Campaigners fear desire to control costs will override children’s needs

Early optimism of an improved service for asylum-seeking children has dissipated as Home Office officials cite economic concerns, reports Helen McCormack

As details of the Home Office’s plans to reform services for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children unfold, concerns over the welfare of the young person have rightly taken centre stage.

There may have been some initial optimism that the review led by the National Asylum Support Service (Nass), aimed at dispersing children from overburdened councils in London and the South East, might improve services. But, for most, that was dispelled by Home Office officials in a series of seminars over the past two months.

With officials unapologetic about their concerns that costs to support the group have doubled in the past five years, critics suggested that cost-cutting is the sole purpose of the exercise (Cost-cutting fears over proposals to reform care of child asylum seekers, 23 March).

Concerns have also been raised by charity coalition the Refugee Children’s Consortium (RCC) that the conclusions to the consultation have been drawn before it has even formally begun.

Fears have focused over the plans outlined in a series of questions distributed at the seminars, not least the conflict that may face social workers employed by one of the 10-12 authorities that the Home Office hope will enter into contracts with Nass (Social workers could face Children Act conflict over mooted age check
 , 6 April). Campaigners fear social workers’ duty towards children’s welfare could be compromised as they will have to commission medical assessments where there are disputes over age.

Many are questioning whether taking a child away from non-statutory asylum and refugee services would be in their best interests.

Although the Home Office insists Nass is working alongside the Department for Education and Skills on the reform programme, the RCC says the department’s involvement appears minimal.

One DfES group that does appear to have been active is the lawyers. Campaigners understand there is little concern at the department over the possibility of legal conflicts any of the 10-12 authorities taking part in the scheme will have between their obligations to Nass and their duties to looked-after child under section 17 and section 20 of the Children Act 1989.

Adrian Matthews, project manager at the Children’s Legal Centre, says challenges over the legality of the policy are inevitable. He says: “I don’t know how they are going to do this under the Children Act. There are sure to be challenges. Although it hasn’t been spelled out by the Home Office, in the worst case scenario children’s needs would be secondary to economic considerations.”

The 5,600 asylum-seeking children may not be the only ones to be affected by the reforms. One plan mooted in the seminars is to establish regional assessment centres, which appear intended to replace services now carried out by councils’ asylum teams. Matthews says this could result in all but a handful of the teams being scrapped: “They will go under. All they will be required to do will be an initial assessment, before passing the child on to one of the assessment centres.”

But that is unlikely, according to Steve Liddicott, the Association of Directors of Social Services lead on asylum. “Most teams are winding down anyway,” he says. “The team members will just be transferred within a council.”

Nearly all the RCC organisations, who are to meet Home Office officials to express their concerns about the consultation, say the review is being done too hastily. Some argue the outcome of a separate, large-scale review of services for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, which is being carried out by the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, should be considered before any changes take place. The review has a Home Office representative on its advisory board but will not report until later in the year.

But the department appears in little mood to wait – one scheme putting social workers alongside Immigration and Nationality Directorate officials is now being piloted at a screening unit in Liverpool, with plans to expand similar schemes already running at screening units in Dover and Croydon.


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