Port-of-entry councils have welcomed a government boost in care funding for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and care leavers but have warned that resources are still insufficient to meet need.
This week, the Home Office made its third increase in funding for the group in four years, with boosts in support rates for care leavers and in funding for children looked after by authorities with the highest numbers, who tend to be ports of entry or places where asylum claims are registered.
Council leaders said they hoped the changes would “reinvigorate” the national transfer scheme, under which children and young people move from ports or gateway authorities to those with fewer numbers, so long as this is in the child’s best interests.
The changes come in the context of rising numbers of unaccompanied children and care leavers (see box).
Unaccompanied children and care leavers in numbers
- Home Office funding for local authorities supporting unaccompanied care leavers has increased to £240 per person per week, up from £200 for those who entered after 2016 and a “legacy rate” of £150 for some of those who entered previously.
- Councils looking after the highest number of unaccompanied children and young people will see a boost in funding for children in their care from £114 to £143 per child per night. This applies to authorities where unaccompanied children make up at least 0.07% of the local child population.
- This follows an increase last year for all authorities to a then flat rate of £114 per child per night from previous rates of £71, £91 or £95, which were dependent on the age of the child and when they entered the UK.
- The number of unaccompanied children and young people in England rose by 11% to 5,070 in the year to March 2019, almost double the level in 2015 (2,760).
- The number of care leavers who were unaccompanied in England rose from 3,520 in March 2017 to 5,920 in March 2019, a rise of 68%.
There are longstanding concerns about under-funding for unaccompanied children and care leavers.
Councils in the East Midlands had an annual shortfall of £10,485 per year per care leaver based on the previous rates, amounting to £5.2m a year across the region, an analysis by regional umbrella body East Midlands Councils earlier this year found. Last year, London Councils, which represents the capital’s boroughs, declared the system broken, saying that Home Office funding accounted for just 60% of the care costs for unaccompanied children and that the capital faced a shortfall of £32m for supporting the group in 2018-19.
The increase in funding for care leavers who were unaccompanied children amounts to an extra 20% for those who arrived since 2016 and 60% for some who arrived previously, while funding for unaccompanied children in authorities where they make up at least 0.07% of the local child population rose from £114 to £143 per child per night.
‘Long way to go’
“We welcome this uplift in funding from the Home Office after a four-year review process but there is still a long way to go before we are fully funded for this important work,” said Association of Directors of Children’s Services president Jenny Coles. She added that there were issues with the way that the 0.07% threshold was calculated as it did not include care leavers who were former unaccompanied children, which meant that some larger councils may not benefit from the increased rates for children.
However, port and gateway councils welcomed the news.
Councillor Tony Newman, leader of Croydon council, which has one of the country’s asylum intake units at which claims are registered, said: “This funding rise is good news for Croydon, as it means an extra £4m towards our ongoing work in looking after vulnerable unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in our borough.
“The previous funding levels were unfair, especially for gateway immigration boroughs like us, so the higher tariffs for both care leavers and ports of entry such as Croydon is a significant step forward.
However, echoing Coles, Newman added: “[Although] this extra funding is welcome and it goes some way to help, more funding is still required to fully tackle our overall shortfall.”
A spokesperson for Hillingdon council, a port authority because of its proximity to Heathrow Airport, said: “Councils, and especially gateway authorities such as Hillingdon, have been asking central government for a long time to address the funding shortfall in caring for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. So we welcome the announcement of additional financial support from the government, which more closely reflects the actual cost impact.”
‘Reinvigorating transfer scheme’
A spokesperson for Portsmouth council said: “The increases are very welcome and will hopefully encourage other councils to take on responsibility for more young people through the national transfer scheme, relieving the pressure on us and other port authorities.”
This is a reference to the national transfer scheme, set up in 2016, whose aim is to share responsibility for caring for unaccompanied children and young people more equally, by transferring children and young people, on a voluntary basis, from areas above the 0.07% threshold to those below.
However, there have been recent concerns about the lack of young people who have moved under the scheme. Last year, London Councils said that not one person was transferred from London in the first quarter of 2019, compared with 33 in the equivalent period in 2018, as numbers of unaccompanied children and young people has risen.
Coles said: “Though the uplifted rates may help reinvigorate the voluntary transfer scheme, many challenges remain, particularly the availability of suitable placements and the time it can take for the Home Office to make decisions on a child’s asylum claim.”
The increased funding was also welcomed by the children’s charity Coram, whose senior legal and policy officer, Stewart MacLachlan, said: “It is vital that children who are alone and seeking sanctuary in the UK are provided with the care and support they need to ensure their recovery and development. We welcome the announcement of increased funding for the local authorities who are their corporate parents. These children have complex needs and have often suffered significant harm and trauma. We hope that increased funding will help local authorities to consistently meet these children’s needs, help them rebuild their lives and ensure a positive future for all those children in their care.”
Meanwhile, Coles raised concerns about how children and young people coming to the UK under the shadow of Covid-19 should be treated, including on whether they would be tested for coronavirus and subject to the new quarantine arrangements brought in for people travelling into the country.
She added: “In recent weeks a steady flow of unaccompanied children and young people have continued to arrive here after perilous journeys and there is still no clear direction or support from government about testing and quarantine in these circumstances.”