave to remain after they have completed five years residence on this route.
Applicants will need to pay an application fee and the NHS surcharge, with a five-year visa for an adult costing £3370 in total, and must show that they are able to maintain and accommodate themselves, and any dependants, for at least six months. They are not required to have arranged employment or housing in advance of arrival, and do not need to meet an English language requirement.
In an Impact Assessment, the Home Office estimates that 5.4 million Hong Kong residents, including the dependent family members of BN(O)s, are potentially eligible to apply under this route but the actual number or people that will take up the offer is unknown.
Hong Kong residents who are already in the UK with leave outside the rules will be eligible to switch into the BN(O) route. People who do not hold BN(O) citizenship or qualify as a household member may also arrive from Hong Kong on other immigration routes and some people may claim asylum.
For more details about the BN(O) visa route, see the Home Office information for applicants, the House of Commons Library briefing, and Migration Yorkshire's policy briefing for local authorities.
What entitlements will a person on the BN(O) route have?
A person who is granted leave on the BN(O) route will be able to work and study but will be subject to the ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) condition until they obtain indefinite leave to remain. Like migrants who have leave to remain with NRPF on other routes, people granted BN(O) leave will be expected to fully support themselves through their own financial resources or income from employment. They will not be able to claim any benefits classed as ‘public funds’ or local authority housing assistance. Additionally, the current criteria for free school meals and funded childcare schemes exclude children in households where the parents are on the BN(O) route, placing additional financial pressures on low-income families.
People on the BN(O) route will be able to access free secondary healthcare, having paid the NHS surcharge with their application. Those who have social care needs will be able to access care and support from social services, subject to meeting the usual eligibility criteria.
Why is a change of conditions process needed?
A person with leave on the BN(O) route will not be able to claim benefits to top-up a low income and cannot rely on the safety-net of Universal Credit if they lose employment or are unable to work. They will only be able to access housing in the private sector and those who are at risk of homelessness will not be eligible for homelessness assistance from their local council. However, families and adults with care needs who are destitute or at risk of homelessness may qualify for accommodation and financial assistance from social services, with the cost of providing support being met by the local authority. Adults without social care needs may be at risk of rough sleeping due a lack of statutory support provision for this group.
Whilst the Home Office continues to impose the NRPF condition, the introduction of a change of conditions process is an essential safeguard that will help to alleviate the negative effects of destitution on individuals with leave on the BN(O) route, as well as going some way to mitigate additional pressures that social services may experience when families and vulnerable adults are provided with accommodation and financial support.
When can a person apply for a change of conditions?
The Immigration Rules will be amended on 6 April 2021 to allow a person on the BN(O) route to apply for a change of conditions to have their leave varied to remove the NRPF condition. The person will need to demonstrate that they:
- are destitute or at imminent risk of destitution,
- can provide evidence that there are particularly compelling reasons relating to the welfare of a child of a parent in receipt of a very low income, or
- are facing exceptional financial circumstances relating to a very low income.
What do we still need to know?
The Home Office has not provided full details of the process that people would need to follow to have the NRPF condition lifted, although has informed councils that this is expected to be the same as the change of conditions process that people who are on the family and private life routes can currently access. It is also currently unclear whether changes will be made to housing eligibility regulations to enable those who are granted access to public funds to qualify for homelessness assistance or social housing.
What does this mean for councils?
Although this is a very welcome development, until further information is provided, it will not be possible to determine the extent to which the introduction of this process will mitigate the impacts on councils or provide an effective remedy to prevent homelessness and alleviate destitution for people on the BN(O) route.
The Government also needs to consider what support may be need to be provided to councils to meet an increase in demand for other services, such as ESOL classes, and to assist local efforts to promote the integration of new arrivals from Hong Kong.
We will provide more information as soon as it is available. In the meantime, councils are encouraged to get in touch if they have further questions or concerns as we will continue to work with sector partners to raise these with government.