Croydon council has warned it could have to lay off agency social workers, triggering “unsafe” caseload rises, if the government fails to address its intake of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC).
The local authority, which stopped all “non-essential” spending from November 2020 to March 2021 due to financial pressures, said it will have to make £2.357m-worth of cuts to children’s services if central government does not support it further to accommodate UASC.
A report to the London borough’s cabinet meeting on Monday warned that Croydon may follow Kent County Council in refusing to accept new UASC if the government does not intervene.
The document said Croydon council, in which the Home Office Asylum Intake Unit at Lunar House is located, currently cares for 156 UASC, plus 477 older care leavers who had arrived unaccompanied.
This exceeds 0.07% of its child population, the national accepted threshold of care councils are expected to provide, which would be 66 in Croydon’s case.
The cabinet report says the £2.357m savings “could only be achieved by ending agency contracts and not recruiting to vacant posts”. The council currently employs 35.5 full-time equivalent agency social workers in front line services.
It warns that ending these contracts would lead to some remaining social workers’ caseloads almost doubling, particularly those that carry out child and family assessments.
Overall, the report forecast that average caseloads for its children’s social workers will increase from 16.7 to 20.3, exceeding its safe operating target of 17.
Debbie Jones, the council’s interim executive director for children, families and education, warns in the report that terminating the agency contracts would “increase caseloads to a level at which it is not possible to provide safe services to all children in Croydon”.
“Removing agency staff and creating unmanageable caseloads will inevitably result in the accelerated departure of permanent social workers,” she adds.
Refusing to accept UASC an option
Kent County Council stopped accepting UASC in June due to its support resources being “significantly overwhelmed” and will not restart accepting children until “sufficient transfers” of UASC in its care to other local authorities.
Hamida Ali, Croydon council’s leader, warned her local authority could take the same step if the government does not provide more funding.
“We won’t jeopardise our frontline children’s services or our improving financial performance but we need a positive response from ministers now,” she said in a statement.
“Without it we have no choice but to keep all options on the table, including having to confront stopping to support new unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and young people.”
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Call for mandatory transfer scheme
The report to the council’s cabinet meeting says that a lack of available places for UASC in local authorities around the country could lead to the Home Office’s recently relaunched national transfer scheme being bypassed.
It says that the Home Office is commissioning hotels in London to provide quarantine for newly arrived asylum seekers due to its intake centres in Dover and Croydon being overwhelmed.
The report says children have been “dispersed with little or no consultation with receiving councils”, echoing recent complaints by Brighton and Hove council.
It says short age assessments are completed on arrival but warns that “young people challenging their assessment as adults may have to be brought into councils’ care whilst their age disputes are resolved, by-passing the NTS and putting the new rota under immediate pressure”.
The Home Office’s transfer scheme relaunched last month to include a “rota” system whereby regions take turns to accept UASC.
A coordinator in each region then refers the children it has been allocated by the Home Office to any local authorities in the area that have signed up to the scheme and who are under the 0.07% threshold.
London boroughs such as Croydon are currently accepting a higher number of UASC but this is set to reduce after the first three months of the scheme.
Croydon has agreed to join the new national transfer scheme “in principle” but it calls for the programme to be made mandatory and for the government to increase funding to councils accepting UASC.
Kent council previously threatened to sue the Home Office over its refusal to make the transfer scheme mandatory.
The Home Office has not given details of how many councils have voluntarily signed up to the National Transfer Scheme, but it publishes an annual snapshot of the number of UASC being looked after by each authority.
On 31 March 2020, the latest data published by the department, 5,000 UASC were being looked after by English local authorities, with the majority in the care of councils in London and the southeast.
Local authorities in the northeast were looking after the fewest UASC of any region, caring for 50 children, the same amount as the previous two years.
Kent was looking after the most UASC, 426, while a few local authorities were not caring for any.
Additional pressure could be added to the national transfer scheme following the government’s introduction of a resettlement programme for up to 20,000 people fleeing the crisis in Afghanistan over the next five years.