Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 77) on 2000/2001 Special Grant for Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children

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Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): Annex B sets out clearly that the Children Act 1989 responsibilities apply to local authorities, but paragraph 3 says:

    ``The grant does not include payments in respect of persons who have no legal right to remain in the country, after their claim for asylum has been finally determined or abandoned.''

During proceedings on the Immigration and Asylum Bill, Committee members from all parties believed that the Children Act 1989 should be universal and that children in Britain, irrespective of how they arrive here, should be covered by it without exemptions.

What happens when an individual—a 15, 16 or 17-year-old—has been through the process, received their final determination and had his or her claim for asylum rejected? Under the terms of the report, the local authority would receive no reimbursement. Will the Minister flesh out what would happen in those circumstances, especially when there is no removal? The failure to remove an individual once his claim has been determined may be for no malicious reason but simply because the immigration service does not have the capacity to do so. It is a recurrent problem that it cannot always effect immediate removal; there may be a host of reasons—medical reasons, for example—why the individual cannot be removed immediately. I am keen to know what happens when the individual is supported by the local authority, which is, properly, expending money under the Children Act 1989. Do the Children Act responsibilities end when the final determination is received or do they continue? If so, and the local authority still has to provide support, will it do so without reimbursement or do the Government expect it to cease providing support when the determination has been made but the individual has not been removed from the country? He may not have been removed for the perfectly legitimate reason that it is taking time to effect his removal; there may be no perception that the individual is doing anything wrong.

10.51 am

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cook. I apologise to you, to the Minister and to the Committee for being slightly late; my journey from Bermondsey took twice as long as usual this morning. It is the second consecutive week in which the Committee Chairman, when in London, is a constituent of mine; I am destined to be under the eye of those who live round the corner.

My question to the Minister follows logically from that asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan). If someone's determination has been made and he or she ceases to be within the compass of the provision, will he automatically be referred to the social services department and will the continuing rate under the Children Act 1989 apply? Young asylum seekers make their applications and are paid under the provision; their case may then be determined against them, but there is a continuing need to ensure that they do not starve. As there is no automatic transfer, there may be hiccups and gaps.

I shall not repeat the questions asked by the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), although I look forward to the answers to them. It would be helpful if the Minister would paint the picture of the numbers trend in this country and, if possible, in comparable countries. Figures show that we are about number 10 in the league table of asylum seekers in the European Union; it would be interesting to know where we are in the league table of asylum seekers under the age of 18. During the passage of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, my hon. Friend the Member for Hallam quoted the figures for those applying at the port of entry. There were 580 applicants in 1995, 650 in 1996, and 750 in 1997. I have not seen the figures for port-of-entry asylum applicants under 18 since the, but it would be useful to know the current trend.

It is tragic that there are so many young asylum seekers. Let us step away from the technicalities of local government grants; we are really talking about a considerable number of young people travelling on their own around the world. That is a cause for concern felt by every member of the Committee.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury raised the lesser of the two sums question. Every local council's great complaint against asylum and immigration funding is that the cost is not matched by Government funding. That causes anxiety as it allows people to say that those who have just arrived in the country have, by definition, not yet settled here and should not be the responsibility of, for example, Haringey, Southwark, Aylesbury Vale or Sheffield until they have. Under the present system, it appears that a bid lower than the given figure is fine, but that otherwise the matter is dealt with on the capped figure basis. The figure for this year is £85 million; how often has the capped figure been exceeded in recent years?

In a recent debate in this Room about the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, I asked the Minister's colleague, the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) whether the amount recommended by that authority was capped. He replied that an estimate is made, but the amount is not capped. Is the £85 million a cap or can the amount be increased if demand increases? It seems unfair that the amounts given to local authorities should be reduced simply because of the demands made on the budget. That is an important issue.

Will the Minister provide the two sets of figures that we need to see the picture clearly? The first, for which the hon. Member for Aylesbury asked, are the figures that show which local authorities have more than 100 children in this category and, therefore, fall within the special rate provisions. I should be grateful if she would set out the figures by local authority and by category of local authority, so that we know to which councils she is referring. Secondly, will she set out exactly how many children are in each authority, by local authority and by category of local authority? The categories listed in the measure are county councils, district councils and London boroughs. It would be helpful to know the number of young asylum seekers, how many are in each local authority area, and how many are in each category of local authority.

Is it still the view of local authorities that they should be reimbursed for the total amount for which they ask? That has always been an issue for my local authority, Southwark, which has a large number of asylum seekers and would be grateful to receive the money that it expends. Other local authorities take the same position, but the Government do not. I understand that the Local Government Association wants full funding, but the Government have said that they will fix a limit. Local government is hardly awash with money from Government to meet the statutory obligations. It would be better if the Government were to accept the formula calculated by the local authorities and provide the amount of money that they say they need.

Will the Minister tell us who calculated that 16 or 17-year-olds need only £200 a week—or £300, if they are in an authority with many asylum seekers—but children under 16 need £400, and how that calculation was made? Logically, the only difference is that the under-16s need full-time education. Is the difference of £200 a week entirely attributable to the cost of education? If not, to what is it attributable?

Where are the young people held? I was not on the Committee that considered the Immigration and Asylum Bill, but the Minister might remember that my hon. Friend the Member for Hallam was the spokesman for my party on that Committee. One of the major issues was about where people would be held; it is still an issue. At that time, ministerial answers indicated that, on arrival, young people were often held in either detention centres or prison. Ministers at the time accepted that that was the case. A 14-year-old woman was held in Pentonville, and there are other examples. Are any of the people about whom we are talking held in custody, either in detention centres or in prison, after they make their port or in-country asylum application? If so, is that cost borne by the local authority or the Government?

Do we still exercise our reserve on article 22 of the convention on the rights of the child? I have always found it surprising that the UK Government would not sign up to that. I might be out of date and do not wish to criticise if we have withdrawn our reservation, but if we have not, I urge the Minister to think about how we appear in the eyes of the world if we are seen to be withholding approval from a relevant article of the convention, which is there to guarantee the best treatment of children. I would be grateful for an indication of the Government's current policy.

10.59 am

Mrs. Roche: I shall deal with as many of the points that have been raised as I can. I thank the hon. Member for Aylesbury for his support for the special grant report. He asked about the numbers involved—there are more than 6,000. He also raised the issue of the difference between the grant last year and this year. That difference has arisen partly because we have been engaged in discussion with local authorities, listening to what they have to say and taking that into account, and partly because we are dealing with an increased number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) asked about unit cost as opposed to total amounts. Authorities must have such a figure, in the same way as the unit costs under the interim arrangements, which were until recently paid by a special grant report. I can tell the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey that there is no potential shortfall in his borough. There can be a tremendous variation in the amounts paid by local authorities. The average weekly costs reported were £514 for under-16s and £240 for 16 and 17-year-olds. Hon. Members will therefore appreciate that the figure that the Government have arrived at for local authorities is on the generous side.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury asked about the number of local authorities that have been helped by the special arrangements for large numbers of asylum seekers: the figure is 16 this year and was 12 last year. The hon. Gentleman also raised the point about age determination. That is a big issue and I would not want to underestimate its importance—particularly because if we get it wrong there may be child care implications. The Home Office and local authorities take that very seriously, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we work closely with local authorities on that. There is not usually any conflict because we would go along with a local authority's determination of whether someone is a minor. As the hon. Gentleman will accept, it is not an exact science; there is sometimes a variation of around five years. It is a difficulty for not only the United Kingdom but other countries.

I completely understand the hon. Gentleman's point about fast-track applications, which was also touched on by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. It is important that all asylum claims are determined as swiftly as possible and we try to achieve that; it is even more important for the very vulnerable group that we are discussing. The hon. Gentleman's understanding of the arrangements after 18 is correct. On the issue of leaving care, the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 applies to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who have been formally looked after under the Children Act 1989 in the same way as other children who need to be looked after by the state. Funding for the new implementation takes account of the numbers who are looked after at present.

The Act also places authorities under an obligation to provide for children. As the hon. Gentleman will know, that Act applies only to children whose 16th birthday is on or after 1 October 2001. Therefore it will not apply to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children until 1 October 2003. The National Asylum Support Service will take those continuing obligations into account when considering where accommodation may be provided.

I know of the interest that the hon. Member for Hallam takes in these matters from looking back at reports of Standing Committee and other proceedings. He mentioned the question of children who have been given a negative decision after going through the procedure. If they are children, they would still be covered by the Children Act. In some cases, it might be impossible to reunite them with families or friends in their country of origin. In those circumstances, they might be given exceptional leave to remain. Certainly children are not removed, even if they have had a negative decision, unless we are absolutely certain that there are proper and adequate arrangements for their reception.

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