Kent council has warned the Home Office of its intention to take legal action after the coastal borough’s services for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) reached “breaking point” for the second time in a year.
The Conservative-led local authority’s director of children’s services, (DCS) Matt Dunkley, has warned council leader Roger Gough that the county will probably be unable to safely accept any new UASC arrivals before the end of this week, a council statement said.
The situation, which follows Kent running out of UASC social work and placement capacity during August 2020, has been fuelled both by the volume of children arriving by boat and the lack of effective arrangements via which they can be transferred to other local authorities.
The council’s proposed judicial review is asking the home secretary, Priti Patel, to use her existing powers to direct other local authorities Kent to receive their “fair share” of UASC.
“I am deeply saddened that we are now seeing a repeat of the crisis of nine months ago,” Gough said.
He acknowledged “welcome measures” from the government – which last year boosted care funding and support for unaccompanied children – but said these had not gone far enough.
“We have not seen what is most needed: a robust national transfer scheme that prevents port authorities such as Kent coming under unmanageable pressure,” Gough added. “Over this last year we have argued consistently and repeatedly that this must be done through a mandatory system.”
Record numbers of arrivals
Kent’s statement said 242 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children had arrived on its shores by boat between 1 January and 1 June 2021 – an increase of 60 compared with the same period during 2020 – with 115 received in May alone.
But just 52 have moved on to other local authorities this year under the existing voluntary national transfer scheme (NTS), leaving Kent with “nearly double” the number of UASC children in care deemed safe by the government, the council said.
Kent has consistently over the last year highlighted the second factor as the reason port authorities are struggling to meet need and discharge their statutory duty of care. In November, Portsmouth also closed its doors to unaccompanied children after the caseloads of it independent reviewing officers (IROs) topped 70.
Soon afterwards, on 7 December, Kent announced that it would resume receiving new arrivals of unaccompanied children, after a four-month hiatus that saw almost 400 young people – including 200 new arrivals – transferred to other local authorities by the government.
Over that period the number of UASC under the age of 18 in Kent’s care reduced from 612 to 412. That figure remains similar, at 403, with an additional 1,078 care leavers over 18, who the council must support until they turn 25.
‘Wholly disproportionate strain’ on children’s services
A council spokesperson provided Community Care with a statement setting out a number of key differences between last summer and now in its decision-making around when it may have to suspend UASC services, including:
- The temporary closure of a reception centre for scheduled construction work.
- Greater quarantine measures compared with 2020.
- A current lack of local fostering placements, meaning newly arrived children would need to be placed out of county.
- An increase from about 50% to 75% in the proportion of new arrivals subject to age disputes by the Border Force, meaning that social workers must carry out lengthy age assessments.
“We learned last year that we took the decision too late. By the time we stopped taking referrals, caseloads had hit dangerous levels– 40 for UASC social workers and 100-plus for IROs,” the statement said. It added that caseloads were “already too high” at 28-29 for UASC social workers, meaning numbers needed to be reduced.
“The Home Office consulted on changes to the NTS in August and September last year and have yet to publish any new proposals or a response to the consultation,” Gough said. “The scheme remains voluntary with insufficient incentive for other UK local authorities to transfer UASC from Kent.
“The wholly disproportionate strain on Kent’s children’s services continues to be overlooked,” he added. “We must ensure that all UK local authorities with capacity share in the support of these children.”
Consultation outcome ‘shortly’
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We recognise the longstanding role that Kent County Council has played in supporting unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and are extremely grateful for their contribution.
“We continue to encourage more areas to join the National Transfer Scheme and do their part,” the spokesperson added. “We have already consulted on how to improve the scheme to make it fairer – the outcome of which will be published very shortly.”
Kent has given the Home Office until 17 June to provide a “substantive” response to its calls for a mandatory national transfer system, after which it says it will proceed to issue a claim for judicial review against Patel.