Thousands of children in care and care leavers could be at risk of being left unlawfully resident in the UK next year without co-ordinated action between central government and local authorities, a charity has warned.
A report published this week by Coram Children’s Legal Centre (CCLC) said a “comprehensive” UK-wide plan was urgently needed to identify and support young people eligible for the EU settlement scheme.
The programme enables citizens from the European Economic Area and Switzerland – and family members – to remain in the post-Brexit UK after 30 June 2021. Failure to apply by that deadline, which the report said should be extended, will leave individuals undocumented and liable to ‘hostile environment’ measures that restrict access to crucial amenities including housing, education and healthcare.
The report said that while the Home Office had in 2019 estimated there were around 5,000 looked-after children and 4,000 care leavers eligible for the scheme, “there has not been any successful, systemic attempt to accurately identify and count and the true number in order to support each one to apply”.
It added that, based on casework carried out by CCLC, there was little consistency of practice between local authority areas.
“We are very concerned that [in some local authorities] there is no lead being taken; identification and referral for support depends on whether the child or young person happens to have a social worker or personal adviser who is aware and knows the steps to take,” the report said. “In others, we fear no identification has been attempted yet at all.”
‘Support and resource’ local authorities
Among a lengthy series of recommendations, CCLC’s report, Children left out? Securing children’s rights to stay in the UK beyond Brexit, said:
- It should become normal practice for local authorities to realise a looked-after child’s option of registering as a British citizen where the child wishes to and it is in their best interests, taking into consideration the effect on any other citizenship they hold.
- The Home Office should support and resource local authorities to identify all eligible children known to them so that social workers can provide information on the EU settlement scheme where possible.
- The Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner and the Home Office should make social workers’ role clearer: whether they should be making applications for any child or young person and if so, how this work is regulated and overseen.
- No child or young person who has previously held ‘pre-settled’ status (granted to people who have not lived in the UK for five years continuously) should fall off their route to settled status if they do not make their application at the right time, with the Home Office to advise them on what they need to do when.
- The Home Office should introduce a provision to grant settled status to all looked-after children and care leavers who apply to the EU settlement scheme.
‘Tip of the iceberg’
The new report said the 9,000 young people within the Home Office estimate represented “the tip of the iceberg” in terms of the total number of children known to local authorities and likely to need support.
An attempt by the department to gather data during the summer last year merely asked councils to count looked-after children, care leavers and those on child protection plans, it warned.
“There is a danger that authorities are completely missing the needs of other children, including children in [alternative] care arrangements whose contact with their local authority is less, or non-existent,” the report said.
It added that children under special guardianship orders, as well as those in informal or private fostering arrangements, who do not receive statutory local authority support, were “extremely vulnerable”.
The report went on to note that while amended government guidance underscored the expectation that social workers would prepare and submit immigration applications on behalf of children under the care of their local authority, there was “no statutory change granting [them] this power”.
Nor was there any oversight of the quality of applications they submit on behalf of children, the report said, adding: “This presents new risks for children and serious challenges for their social workers.”
‘Falling through the gaps’
Marianne Lagrue, the CCLC policy manager, said that beneath headline figures – that 3.6m applications have been made so far to the EU settlement scheme – potential gaps around children’s applications were a concern.
“Based on our work helping hundreds of children, young people and families to apply, we know that many struggle with different aspects of the scheme, and there is confusion about which children are, or could become, British citizens,” she said.
“We are particularly concerned that there are thousands of children and young people in the care of the state who still need to apply,” Lagrue said. “This government must act now to resolve the immigration status of the children in its own care. If they cannot, this has worrying implications for whether the system can reach every eligible child and young person with just one year to go. The government needs a comprehensive plan and should extend the deadline.”