The Home Office has announced changes to distribute responsibility for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children more widely but has rejected making the existing national transfer system (NTS) mandatory, despite the threat of legal challenge.
It will introduce a voluntary rota system next month, which it hopes will encourage more local authorities to take in unaccompanied children, relieving pressure on port authorities that have seen Kent council cease taking in children as of this week, the second time in a year it has done so in a year.
The south coast authority had given the Home Office until yesterday to respond to its threat of legal challenge unless it made the voluntary NTS mandatory. The system, launched in 2016, is based on the principle that no council should be asked to look after more unaccompanied children than 0.07% of its child population, but in practice children have remained concentrated in port authorities such as Kent.
‘Current system not working as intended’
The Home Office mooted mandating the scheme in a consultation last year, but, in a statement last week, said the rota would enable the fairer distribution of responsibility between councils by giving local authorities and regions clarity over the number of children to expect and when they would be placed.
“The current system has not been working as intended with significant pressures being placed on particular areas,” said Chris Philp, minister for immigration compliance and justice.
“Caring for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children is a national responsibility, which is why we are introducing a system that will ensure that these children and young people continue to receive the support they need whilst also ensuring a fairer distribution across the UK.
Children would be allocated based on factors including the size of the child population in each region, the number of existing unaccompanied children in an area and the capacity of children’s services.
However, Kent council leader Roger Gough said he was “deeply disappointed that, after having admitted that the voluntary NTS scheme is not working, government have still not invoked their powers to mandate”.
He added: “As we have experienced over the past few years, there is absolutely no evidence that a voluntary NTS has kept pace with the ever-escalating new arrivals on our shores. Having diagnosed the UASC problem in 2016 and established the prescription of the NTS, the government has used the placebo of a voluntary NTS instead of the cure of a mandated scheme.”
A Kent spokesperson said it had received a response from the Home Office to its letter before action threatening a judicial review if the scheme were not made mandatory, adding: “The response is now under consideration and any further action will be announced in due course.” Kent also said it had agreed 400 placements for unaccompanied children arriving in its ports with other authorities but it would be up to the Home Office to arrange these.
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) also expressed disappointment that the Home Office had not made the scheme mandatory, given growing strength of feeling among its members for this to happen.
“However, we are keen for the revised system, based on regional rotas, to work,” said president Charlotte Ramsden. “This will take into consideration the totality of migratory pressures within a local area when deciding the number of UASC that will be transferred.”
‘Several unresolved issues’
“That being said, there remain several unresolved issues that we have been raising with Department for Education and Home Office officials for a number of years,” she said.
“Funding levels remain inadequate, there is still a need for a range of suitable placement options to meet the needs of those who arrive, better availability of specialist mental health support and significantly quicker immigration decisions for young people, particularly those approaching their 18th birthday. We will continue to work with government on these pressing issues.”
The Home Office also announced an extra £20m, backdated to 1 April, to help local authorities support care leavers, while the Department for Education has distributed £6m to 56 English councils that faced the biggest pressures caring for UASC during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Local Government Association (LGA) welcomed the extra money. “This funding will go some way to bridging the gap between government funding and what councils pay to support UASC leaving care,” said Nick Forbes, chair of the LGA’s asylum, migration and refugee task group.
“Councils will continue to face difficulties in finding appropriate homes for these young people, while ongoing challenges around age assessment and asylum claims add uncertainty for both councils and young people.”
In its response, the Refugee Council said it was important that the NTS was kept under review.
“We welcome this government’s changes to the scheme and hope it leads to it being able to work in the way it needs to,” said chief executive Enver Solomon. “New funding is a positive change, as is the introduction of a ‘rota’ format, which we hope will reduce delays and make the transfer of children to local authorities better able to support them, more straightforward.
“However, the government must address the barriers that still exist around children being able to access the specialist services they need to recover and rebuild their lives. It is also important that the new scheme is kept under review to ensure it is having the desired effect and, if necessary, making the system mandatory should not be ruled out in the future.”
Age assessment reforms
The changes come ahead of wider government reforms to the asylum system – much criticised by campaigners – that are designed to reduce the number of asylum seekers by refusing claims from those who have passed through safe countries on their way to the UK. They would also reform the system for carrying out age assessments for unaccompanied claimants – a role carried out by social workers – by enabling the use of currently prohibited “scientific methods”, such as dental x-rays, to help determine age, and allowing immigration official to treat as adults those who appeared to be “significantly over 18”, rather than over 25, as currently.
This was the criterion in place prior to a Court of Appeal ruling in 2019, in the case of BF (Eritrea) v Secretary of Stage for the Home Department. This found that the use of the term “significantly” made the criterion too vague, given the unreliability of judging age by appearance or demeanour and the principle of giving claimants the benefit of the doubt when they say they are a child. On the back of this, the Home Office changed the guidance to over 25, but it appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, which is likely to give judgment shortly.
The new system of age assessment would be overseen by a National Age Assessment Board, which would set out the criteria to be followed, review local authority assessments and carry out age assessments itself when necessary.
Ahead of this, the Home Office has launched a pilot scheme for a team of social workers to help local authorities conduct age assessments, which it said would remain in place until the age assessment board came into force. When asked by Community Care, the department did not know how many social workers would be appointed.