The government has warned local authorities it will mandate them to take on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children if not enough volunteer to look after them in a new rota scheme.
Following renewed concerns from port authorities about the pressures resulting from the high numbers of children they were caring for, the Home Office announced changes last month to distribute responsibility for them more widely using the rota system. However, it rejected making the existing national transfer system (NTS) mandatory, despite threats of legal action from Kent council – which has already ceased taking in new unaccompanied children – should it not do so.
The rota system involves regional co-ordinators allocating placements to volunteering local authorities depending on how much capacity they have.
But children and families minister Vicky Ford said last week that the government would mandate the scheme if take-up remained too low.
Ford was speaking at the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ annual conference, where she announced a £24m Covid recovery fund that included £50,000 for each region to spend on accommodating unaccompanied children. Last month, the government announced an extra £20m, backdated to April, for authorities to support care leavers who were unaccompanied children.
Threat of mandatory scheme
Ford told directors said there “should not be any financial reasons” why local authorities did not now volunteer.
“Please step forward this summer and let’s try and make it work,” said Ford. “And actually, many, many local authorities have.
“Last year, just over 500 children moved through the national transfer scheme and that was before we put in those extra financial arrangements.
“Please keep going, because otherwise we will have to go to mandation and that can be much more complicated for the local authorities as well.”
Charlotte Ramsden, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said funding allocation had been improved under the revised NTS scheme but said some councils would welcome a mandatory approach.
Kent stopped taking any more unaccompanied children last month due to its services being exhausted, and threatened to sue the Home Office if it did not mandate the NTS.
Ramsden added: “The concern for us really is we know these pressures have been around for a long time and obviously local authorities have been reaching out on a basis of goodwill.
“Kent is completely overwhelmed. It just feels like it’s taken a long time to get to this point really.”
Ford said the £24m fund brought together money previously allocated to its innovation programme – which funded projects testing new ways of working from 2014-20 – partners in practice, its programme for engaging higher-performing councils to help struggling ones, and regional improvement and innovation alliances (RIIAs). The latter are regional groupings of councils that provide mutual support to improve their children’s services.
Under the plan, each RIIA will receive £2-3m until March 2022 to spend on scaling up projects with a track record of success, accelerate the rollout of family hubs to provide early help and tackle issues to do with social work recruitment and retention.
Councils could potentially spend the money on temporary posts for social workers doing specific pieces of work but they would not be able to add to their general social work allocation.
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Ramsden welcomed the funding, saying it would be allocated to regions and then distributed in line with their priorities.
“So what it gives the choice to do is further scale and spread of innovations that everyone thinks will be helpful to the region; further development of better practice, she said.
Regions would need to agree a submission to put to the DfE to trigger the funding, she added.
Money to build children’s homes
Ford also said that the Department for Education was finalising details of a new fund for local authorities to spend on building children’s homes.
“We will finalise the details in the coming weeks but are proposing that local authorities will be able to bid for funding to establish innovative approaches to reduce the number of children needing care over time, address current shortfalls, including in geographic areas with fewer children’s homes, and ensure sufficient provision for children with more complex needs,” she said.
The announcement comes amid ongoing concerns about the sufficiency of children’s home provision, including due to their concentration in certain regions, such as the North West – and levels of profit-making by private providers.
The latter is being examined by competition regulator the Competition and Markets Authority in its study of the children’s social care market, and has been raised as an issue by the government-commissioned children’s social care review.