The Home Office has told 29 councils that had asked to be exempt from taking unaccompanied asylum-seeking children into their care that they must do so.
All 206 local authorities with responsibility for children in care in England, Scotland and Wales, plus all five trusts in Northern Ireland, must now take part in the national transfer scheme.
The Home Office announced it would make the NTS – which aims to allocate unaccompanied young people across different councils to relieve pressure on port authorities – mandatory in November.
Following this, 12 councils argued that they already cared for many unaccompanied children, while 17 others also made exemption requests.
The department has now written to those 29 authorities informing them that they must still sign up to the NTS, having already required the other 177, plus the five Northern Irish trusts, to participate.
Councils that already have high numbers of unaccompanied children in their care will only be required to accept more through the NTS when their number of young asylum seekers falls below 0.07% of their total child population.
Home Office minister Kevin Foster said: “I am grateful for the continued support of local authorities who have already stepped up to help more unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.
“Mandating the scheme has already led to additional placements but we know there is more work to be done.”
The department also repeated its explanation from November that mandating the NTS was necessary to stop its controversial use of hotels as “bridging accommodation” for asylum-seeking children.
No indication of mandatory scheme’s success
The Home Office did not say how successful the NTS had been in relocating children from hotels to local authorities’ care since making it mandatory in December.
But the latest data from the department for July to September 2021, before the NTS became mandatory, shows that 47 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were transferred under scheme during that period.
Almost all (45) of the children were transferred from Kent, which was refusing to accept any young asylum seekers into its care from June to September last year after reaching “an unsafe capacity”.
Kent and Croydon, which also threatened to stop accepting asylum-seeking children last year, 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 Yorkshire and the Humber accepted the most unaccompanied children into their care in July to September last year, 11, while nine were transferred to the East of England.
No children were transferred to trusts in Northern Ireland, while one was accepted by a Scottish council (Glasgow) and five by children’s services in Wales.
Scottish Government: ‘needless bureaucracy’
Local authorities have expressed mixed opinions over the NTS since its initial introduction as a voluntary scheme in 2016.
After the government said the scheme would become mandatory, the Welsh and Scottish governments requested an “urgent” meeting with home secretary Priti Patel to discuss concerns over a lack of support for councils that were required to sign up.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said the Home Office had not yet responded to its request for a ministerial meeting and that it still had concerns over its mandatory approach.
“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,” they 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.”
‘Mandating not the whole solution’
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services said it understood that the Home Office was enforcing the NTS on all local authorities to meet an “urgency of need” for children arriving from overseas.
But president Charlotte Ramsden said more infrastructure was needed to fully support young asylum seekers.
“We recognise the current urgency of need over and above what is already being offered and therefore the response from the Home Office which means that all authorities will participate,” she said.
“Mandating participation, however, is not the whole solution to the many pressing and longstanding issues we have been raising with the government for some time.
“These include having the right placements in the right places, the availability of specialist mental health support, historically low funding rates for us to support care leavers and the timeliness of decision making in relation to immigration status.”
A Local Government Association spokesperson, meanwhile, said councils continued to face challenges in finding appropriate homes for asylum-seeking children.
They said “ongoing issues” around central government-led age assessments and delays in decision-making added uncertainty for councils and young people.
“These new arrangements must continue to swiftly take into account existing pressures in local areas, with greater join-up across government to improve engagement with councils on all the programmes that support new arrivals to start new lives in the UK,” they said.