Kent ‘extremely close to capacity’ to care for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children

Council says it urgently needs more children to be transferred into care of other authorities and criticises Home Office for failing to use new powers that would 'immediately solve issue'

Young boy looking pensive against backdrop of other young people
Photo: Jafree/Adobe Stock

Kent council is “extremely close” to its capacity to care for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and needs more to be transferred to other authorities “immediately”.

It has also accused the Home Office of failing to use new powers that Kent claimed would “immediately solve” the “unfair and unsustainable” pressures on the authority, resulting from increasing numbers of young people arriving on its coast to claim asylum.

Though there is no specific data on unaccompanied arrivals, the number of people crossing the English Channel on small boats to claim asylum this year up to 21 March 2024 (4,306) was 17% up on the same period in 2023, according to Home Office figures.

As the port of entry, Kent is responsible for accommodating unaccompanied asylum-seeking children under section 20 of the Children Act 1989 in the first instance, pending many being moved to other authorities under the government’s National Transfer Scheme (NTS).

About the National Transfer Scheme (NTS)

Under the NTS, English, Scottish and Welsh councils and Northern Ireland’s health and social care trusts for whom unaccompanied children in care account for at least 0.1% of their child population – including Kent – refer young people to be transferred to an authority with a lower proportion of separated children.

The nine English regions, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland take it turns to be responsible for receiving referrals, on a rota system, with regional leaders allocating each case to an eligible authority within their area. The deadline for transfers between councils are ten days.

Since 2021, participation in the scheme has been mandatory and, according to the Home Office, 7,130 children were transferred under the scheme from July 2021 to December 2023, three times the number of transfers made over the previous such timeframe.

Kent and Home Office found to have acted unlawfully

The High Court ruled last July that Kent had acted unlawfully since 2021 by agreeing with the Home Office to a cap on the number of arrivals it would accommodate (120) above the NTS threshold of 0.1% of the child population, which the Home Office facilitated by placing children in hotels.

The same judgment, delivered by Mr Justice Chamberlain, ruled that the Home Office’s use of hotels as a routine source of accommodation for unaccompanied children was also unlawful.

The judge ordered Kent to take all possible steps to accommodate unaccompanied children arriving in the county by increasing its care capacity.

In a follow-up judgment in November 2023, Mr Justice Chamberlain praised the authority and the Home Office for significantly cutting the numbers in hotels by increasing Kent’s capacity to care for unaccompanied children, backed by £9.75m in short-term government funding.

Council’s care capacity ‘insufficient’ 

However, in a paper published the following month, Kent said its existing capacity was “insufficient to meet the council’s duties to the large numbers of [unaccompanied asylum-seeking] children expected to arrive”, pending their transfer under the NTS.

At the time, it estimated it would need to accommodate an additional 280 to 550 children per month – above the 0.1% population threshold set by the NTS – from July to December this year.

The council said it was in discussions with the Home Office and Department for Education about funding and that the departments had agreed to provide £10.4m, with a further £16.8m agreed in principle, to develop properties for use as accommodation. The council estimated it also needed an additional £50m-£60m in revenue funding from the departments in 2024-25.

Kent has funding in place but voices concerns over transfer scheme

In a statement this week, Kent leader Roger Gough said that the council “now has funding in place that it desperately needed to build increased capacity”.

However, he said that the High Court had recognised that bolstering Kent’s capacity to care for unaccompanied children “could not be the sole answer to resolving the dire situation faced by these vulnerable children”, in a reference to the effectiveness of the NTS.

In his November 2023 judgment, Mr Justice Chamberlain ruled that the home secretary’s decision making in relation to the NTS had been unlawful from December 2021 to July 2023 because she had continued to use hotels instead of acting to tackle delays in authorities receiving children from Kent.

The average time for a child to be transferred from Kent under the NTS was just under 14 working days from November 2021 to September 2023, compared with a Home Office target of 10, though transfer times had improved during 2023.

Judge’s instruction to home secretary over NTS

The judge said that the home secretary needed to formulate a rational plan for the operation of the NTS to permanently eliminate the use of hotels.

There are currently no unaccompanied children in hotels, and the Home Office has sought to incentivise authorities to take children from Kent by offering £6,000 per child to councils that do so within five days of a transfer request.

This was originally due to expire at the end of this month, but the department has now extended the incentive to September 2024.

Kent ‘extremely close to capacity’

But Kent council leader Roger Gough said the NTS was not working to relieve pressures on the authority.

“We are now extremely close to our current capacity for caring for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and urgently need more to be transferred to other UK local authorities immediately.

“For many years, we have asserted the need for an efficient and timely National Transfer Scheme (NTS). It is the only viable solution to the unfair and unsustainable burden on Kent children’s services and residents from increasing arrivals of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children on Kent’s shores.”

Failure to implement Illegal Migration Act measures

Gough also questioned why the Home Office had not implemented sections 16-19 of the Illegal Migration Act 2023, which would permit the home secretary to provide accommodation directly unaccompanied children and to direct councils to take children from such accommodation.

This would get round an issue identified in Mr Justice Chamberlain’s first judgment, that the home secretary has no power to accommodate children and may only do so in an emergency and on a short-term basis. It would also give the home secretary stronger powers to direct a local authority to accept a child than is provided for under the NTS.

Referencing these provisions, Gough said: “The Home Office has a range of new powers available to them to immediately solve this issue but have so far without explanation refused to make use of them.”

In response, a Home Office spokesperson said: “We take the safety and welfare of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children extremely seriously and providing care placements for them is a national issue that requires participation from local authorities across the UK.

“We are continuing to work with local authorities across the UK, including Kent County Council, to support them to fulfil their statutory duties to accommodate unaccompanied children nationwide.”

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