Kent County Council has said that it is no longer able to accept unaccompanied asylum-seeking children into its care following a sharp increase in numbers this year and a failure to agree the transfer of responsibility to other authorities.
In a statement today, the port authority said it had run out of placement and social work capacity to take in further new arrivals, in the light of failed appeals for help from the Home Office that had reached fever pitch in recent days.
The authority said it had warned the government department responsible for supporting unaccompanied children that it was reaching capacity but that “promised actions [had] not materialised”, leaving the authority unable to take in new arrivals while also meeting its statutory duties to care for them.
The council’s leader, Roger Gough, said: “I am deeply disappointed and concerned that, despite our many efforts to avoid this unthinkable situation, it has been necessary to make this announcement today. This is a huge challenge for Kent, but a relatively small challenge to solve nationally, and should have been resolved before now.”
‘Tipped the balance’
He added: “The stark reality today is that, despite my conversations with the Home Office alerting them that Kent expected to reach safe capacity to meet its statutory duty of care this weekend, 13 new arrivals in the last 2 days has now tipped the balance and the council simply cannot safely accommodate any more new arrivals at this time.”
The authority said the numbers of new arrivals coming to the UK from France through the English Channel had escalated sharply this year, but it laid blame for the situation at the door of the failure of the national transfer scheme.
Set up in 2016, the scheme’s 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 where the unaccompanied population make up more than 0.07% of the local child population, to those below the threshold.
So far, 960 children have been transferred through the scheme, a third of whom through Kent. However, Sue Chandler, Kent’s cabinet member for integrated children’s services, said the scheme implied that Kent should be caring for 231 unaccompanied children, whereas it was currently supporting 589, in addition to 945 care leavers who were formerly unaccompanied children.
‘Failure’ of transfer scheme
As well as Kent and other port authorities warning that insufficient numbers have been transferred through the scheme, other councils have said that funding was insufficient to create an incentive for them to take on more children and young people.
In June, the Home Office announced additional funding for authorities supporting unaccompanied children and care leavers, which led council leaders to say that they hoped it would reinvigorate the national transfer scheme, to relieve pressure on Kent and other port authorities, such as the London boroughs of Croydon and Hillingdon, and Portsmouth.
“If every other local authority in the UK were to immediately accept 2 or 3 (under 18 year-old) UASC from Kent into their care, Kent’s numbers would reduce to the council’s safe allocation as stated in the national transfer scheme (231 children) – Kent is currently caring for almost triple this amount,” she added. “We are grateful for the support some other local authorities have given recently but unfortunately, due to the continued high level of arrivals, it has not been enough to make a real difference to the numbers in Kent.”
It is unclear what will happen to new arrivals now that Kent has said it is at capacity. Chandler said the authority would continue to review would “continue to review the situation and stay in contact with the Home Office and other UK local authorities for support”.
She added: “In the longer term, to ensure that any recurrence of this inconceivable situation is avoided in the future we are appealing to the Home Office to mandate the existing national transfer scheme, or provide alternative central government incentives, to guarantee that the future care of UASC is fairly distributed nationally.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “This is an unprecedented situation and we have been working incredibly closely with Kent County Council to urgently address their concerns.
“We continue to provide Kent County Council with a high level of support, such as significantly increasing funding and reducing pressure on their services through a national transfer scheme.
“We are also providing extra support with children’s services and we continue to work across the local government network on their provision for unaccompanied minors.”