Devolved governments raise funding concerns about UK policy compelling councils to take asylum-seeking children

Scottish government warns that mandating councils across the UK to accept children into their care will ‘create unnecessary bureaucracy’ and lack of funding will ‘cause significant challenges’

Asylum-seeking child
Photo posed by model (Jan H Andersen/Adobe Stock)

The Scottish and Welsh governments are seeking an urgent meeting with the Home Office to raise concerns over its now-mandatory requirement for UK councils to take unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

Since 14 December, the Home Office has compelled all British local authorities to sign up to its previously voluntary national transfer scheme (NTS), which enables councils for whom unaccompanied children make up more than 0.07% of their child population to refer children to other authorities. A month earlier, when announcing the scheme would become mandatory, the government said it would remain so until children arriving in Kent were no longer being placed in hotels because they could not be transferred into council care.

Welsh minister for social justice Jane Hutt and Scottish social justice secretary Shona Robison wrote to home secretary Priti Patel last month expressing concerns over the mandatory scheme, requesting clarity that “adequate funding and flexible arrangements will be put in place”.

The Home Office has not met Scottish and Welsh government representatives since receiving the letter nor sent a response, with a spokesperson saying it it would respond to the devolved governments’ requests “in due course”.

‘Needless bureaucracy’

The Scottish Government, which also wrote to Patel in November outlining its concerns, described the move to mandate the national transfer scheme as “retrograde”.

“Requiring all local authorities to offer accommodation will create needless bureaucracy and do little to support the welfare and wellbeing of these highly vulnerable children,” a Scottish Government spokesperson said.

“A Scottish rota already ensures the most appropriate local authorities offer placements and that Home Office targets are met.

“The Scottish Government also has significant concerns about the financial burden these measures place on local authorities. The lack of any new funding attached to mandating the scheme will cause significant challenges.”

The Welsh Government also expressed concerns about the mandatory regime and the UK government’s wider asylum policy.

“While Welsh local authorities are working to comply with the new duties, there remain unresolved issues about the operation and funding of the national transfer scheme and there continues to be a pressing need for the establishment of safe and legal routes to claim asylum from outside the UK,” a Welsh Government spokesperson said.

Mandating scheme ‘necessary’

In response, a Home Office spokesperson said: “Mandating the national transfer scheme is necessary to ensure unaccompanied asylum-seeking children receive vital support,” the Home Office spokesperson said.

“We are committed to communicating with the devolved administrations regarding the national transfer scheme.”

They added that immigration minister Kevin Foster had met Welsh and Scottish ministers in November, when plans for the mandatory scheme were announced.

It is unclear how many councils in Scotland or Wales were accepting unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) into their care before the Home Office made the scheme mandatory.

But in November, Patel said in the House of Commons that just one local authority in Scotland had signed up to the voluntary NTS.

In her letter to Patel later that month, Robison said Scotland had successfully operated a Scottish rota to distribute children to authorities within the country after being instructed to do so in July.

She said: “19 placements have already been successfully made in addition to the 22 children who arrived under the NTS scheme from January to September. This is in addition to around 200 UASC already cared for by Scottish local authorities.”

Robison said the mandatory scheme would compel its 32 local authorities to take 45 children per cycle, which she argued would be bad for children’s welfare.

The Home Office and Department for Education published an updated protocol when the mandatory NTS came into force on 14 December.

It states that the rota system introduced in July, to increase the number of authorities taking in children, still applies, but on a mandatory basis. Under this, each of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the nine regions are allocated a number of placements to receive during successive “cycles”, which they will take up in turn until all children in the cycle have been placed. Allocations are based on the population of children, looked-after children, unaccompanied children, former unaccompanied care leavers and supported asylum-seeking adults and families in an area. Areas that have already met the 0.07% quota will not receive any unaccompanied children.

In a change from the previous guidance, transfers will need to take place within 10 working days of a transferring council referring a child into the NTS. The protocol says this is to reduce delays, minimising the risk that children become settled in their initial placement and are distressed by any move.

Exempt authorities

The Home Office had allowed local authorities to apply for an exemption from the mandatory scheme, but it refused to say how many were awarded one, only confirming that the “majority of councils” would now have to accept asylum-seeking children.

The protocol said: “Local authorities have received or will receive a direction requiring them to participate in the NTS unless the secretary of state determined that an exemption applied, or until such time as the scheme reverted to a voluntary model.

“The duration of any mandatory period will be dictated by a range of factors including intake levels, ability to place children in local authority care in a timely manner, and the viability of a return to a voluntary NTS that works effectively. We will keep its operation under review.”

Concentration of children at port authorities

The Home Office introduced its NTS in 2016, 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, most asylum-seeking children in England have remained in London and the South East – 52% as of March 2021, a similar proportion to the previous three years.

Kent and Croydon have been the only authorities in England caring for more than 200 asylum-seeking children in each of the last four years. This reflects Kent being a major port of entry and Croydon being where a Home Office asylum intake unit is based.

Councils in London and the South East had long campaigned for a mandatory NTS, with Kent threatening legal action if the Home Office failed to introduce one.

Roger Gough, leader of Kent council said: “It is a little too early to comment on any reduction in the number of unaccompanied asylum seeking children in [Kent’s] care as a result of the mandate of the national transfer scheme on 14 December 2021.

“I am, however, confident that transfers of UASC from [Kent] to other local authorities will increase very soon and begin to reduce the overwhelming pressure on Kent’s children’s services.”

Home Office creates committee on age assessments

The Home Office this week announced it has created an advisory committee to provide advice on ways of assessing the age of unaccompanied asylum seekers.

It has appointed forensic anthropologist Professor Dame Sue Black as the committee’s interim chair. Black is president of the Royal Anthropological Institute and pro-vice chancellor for engagement at Lancaster University. The Home Office said it would make a permanent appointment “in due course”.

The committee will look at a range of ‘scientific’ methods for estimating age, considering their accuracy and reliability, as well as ethical and medical issues. They will report their findings to the department’s chief scientific adviser, who advises ministers on methods for age estimation.

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3 Responses to Devolved governments raise funding concerns about UK policy compelling councils to take asylum-seeking children

  1. Andy January 10, 2022 at 3:17 pm #

    The gist of this article seems to be that most local authorities across the whole of Britain are not particularly enthused about engaging with an equal distribution of support for UASC leaving the majority of such work to authorities in London and the south east of England despite any additional funding which may be available from the Home Office.
    And further reading beyond the introductory sub-text on age assessments above suggests that these assessments might eventually take the more rigorous invasive characteristic of those mandated in several countries in the European Union.
    There is an increasing institutional and legislative momentum in Britain towards a less favourable environment for asylum seekers; for many children’s social workers supporting UASCs along these complex pathways, this is likely to prove to become a more significant ethical and professional challenge.

  2. Alun January 10, 2022 at 10:38 pm #

    Who knew that asylum seeking children were just an “English” responsibility.

  3. Disillusioned January 11, 2022 at 10:24 am #

    Scottish Civic Nationalism and Welsh Municipal Socialism has no place for asylum seeking children now is it?

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