In July this year the Government commissioned a hotel in Hove as an extension of the Kent Intake Centre for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC). They did so with less than 24 hours’ notice to us as a local council and with no consultation. We immediately challenged the Home Office on this, demanding consultation and information about how these young people would be cared for.
The Home Office responded to our concerns with assurances that they were committed to closing the site, and apologising for the way the process was conducted. Yet less than six months later they commissioned a second hotel for UASC in the city, again with no notice or consultation. The apology we received has not carried weight in practice. There are now at least three other hotels operating as extensions of the Kent Intake Centre on the south coast, alongside the intake centre itself.
As a council we’re proud to welcome and offer sanctuary to refugees and children who have arrived in the UK by themselves, from countries where war, persecution and climate change are making their lives unbearable. Yet commissioning hotels to temporarily house these vulnerable children is not how we feel support is best provided.
Hotel placements bypass local councils, letting down vulnerable children through the provision of unsuitable accommodation, and also block local communities and voluntary groups from having an effective response. This causes not only concern about the type of care the Home Office will provide, but also, frustrates the good work councils like ours are doing to ensure adequate support is provided to UASC, in collaboration with local voluntary groups.
The current Government system of sudden, overnight placements does not allow for any potential wider issues around community cohesion, safeguarding and care to be explored.
We urgently need the system to change. Under Government ‘National Transfer Scheme’ rules, when unaccompanied children arrive on our shores, authorities taking over 0.07% of their children-in-care population can ask other authorities to find placements.
Yet the scheme set up to find placements for children is voluntary. This is despite the fact that many local authorities are not meeting the Government’s suggested statistical quota of 0.07% of their child population, and that the majority of the councils needing additional placements are on the south coast, where a large majority of UASC arrive. Brighton & Hove City Council has continued to meet and exceed its quota. Kent CC has also raised similar concerns about the challenges they face.
Instead of addressing this, ministers continue to insist on voluntary arrangements for councils, essentially offering councils the option to decide whether they will support some of the most vulnerable children in need of care.
The Home Office has now temporarily made this rota mandatory from mid-November. Yet loopholes remain. Councils were able to dodge taking part if they responded within two weeks, and the new mandatory element will only cover the placement of around 650 children. After which, the Government’s creaking voluntary National Transfer Scheme is set to return. This brief change to the system does little to guarantee long-term support for vulnerable children, and means councils already taking UASC are still facing future pressures on services.
We firmly believe that hotel provision is unacceptable, and that all councils can play their part in supporting refugee children. We continue to campaign for proper resources; and for a mandatory scheme.
Even still, the answer lies beyond a mandatory scheme. The challenges for councils providing children’s social care – and more broadly, placements – are well documented. Many councils reject calls to take UASC because the financial support needed, against the backdrop of high costs for children’s placements, is already too much for over-stretched budgets to bear. If the Government is to ensure the right level of care is available across the country, they must work faster to address the underlying issues in caring for looked after children, regardless of where they come from, and help advocate for our shared responsibilities to the vulnerable.
Beyond this, they must also face up to the facts. Refugees will continue to arrive in this country – as the impacts of climate change and continued conflict show no signs of abating. If they want to ensure long-term sustainability, the UK Government must also work with other governments to deal with the underlying causes of young refugees arriving on our shores, and put the resources and policy in place to ensure that all children are treated with care, dignity and respect.
Councillor Hannah Clare is children, young people and skills lead at Brighton & Hove City Council