A step in the right direction

By Ann McGauran | 22 June 2021

Kent CC stopped taking lone child migrants into its care last week. The move came after the council served a letter before action to the Home Office, in advance of a judicial review, in a bid to force other local authorities to ‘take their fair share’.

The council looks after more than 400 such children, nearly double the number the Government recommends, and says it is unable to safely care for any more.

A Home Office response has been received and is under consideration by the council. But Kent CC has not provided details, saying further action will be announced ‘in due course’. Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) landing in Kent are now the responsibility of the Home Office, who will have to find them places with other local authorities, according to the council.

In a statement, the Home Office has said responsibility for UASC ‘will be more evenly distributed across the UK as part of new and vital updates to the National Transfer Scheme (NTS)’.

The voluntary NTS was set up in 2016 aimed at getting USAC the care placements they need while making distribution of responsibility throughout the UK more equitable and easing pressures felt by entry authorities such as Kent and Croydon. But will the new NTS be enough of a game changer to encourage more councils to take in UASC?

In a joint letter sent to local authorities seen by The MJ, Home Office minister Chris Philp and children and families minister Vicky Ford said they believe the ‘enhanced’ measures will address the key barriers to fairer sharing of responsibility that local authorities raised during a joint Home Office and Department for Education consultation in August 2020.

But despite Kent calling for a compulsory NTS, the new arrangements due to begin in July will remain voluntary. The scheme will be based, the letter confirms, on a new national rota that will ‘determine a fair allocation of NTS referrals to each region, reflecting a range of pressures on local authorities’. Each region will take its turn on the rota, ‘so it will be clear where responsibility lies for placing newly arrived children’. It will be down to the regional Strategic Migration Partnership’s (SMP) UASC co-ordinator to allocate a referral to a local authority in that region.

There will be more money; the higher rate of £143 per day for councils with larger UASC numbers will now ‘follow the child’. There will be a 12.5% uplift in funding rates for UASC care leavers – from £240 to £270 a week. Both uplifts took immediate effect, backdated to 1 April.

There will also be a review of funding provided to local authorities for personal advisor support for care leavers up to age 25, and a £3m contingencies fund. The Home Office is building a team of specialist social workers to support councils across the UK in a pilot scheme to conduct age assessments and provide guidance and support.

The letter says that in addition to the £24m announced in the last Spending Review [to maintain capacity and expand provision in secure children’s homes], the Department for Education will be developing plans ‘backed up by additional investment’ to support councils to create more children’s homes places. Bringing new foster parents into the system and retaining the skills of experienced carers is also highlighted as a priority.

Should the new scheme have been made mandatory, will it improve the chances of UASC being more evenly distributed, and does it represent a better overall approach? In a statement to The MJ, leader of Croydon LBC, Cllr Hamida Ali, said: ‘The existing voluntary transfer scheme clearly doesn’t work, so I’m unconvinced another voluntary arrangement will improve the situation much for Croydon and other gateway authorities. This national issue needs a national solution.’

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), the Local Government Association (LGA), Devolved Administrations and SMPs were instrumental in drawing up the proposal for the new rota system, building on the success of regional rotas in London and the East of England. Immediate past president of the ADCS Jenny Coles told The MJ: ‘Maybe to make it [the NTS] mandatory would have been the right thing but there wasn’t agreement [during the consultation]’.

Building the new NTS on regional SMPs is, in her view, ‘a very sensible way forward. They do broader work around refugees too. The one in the Eastern region works well’. She calls the increase in funding ‘really welcome and important’.

However the children’s services overspend has hit £823m in England, and Ms Coles warned there would still be a funding shortfall. ‘So even though it’s welcome, potentially for lots of authorities there will still be a gap. That’s something we’ll have to keep working on with our colleagues in the Government.’

She added: ‘It’s not just the cost of the accommodation, it’s the cost of everything that goes round it. These young people have got very clear mental health needs and they need specialists. Integrated Care Systems and the health service are really key to those. At a national and a regional level that is something that certainly could be improved on.’

Lewisham LBC prioritises the health of undocumented migrants by promoting the Safe Surgeries scheme to ensure they can visit every GP practice in the borough for medical advice and to receive COVID vaccines. The council was also recently recognised by charity City of Sanctuary UK for its exceptional support for refugees, becoming the first to become a borough of sanctuary.

In the last two years the council has welcomed 90 unaccompanied minors seeking asylum. Labour councillor Kevin Bonavia is Lewisham LBC’s Cabinet member for democracy, refugees and accountability. He told The MJ the council ‘really wanted the new NTS to be mandatory – we’re very disappointed’.

He added: ‘In London there is a pan-London arrangement between directors of children’s services where authorities have agreed to take UASC into care up to 0.08% of our child population.

‘You’ve got other local authorities around the country who haven’t taken any UASC who don’t present to them directly. The Government should have bitten the bullet here and taken any political fall-out. We want to do our bit, but we want to do it as part of a fair system.’

Conservative MP David Simmonds is a member of the Commons Education Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights. He led the political work with government developing the NTS as chair of the LGA Asylum and Refugee Task Group. Does he believe the changes to the NTS will make a difference? ‘Undoubtedly they will,’ he told The MJ. ‘The issue in terms of the response from other councils, their willingness to take UASC, has always really been about the money.’

On whether the new scheme should have been mandatory, he said that based on his own involvement in setting up the NTS it seemed ‘very clear at the time that the Home Office does not have any powers to mandate transfer of children between authorities’.

He suspects the way to deal with the ‘big logistical challenge’ of providing support for young people dispersed across significant numbers of councils who may have no experience of looking after them is to ‘ask local authorities to take over financial responsibility in the long-term for placement planning’.

In his view the Home Office has two choices – either it fully funds the costs of those councils- so that they become the UK’s ‘border guardian’, or ‘alternatively it could create an extension of the Border Force arrangements, so that young people who are asylum seekers could come into the care of the Border Force rather than be transferred to a local authority’.

His sense is that councils are keen to help, ‘but there is absolute clarity in the current financial climate that’s not going to be done for free’.

In conclusion, Ms Coles called the new NTS ‘a step in the right direction’. She added: ‘Local authorities can’t divert money into this as they haven’t got it. We have to keep on with the broader support package, [and that includes] checking actually “is this working?”. Otherwise we just lurch from one crisis into another.’

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