Memorandum submitted by the Refugee Children's Consortium (RCC)
1 The Refugee Children's Consortium asks that the Committee consider the needs of unaccompanied children seeking asylum in their inquiry into looked after children. In particular to examine how unaccompanied children's needs are met by local authorities and the changes proposed by the Home Office consultation paper Planning Outcomes and Support for Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children and subsequent reform document Better Outcomes: the way forward - Improving the care of unaccompanied asylum seeking children.
2 We also urge the Committee to make the following recommendations:
· The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) should have joint responsibility with the Home Office, with the view in future to having full responsibility for unaccompanied children seeking asylum
· A guardian should be appointed for every unaccompanied child in the asylum process
3 The Refugee Children's Consortium (RCC) is a group of NGOs working collaboratively to ensure that the rights and needs of refugee children are promoted, respected and met in accordance with the relevant domestic, regional and international standards.
4 Unaccompanied children seeking asylum who arrive in the UK with no parent or adult carer are currently looked after by local authorities in the same way as other children in care. The Refugee Children's Consortium's memorandum highlights the needs of this group of children within the care system. This briefing sets out three areas of concern:
· How unaccompanied children's needs are met by local authorities and the changes proposed by the Home Office consultation paper Planning Outcomes and Support for Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children and subsequent reform document Better Outcomes: the way forward - Improving the care of unaccompanied asylum seeking children
· That responsibility for children seeking asylum should rest with the Department for Children, Schools and Families and not with the Border and Immigration Agency
· The need for a guardianship scheme for unaccompanied children
5 Unaccompanied children seeking asylum make up a significant minority of the looked after population in England - 2,900 out of the 60,900 total looked after population as at 31 March 2005. Indeed, Home Office statistics estimate that as many as 5,200 unaccompanied children under 18 may have been supported (i.e. looked after, accommodated or provided with leaving care support) by local authorities in 2005.
6 The Refugee Children's Consortium starts from the position that child refugees and children seeking asylum are children first and foremost and must be afforded the same rights and protection as any other child in the UK. We believe that any proposals for this group of children must be judged against international obligations, notably the Convention on the Rights of the Child; and the Government's own standards, priorities and outcomes for all children as set out in the Green Paper, Every Child Matters (Cm. 5860, September 2003): to ensure that all children are supported to be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and enjoy economic well-being. These outcomes should be the aspiration for all children regardless of immigration status.
LOCAL AUTHORITIES' DUTIES TOWARDS UNACCOMPANIED CHILDREN
7 Currently local authorities have responsibility to care for unaccompanied or separated children that arrive in the UK. On 1 March 2007 the Home Office issued a consultation document on Planning Outcomes and Support for Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children. This set out proposals to change the way in which immigration and care arrangements are made for unaccompanied children seeking asylum. The Home Office acknowledged that there are no plans to take this group of children outside the scope of Children Act 1989 duties. We believe this to be the right decision as the Children Act 1989 remains the benchmark legislation to meet the needs of all children.
8 The consultation paper proposed an initial assessment of the child, and transfer to a 'specialist' local authority, which the Government states would ensure: access to additional and enhanced services; consistency in approach across local authorities; and more rational geographical distribution. We believe that this poses a number of tensions with existing essential duties placed on local authorities. These still need to be resolved.
9 In January 2008 the Home Office published Better Outcomes: the way forward - Improving the care of unaccompanied asylum seeking children which sets out how the Government intend to take forward reform of arrangements to deal with unaccompanied children seeking asylum. The Government identify their key reforms as follows:
· Ensuring that the Border and Immigration Agency, in exercising its functions, keeps children safe from harm while they are in the United Kingdom
· Putting in place better procedures for identifying and supporting unaccompanied asylum seeking children who are the victims of trafficking
· Locating unaccompanied children seeking asylum with specialist local authorities to ensure they receive the services they need
· Putting in place better procedures to assess age in order to ensure children and adults are not accommodated together
· Resolving immigration status more quickly and, in turn, enabling care planning to focus on integration or early return to the country of origin
10 The main reform of relevance to this inquiry is the location of unaccompanied children seeking asylum with 'specialist local authorities'. The Border and Immigration Agency (BIA) is currently negotiating with local authorities and the first wave of specialist local authorities are due to begin to operate by Autumn 2008. The BIA will negotiate longer-term grants (three to five years) with specialist authorities but service specification and procurement details have yet to be finalised.
11 The RCC believes that whilst the immigration status of a young person should not be ignored when planning their care, we do not agree that care planning should be dictated by that status. We do not object to a close working relationship between a child's BIA caseowner and their allocated social worker but stress that this relationship must fall within the code of ethics that underpins social work in this country and internationally. It must not compromise the codes of practice that each social worker agrees to adhere to when registering with the General Social Care Council or Scottish Social Services Council. The Refugee Children's Consortium remains concerned that the principles of the Children Act 1989 are adhered to alongside the processing of the unaccompanied child's asylum claim - for example ascertaining the child's wishes and feelings, and placing siblings together so far as is reasonably practicable and consistent with the child's welfare.
12 From April 2008, the BIA will take on responsibility from the DCSF for funding for unaccompanied children seeking asylum who are entitled to leaving care support in England. Different arrangements apply in Wales and Scotland. Details of the new financial arrangements are due to be published later this year. The Government has found evidence that some local authorities are supporting individuals who may be ineligible for support or assistance under leaving care legislation, because of a misunderstanding of how Schedule 3 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 could apply. This Act deals with the withholding and withdrawing of support and assistance under a number of Acts, although it does not prevent the provision of support and assistance to specified groups including children. The Government will issue new guidance later this year.
13 The Refugee Children's Consortium believes that unaccompanied children should not be treated differently than other children in the care system because of their immigration status. The Refugee Children's Consortium would like clear statements from Government that all of the welcome Care Matters agenda, including improved leaving care support, will be provided equally for unaccompanied children.
GOVERNMENT RESPONSIBILITY FOR CHILDREN SEEKING ASYLUM
14 The Refugee Children's Consortium believes that all children should be treated as children first regardless of their immigration status. As such, responsibility for asylum seeking children should rest within the DCSF and not with the Border and Immigration Agency whose primary concern will often be a child's immigration status, over and above their welfare. This would be a step towards implementing the principle of non-discrimination, one of the four leading tenets of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
15 We are concerned about the development of dual systems of care and support - one for citizen children and one for asylum seeking, trafficked and other children subject to immigration controls. An example of this is the new system for unaccompanied children seeking asylum outlined above. It is crucial that the DCSF takes the lead in policy for children seeking asylum. As a first step the Government should establish a joint unit between the DCSF and the Home Office, similar to that which has recently been established between the DCSF and the Ministry of Justice on juvenile justice issues.
16 At a recent evidence session to this Committee, the Secretary of State, the Rt Hon Ed Balls MP stated that he would consider the views of the Committee on whether he should have dual responsibility for this group of children:
Q58 Annette Brooke: May I come in on a related issue? Joint working is a very big issue now. You have identified joint responsibilities, but there are conflicts-this relates back to the convention-such as over the rights of separated asylum-seeking and trafficked children. I assume that your Department has to be fully signed up to safeguarding the welfare of all children in this country. How closely are you working with the immigration authorities, given that they do not have such a commitment? We know that not all children are getting as much protection as they might.
Ed Balls: My colleague the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, Beverley Hughes, has been in close contact with Ministers in the Home Office over that. Obviously, consistent with the Government's wider approach to immigration and asylum, we want to ensure that the education and welfare of children are properly protected. We monitor that and are in discussions with our colleagues about it. However, the overall framework for that policy is a matter for the Home Secretary. We do not have a joint responsibility on immigration and asylum.
Q59 Annette Brooke: You do not have a joint responsibility for every child in this country?
Ed Balls: The areas where we have a dual key policy responsibility are set out clearly in the Machinery of Government document. However, in areas that fall outside those responsibilities, but where the welfare of children is affected, clearly we have an interest and we take an interest. I do not have joint responsibility for immigration policy as it affects the children of asylum seekers.
Q60 Annette Brooke: Do you think that it is something you should be seeking?
Ed Balls: I should be very happy to listen to the views of the Committee on that.
17 We urge the Committee to recommend that the DSCF should have joint responsibility with the Home Office, with the view in future to having full responsibility, for unaccompanied children seeking asylum.
A GUARDIANSHIP SCHEME FOR UNACCOMPANIED CHILDREN
18 The UNCRC General Comment # 6 paragraph 33, UNHCR Handbook for Determining Refugee Status (para 182(2)), and the EU Reception Directive (Article 19) all call for the appointment of a guardian to effectively represent the interests of the child throughout the asylum process and for the duration of the child's minority.
19 The local authority as "corporate parent" is neither legally equipped to exercise parental responsibility nor adequately resourced to fulfil the effective functions of a guardian as set out in the UNCRC guidance. Valuable NGO agencies such as the Refugee Council Children's Panel are no substitute for statutory guardianship. The case is more compelling in light of the Home Office proposals in Planning Outcomes and Support for Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children, such as the interviewing of children as young as 12. Guardianship is especially needed if Specialist Local Authorities are put in place - where the local authority is funded by the Home Office and is required by its relationship with the Home Office to play a much more conflicted role, by fitting the child's needs around those of the Home office timetable, by acting as an immigration officer in respect of reporting conditions by co-locating and aligning social work and immigration functions, and being encouraged to write pathway plans built on a strong assumption that the refused child should be removed from the UK.
20 The RCC urges the Committee to recommend that a guardian is appointed for every unaccompanied child in the asylum process.
 The equivalent strategy documents in Scotland and Northern Ireland are Getting it Right for Every Child and Children and Young People - Our Pledge: A ten year strategy for children and young people in Northern Ireland 2006 - 2016, respectively.
 COUNCIL DIRECTIVE 2003/9/EC laying down minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers