Third Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Tuesday 20 March 2001
[Mr. Frank Cook in the Chair]
Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 77)
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report No. 77 on 2000/2001 Special Grant for Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children (House of Commons Paper No. 315)
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Cook. Once again, we work under your fair but firm guidance.
Currently, there are 6,000 asylum-seeking children and it falls to local authority social services departments to care for them, in the same way as for any other children in need. Although the Home Office has taken the responsibility of providing funding to local authorities, the Department of Health will continue to have the policy responsibility for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, as it does for all looked-after children.
The Committee may be interested to know that local authorities presently look after about 58,000 children. The purpose of today's debate is to discuss the funding provided by the Government£85 millionto help local authorities meet the extra costs incurred in the current financial year. Most of these childrenprobably at least 80 per cent.are 16 or 17 years old. For those young people, we are meeting local authority costs of up to £200 per week; and for authorities that look after an average of 100 or more unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, we are meeting costs of up to £300 per week. For unaccompanied asylum-seeking children under 16, the care options are more costly, so we are meeting claims of up to £400 per week generally or £575 for authorities looking after an average of 100 or more each week.
Special grant arrangements to help with the costs of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have existed for several years. In 1998-99, the basic £200 and £400 per week rates were introduced. They were calculated as the actual costs of caring for unaccompanied children from information provided by local authorities. Although those rates continued to be generally adequate, it became clear last year that for several authorities the greater number of asylum-seeking children in their care was leading to significantly higher costs. For that reason, higher rates were introduced for authorities with the largest numbers.
We calculated the amount of grant required by asking local authorities to make their claims on the basis of the above rates by 23 February 2001. The £85 million is calculated to meet the claims of all local authorities on the basis of either the £200 and £400 or the £300 and £575 rates, as long as the claims were received by 23 February.
Department of Health officials are currently examining the care arrangements for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children to ensure that the arrangements made meet their needs and enable local authorities to deliver their services for children generally. At the same time, my officials are working with the Department of Health and local authority associations towards developing a more effective grant regime for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. I hope that that is helpful and I commend the special grant report to the Committee.
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): I welcome the fact that we are serving under your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Cook. The Opposition support the special grant report, but I have several questions for the Minister about the administration of the grant and of the asylum support system in respect of unaccompanied minors. I hope that she will answer those questions when she responds to the debate, but I will understand if she needs to take further advice and wants to write to me and other members of the Committee.
My first question is simply on the number of people involved. In a written answer on 12 February this year, the Minister said that in the previous year there were 5,190 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the country. It would be helpful for the Government to give us an estimate of the current number. Given that, as the Minister said, local authorities had to submit their initial bids for grants by 23 February, I would expect the Government to have access to that figure, which would enable us to see how it compares with the 5,000-plus figure of March 2000.
I suspect that the answer will be that the number has risen, simply because of the increase in the size of the grant payable under this special grant report as compared with the equivalent piece of secondary legislation of 12 months ago. According to a written answer on 20 November 2000 at column 91W, the special grant 1999-2000, administered by the Department of Health, was set at just over £52 million. We are now discussing a grant of £85 million, which represents a significant increase on the previous year. That suggests either that there are many more unaccompanied minors in respect of whom local authorities are eligible to claim today, as compared with 12 months ago, or that the unit costs of caring for those unaccompanied children have risen substantially during the intervening year. Again, it would be helpful if the Minister would explain that further.
Will the Minister comment on some detailed points relating to the payment of grant? She said that the Government's estimate of £85 million was predicated on the basis of £200, £300 or £400 per child, as set out in the special grant report and their circular to local authorities of 8 February this year. I understand the circular to say that local authorities will be reimbursed with a sum equivalent to the lesser of two possible total claims: either the actual expenditure incurred by a local authority in respect of caring for unaccompanied minors or the total number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children multiplied by the appropriate unit cost£200, £300 or £400set by the Government as relevant to an individual case. My reading of the relevant page of the circular is therefore that it would be possible for a local authority to incur more expenditure on caring for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children than it can claim back from the Government by way of grant.
The circular says quite explicitly that the claim that the Government will meet is for the lesser sum produced by the two methods of calculation. I should like to tease out an answer from the Minister on that. The £85 million may have been deliberately calculated as a generous estimate and local authorities may not risk being out of pocket. If that is the case, I do not see why that wording is necessary and why the Government do not say that they will reimburse local authorities for the actual expenditure that they properly incur.
On the costs of support, may I also ask the Minister about those local authorities that are dealing with a particularly large number of cases and can claim at the higher rate of support? Last year, as I understand it, a dozen local authorities fell into that category. Are we talking about similar numbers now? I should also like to ask a couple of questions about local authority expenditure on unaccompanied minors. The first is the vexed question of how one determines the age of people claiming political asylum in the United Kingdom who present themselves as being under 18.
According to the National Asylum Support Service policy paper on the subject, the Home Office, through NASS, makes a judgment about whether such a person is under 18. Under the Children Act 1989, a local authority must make its own assessment as to whether someone claiming to be a child is eligible for the local authority support to which that Act entitles him. If the NASS judgment differs from the local authority judgment, whose judgment prevails or are protocols working effectively to prevent such stand-offs? What is happening on the ground and do the Government need to consider further how to tackle the theoretical risk of different interested authorities making contradictory assessments?
What happens when someone who has been accepted as an unaccompanied minor and is being looked after by a local authority reaches the age of 18? My understanding of the Government's circular to local authorities is that that depends on when the child concerned made the claim for asylum. If the claim was made at the port after 3 April 2000, or if it was made in-country after the roll-out of the NASS arrangements in the relevant area, when the child reached 18, his case would pass to NASS and it would accept responsibility. If the claim had been made before those dates, at the age of 18 he would either continue to be the responsibility of the local authority or he would be able to claim social security under the old arrangements before the NASS set-up came into existence.
How many people are we talking about? We know that at least 5,000 unaccompanied minors are probably claiming asylum in Britain. Do the Government know whether those people submitted claims before the new arrangements came inand will therefore fall back on local authority social security supportor more recently, so that they will fall to the National Asylum Support Service?
I have spoken to local authority leaders, who have pleaded for the Government to fast-track decisions and appeals in cases involving unaccompanied children. That is clearly in the interest of everyone involved: local authorities, that shoulder a considerable cost; the Government, who reimburse the costs, at least in part, to local authorities; and, not least, asylum claimants. Decisions should be taken as early as possible, so that young men or women can be provided with appropriate care, begin integrating into British life if they are genuine refugees, or have arrangements made for reuniting them with their family overseas if they are not. Hon. Members would not want to see such cases dragged out for months or years, so I hope that arrangements can be made to fast-track them.
Local authorities made a final point to me about their continuing duty under the Children Act 1989 to provide for a child leaving care after the age of 18. When an asylum seeker who is a minor reaches the age of 18, the local authority retains obligations under the 1989 Act, for example to provide for that young man or woman to have post-statutory education beyond the age of 18higher, further or sixth form education. The leader of Kent county council mentioned that to me earlier this morning. Have the Government considered that? If the obligation exists, local authorities will not be eligible for reimbursement through the special grant, because, by definition, the obligation will be in respect of someone over the age of 18. If what I have been told is correct, there will be a hidden cost to local authorities that will stretch on after the children reach 18. Under certain circumstances at least, they must treat a former asylum seeker who reaches 18 as if he or she were any other child in local authority care, for whom there are continuing obligations.
I hope that the Minister will reply in detail to those points but, as I said, the Opposition will support the grant.