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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No.95) (HC 670), on 2001-02 Special Grant For Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children

First Standing Committee on
Delegated Legislation

Monday 18 March 2002

[Mr. Peter Pike in the Chair]

Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 95) (HC 670), on 2001-02 Special Grant for Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 95) (HC 670), on 2001-02 Special Grant for Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children.

Local authorities are caring for a significant number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. At the start of this financial year, there were 6,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in England. There are now 6,500. Local authorities in England are currently looking after 58,000 children. Not all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are looked after formally. They may receive less intensive help after the needs assessment that the local authority carries out. The figure of 6,500 may seem small, but some authorities have significant numbers of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in their care.

It falls to local authority social service departments to care for those children as they would care for any child in need. Although the Home Office has taken on the responsibility of providing the funding for local authorities, the Department of Health will continue to have responsibility for policy for asylum-seeking children as for all children who fall within the scope of the Children Act 1989.

We acknowledge that the increasing numbers of asylum-seeking children are putting additional pressure on some local authorities. The aim of the debate is to discuss the funding that we are providing through central government to help local authorities meet the costs that they incurred in the current financial year. There have been special grant arrangements to help local authorities meet the costs of providing support for those children for several years. In recognition of the financial pressures that that has created for local authorities, we are making available £111 million in this financial year to help them meet those costs. That is an increase of 31 per cent. from last year, when we made £85 million available.

We are meeting local authority costs of up to £200 a week for about 80 per cent. of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children of 16 or 17 years of age, and local authority costs of up to £400 a week for those who are under 16. In the financial year of 2000-01, several authorities that are responsible for higher numbers of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children incurred

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costs that were significantly higher than those allowed under the grant. Higher weights were introduced for local authorities with the largest numbers to enable them to meet those costs. Those arrangements will continue this year.

With regard to children aged 16 and 17, we are meeting costs of up to £300 a week for local authorities that on average looked after 100 or more unaccompanied asylum-seeking children each week. The higher rate is up to £575 for those children who are under 16.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I hope that the Minister will be able supply the list of local authorities and each of their categories later, as it might not be appropriate to do so now. Will she explain what any objective observer would think is an unfairness that continues year after year? We always have this debate at about this time of year, the result of which allocates the money within the last few weeks of the financial year for the year that has just gone. The trends are predictable, so why cannot we have the debate for the year ahead, so that local authorities have the money in the kitty? Why must they always be paid in arrears?

Angela Eagle: I asked that question this morning when I was being briefed for the debate. The special grant process has not been as flexible as we would like, and we will make some changes to it in the forthcoming Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill. We will try to improve the situation for next year so that local authorities will know in advance how much money they will receive, rather than having to claim it back in arrears, which is what is happening today. Negotiations with local authority associations have started, and we hope to be able to apply the logic used by the hon. Gentleman to make the grant available much earlier for the next financial year.

The hon. Gentleman has probably removed the need for the end of my speech, but there will be much more certainty about funding in future. If he has more detailed questions about particular local authorities, I will do my best to assist. Clearly, there is pressure on southern and London authorities, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the 31 per cent. increase in the grant, however late it comes in the financial year.

4.35 pm

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Pike.

The official Opposition do not oppose the report. Indeed, it contains much to be welcomed. I am speaking on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell), who is here to support me, when I say that we do not find the provisions controversial. However, the problem of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children is quite often overlooked when the discussion about asylum seekers generally takes place, so today's debate provides a welcome opportunity to draw attention to some of the problems.

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As the Minister said, there are many such children. My last parliamentary question revealed that local authorities were supporting 6,078 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children at the beginning of 2001, and I think that the Minister said that that number had increased to about 6,500. Quite a proportion of those children are very young, by which I mean under 16.

Late last year, I visited the London Asylum Seekers Consortium, which told me about some of the difficulties that it faces in the London boroughs. It was—and still is—supporting 56,000 destitute asylum seekers, of whom 3,250 were unaccompanied young people aged 16 and 17, and 970 were unaccompanied children under 15. That is quite a large number, and the needs of those children are an important aspect of the asylum system. Adequate funding and resources are a much more poignant and significant focus point when one is dealing with youngsters rather than adults.

What does the report tell us? The relevant White Paper confirms that responsibility for the care of these young people is to remain with local authorities, which is welcomed by many organisations. In the past, funding was provided by the Department of Health, but that responsibility has been transferred to the Home Office, which is another welcome development. I await the Minister's response, but it appears that the total funds available are much on the increase, which we applaud.

I am, however, baffled by the fact that the report has been issued so late in the financial year, to which the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) drew attention. We are dealing, I think, with the period from April 2001 to March 2002, but we are there already. Perhaps I can reinforce what the hon. Gentleman said by pointing out that that causes problems with planning for local authorities.

I have one or two questions or concerns for the Minister, and I am happy for her to write to me about those that she cannot answer readily today. May I say in passing, and only slightly tongue-in-cheek, that whoever drafted the report clearly had as his or her paramount objective the need to confuse the reader? The eyes of normal and even intelligent people tend to glaze over when they read formulas such as

G = A x £111 million less R

I am afraid that that is marginally beyond me—and probably others—so I ask the Minister to explain it. No easy answers are likely, so I do not expect many interventions. Will the Minister reiterate the actual position affecting these young people? It would be helpful to hear in simple language the position in the past, what it is now and what it will be in the future for under-16s and over-16s. The same question applies to those who have and have not been provided with accommodation up to the age of 16. How does the presence or absence of accommodation affect grant levels?

Some say that the grant should not distinguish between children under and over the age of 16—a reasonable point. It should fully meet the reasonable costs of supporting these youngsters, so that local

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authorities can plan their provision and no child or young person need be given local authority or other vouchers as their main means of support.

How will the Government validate local authority figures and is the fund available for the grant based on central or local government figures? Local government figures on the number of children in care tend to be higher than central government figures. Is there scope in the procedure for an assessment of each child's physical or mental health and educational needs? In the light of the Victoria Climbie case, is the Minister satisfied that local authority staff with responsibility for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have adequate and sufficient training?

Will children who are part of a family have to remain in accommodation centres? Others as well as myself are concerned that young asylum seekers with families will have to go to such centres. Will the children be educated there and does the Minister accept that they would be better off in mainstream education? I apologise for deviating slightly from the debate, but that question troubles me. Will ways of assessing whether someone is 18 be improved? It has caused problems in the past and improved methods of assessment are necessary. In cases of uncertainty, will the benefit of the doubt be applied?

I move on to a more general point: it applies mainly to London, but highlights children's needs. The Refugee Council estimates that meeting the needs of asylum-seeking and refugee children could amount to an extra £4,000 per pupil per year, yet London faces huge pressure on resources. Will London's schools secure any extra funding?

Finally, I refer to a letter sent to the Home Secretary in January this year by the leader of the Kent county council, Sandy Bruce-Lockhart. The Minister will know that Kent has its own peculiar problems. The letter refers to the ''increasingly difficult'' position in Kent and reminds the Home Secretary that Kent county council has

    ''the highest case load, now in excess of 1,400, of unaccompanied minor asylum seekers of any authority in the United Kingdom.''

The dramatic increase in numbers of these youngsters means that Kent is one of the most experienced counties. However, capacity in the county has a ''finite limit'', so Kent

    ''developed contracts with three commercial providers who are looking after 350 young men all in their 18th year, in various parts of the country.''

That still leaves Kent with more than 1,000 children, including the youngest and most vulnerable. Kent has asked the Government for help and support, and it needs additional capital to rebuild and extend its unaccompanied minor residential reception centre. If the Minister cannot comment on that today, I hope that she will write to me.

The letter continues:

    ''At present other local authorities in England are continuing to place their own looked after children into Kent: the latest figures for November 2001 . . . show 1,700 placements into Kent.''

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Many of the coastal towns and communities have areas of high deprivation and the placements bring their own problems. Recognition from the Minister that Kent has many problems would be an important step forward, and I am sure that she understands that.

We welcome the opportunity to examine the new figures, and we are content with the Government's general approach. One fact that must concern us all is that we are dealing with vulnerable young people—boys under the age of 18 who in many cases have embarked on a horribly perilous journey across various countries to get here. That brings us to the critical point about the trafficking gangs that operate throughout Europe to send youngsters here. The gangs are especially evil because they do that for money and with children, not adults. To put some of the youngsters through the journeys and dangers that they face is truly awful. Will the Minister tell us that as part of their approach to the asylum world, the Government are focusing hard on stamping out the trafficking gangs and doing their best beyond our shores to get rid of them? By doing that, the Government would be acting in the interests of some very young people.

That is all I need to say. I hope that the Minister will deal with some of my queries today and the others perhaps in future. This has been a welcome chance to debate an important issue.

4.47 pm


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