Steve Liddicott talks to Amy Taylor about changes to the care of asylum-seeking children and the national register intended to protect them
Steve Liddicott is probably better placed than most people in children’s services to talk about the challenges of caring for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.
As divisional director for children’s services at Croydon Council, he is corporate parent to one of the highest numbers of unaccompanied minors in the UK and is also a leading supporter of the national register for unaccompanied children.
Although Community Care revealed last week that 11 councils looking after unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were failing to use the national register (Eleven councils snub register to aid safety of asylum-seeking children), he feels the year-old project has been a success, pointing out that 73 councils are fully signed up and 50 more are working towards it.
Liddicott says one of the register’s main benefits is that it allows local authorities and central government to share information.
“Although there have been improvements in the liaisons between the Home Office and the local authority, there can still be changes in immigration statuses that we don’t know about,” he says.
Croydon’s looked-after children population consists of 500 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and 400 young people from the local area. Given such figures, Liddicott welcomes the government’s proposed review of provision (see Government Review, below). “It has to make sense because the system is complicated and it’s likely to mean that planning and services can be better,” he says.
The Home Office wants the cost of supporting unaccompanied minors to be cut. But the Refugee Children’s Consortium, a group of charities including The Children’s Society and Barnardo’s, is concerned that this is the main driver behind the plans.
Liddicott agrees that this is a genuine fear and says funding for services for the group is already tight. He says this is particularly the case for authorities with large numbers of minors in their care as not all services can be provided in-house. “A private and voluntary sector fostering placement is £700-800 a week, which is more than the National Asylum Support Service (Nass) allows a local authority to get back,” he says.
The consortium has also raised concerns that social workers’ duty towards children’s welfare could be compromised under the review as they may have to commission medical assessments to determine the age of a young person. But Liddicott denies this:
“I can’t think of any example of a local authority commissioning an assessment where there hadn’t already been one requested by an advocate, or a lawyer acting on behalf of the young person.”
An initiative similar to the safe case transfer model, which involves the transfer of full responsibility for an unaccompanied asylum seeker from one council to another, is expected to feature in the new plans. The system is currently in operation between Kent and three councils in Greater Manchester.
Liddicott says the model is good in theory but Nass provides money for the group only until they reach 18 and councils can be required to support them past this age. “The only thing councils get is the Department for Education and Skills’ care leavers’ grant, and that is cash-limited. There isn’t enough money to pay for the young people in the system. As a receiving local authority, that could be a disincentive to doing this.”
A government consultation paper out later this year is set to outline changes to the way unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are cared for. One of the review’s main aims is to reduce the burden on councils in London and the South East, which care for a disproportionate number of unaccompanied minors.
The review is expected to propose that selected councils or voluntary sector organisations outside these areas look after more unaccompanied minors, removing this responsibility altogether from some local authorities.