By Natalie Bloomer and Samir Jeraj
Single parent families could be left destitute and at risk of deportation following a secret anti-immigration initiative by the Home Office, Politics.co.uk can reveal.
A Freedom of Information request has uncovered a Memorandum of Understanding detailing an agreement between the Department for Work and Pensions Child Maintenance Group (DWP CMG) and the Home Office to share data for immigration enforcement purposes.
Charities today hit out at the news, warning that it could leave vulnerable children and parents at risk of destitution and abuse.
"Data sharing between the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) and the Home Office will deter parents from using the service and allows non-resident parents to avoid taking financial responsibility for their child," Frances Travena, from the Coram Children's Legal Centre, said.
"It risks enforcement action being taken which is not in the best interests of the child involved, who may be a British national unable to demonstrate their nationality.
"Parents who turn to the CMS rather than reaching a private agreement are often victims of domestic abuse – closing off this route to support leaves parents and children more vulnerable to destitution and shifts the costs of caring for the child away from the parent responsible."
The Child Maintenance Service ensures that financial support is provided by an absent parent. In some cases, it is used by domestic abuse victims who are unable to make a mutual agreement with their former partner.
As undocumented migrants are unable to access benefits, child maintenance is sometimes the only source of income for parents who have no other income streams to turn to.
The document, which was uncovered by Politics.co.uk following a seven-month long Freedom of Information request, reveals that that the DWP is authorised to supply information to the Home Office if one of four conditions is met. One of those is simply that the "DWP CMG is satisfied the disclosure is for an immigration purpose".
The freedom of information request also asked how many requests for data the department has received from the Home Office. This information was not provided.
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) said that the policy could leave vulnerable parents and children at risk.
"We are troubled by the continued spread of this government's "hostile environment" policy into key public services," JCWI chief executive Satbir Singh said.
"Knowing that their data may be shared with the Home Office, those with complex immigration status may be reluctant to approach the DWP for support, leaving parents and children financially insecure and vulnerable to abuse and exploitation."
A government spokesperson said:
"We have long-standing arrangements to share information between the DWP and the Home Office to improve efficiency, protect taxpayers' money, and tackle illegal working and immigration offending. Access to this information is strictly controlled with strong legal safeguards.
"We operate a fair immigration system in accordance with legislation agreed by parliament and we expect those with no right to remain in the UK to leave voluntarily. Identifying immigration offenders can also help protect people from exploitation and modern slavery. This government has taken world-leading action to tackle modern slavery and no victim should fear coming forward to seek assistance."