Looked-after Children - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Questions 343-359)


23 JUNE 2008

  Q343 Chairman: I hope that the Committee and our witnesses will allow me to do this. Can you hold there for a moment? Di, will you go and sit next door to where you are now? Could you just move along, and may I ask Lisa Nandy to come and join us in the middle? Lisa, have you ever given evidence to the Select Committee?

  Lisa Nandy: Yes.

  Q344  Chairman: I thought that the answer was going to be no. It is a bit intimidating when you are on your own, and members of our team may want to ask some cross-cutting questions. Most of the questions in this session will be for you, but the others can come in, if that is all right with you all. We can now get started. Lisa, we have your CV. You know that this is a double-bolted session, and we now want to look at the particular situation of unaccompanied immigrant children. How much of a problem is that?

  Lisa Nandy: I suppose that it depends on what you mean by "problem".

  Chairman: A challenge.

  Lisa Nandy: That is part of the problem. This group of children are often seen as a problem that needs to be tackled and solved. The Committee will be aware that over the last few years a number of charities, including the 30 that I represent here today on behalf of the Refugee Children's Consortium, have become increasingly concerned about the direction of travel of law and policy relating to those children. We have seen some huge improvements in the way in which children are treated in terms of law and policy. Having listened to the three witnesses who have just given evidence, we would certainly support what they said about the improvements that the Care Matters agenda will herald for looked-after children. What we have seen in relation to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children is, by and large, that law and policy have gone in a different direction for them, and that their asylum-seeking status has become the overriding element that determines the way in which they are treated and supported all the way through their time in the UK. It is a time of huge change for this group of children and young people, and a time of huge change in the Government's agenda for both the asylum process and the care system. We are pleased that the Committee has taken a particular interest in this at this time because some huge changes are afoot, and the real fear is that if we do not get it right—at the moment our view is generally that this is not going in the right direction—we will have to live with the consequences for quite a long time.

  Chairman: Thank you.

  Q345  Mr Chaytor: Lisa, it says here that there were 3,300 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children as of 31 March 2007. Where did they come from and how did they get here?

  Lisa Nandy: They come from all over the world. There are a number of different countries that they come from. Generally, those countries will follow conflict situations, so top countries at present might be Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan. We also work with a number of children who come from Eritrea and Ethiopia. A number of children also come from countries like China and Vietnam. I know that some of the Committee have been involved in work on child trafficking. There a number of children who are seeking asylum who have been trafficked into the country for the purposes of exploitation. That is not to say that that is the same for all of them, but it is sometimes also the case. The route that they generally follow is that they are brought here by people smugglers: somebody has paid money for them to be taken to a country. Often they do not know which country. They might come in on planes and be abandoned at the airport; they might come in on lorries and end up being thrown out of the back of a lorry somewhere along the side of a motorway. Often those children do not actually know which country they are in when they arrive and they are left and they first come to the attention of either an immigration officer or a police officer.

  Q346  Mr Chaytor: Are you saying that the majority of them consciously leave their own country with the intention of finishing up in the UK or somewhere in western Europe, or are the majority being trafficked or smuggled?

  Lisa Nandy: Not necessarily. The point about trafficking is that we do not know how many children it involves. Certainly, our impression is that the vast majority of children in the asylum system are not children who have been brought here for the purposes of exploitation; they are children who are seeking a place of safety, although often those children do not necessarily know much about the circumstances behind their claim. We work, for example, with former child soldiers whose family connections have helped to smuggle them out of different countries. One of the things to say about this group of children is that they are different from many children in the care system and certainly the group of children that has been talked about today. They do not come from those backgrounds or from broken homes; they often come from fairly wealthy, what we would think of as generally middle class, backgrounds in their countries of origin. They have been caught up in political situations, often because of their parents' involvement. One of the real difficulties for this group of children in the care system is that the system is not really constructed for children like that. The main barriers to their achievement are very different factors—things like past trauma and particularly the impact that the immigration and asylum system in this country has on them as they are growing up.

  Q347  Mr Chaytor: Taking your point about the need for children's services to get more involved or to take a lead in terms of the processing of these children, what is your real criticism of how the Border and Immigration Agency deals with them? What are the real problems, by which I mean immigration issues rather than children's services issues?

  Lisa Nandy: The main problem is that the UK Border Agency and children's services departments and the Department for Children, Schools and Families come up at this from completely different perspectives. Whereas the DCSF and children's services departments have a remit to look after the welfare and the best interests of children and that is clear from the targets that particularly the DCSF has set for itself, the UK Border Agency is a shadow agency of Government that is primarily responsible for border control, security, fighting terrorism and international crime, and it gets involved in all those issues. It has a completely different set of skills and experience and a completely different ethos. Leaving these children as the only group, as far as we know, that is entirely outside of the DCSF's remit means that their needs cannot be met because they are not within a Department that is able to do that for them. A practical example of how that impacts on children as they are going through the care system is that last year in the UK Borders Act 2007 the Government brought in a provision that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children would be asked to report to immigration officers on a regular basis for the duration of their time in the UK. That was the stated aim of the Minister in bringing in that provision, section 16. That has an enormous impact on a child, all the way through their lifetime in this country, particularly as they are growing up. They feel different from friends. Many of them are absolutely terrified, having to go often quite long distances to report. The experience of children aged 17 who currently have to report is that it often happens during school hours, so they have to come out of college to do it. That is a clear example of a provision that is not necessary, where immigration control has taken precedence over children's welfare.

  Q348  Chairman: If a significant proportion of the children are here through smuggling or trafficking, it must be an immigration issue, must it not? It must be an issue linked to crime also. How can it be taken away completely from the UK Border Agency?

  Lisa Nandy: First, it is really important not to confuse the trafficking and the asylum issues. Some of these children will have been trafficked into the country for the purposes of exploitation, and may or may not still be in that situation. Other children will have come here seeking a place of safety—in our experience that is the vast majority. In either case, we believe that children's welfare has to take precedence over immigration control. What we have at present is the exact converse of that situation—immigration control takes precedence over children's welfare. We are not seeking to take away the responsibility for immigration from the UK Border Agency—that is what they do and they are the people skilled at it. That responsibility should remain with them. We are saying that the Department with responsibility for children's welfare should be the Department for Children, Schools and Families, because they are the Department able to do it. At present, as you will know from our evidence, that arrangement is not in place. That is a real problem for this group of children.

  Q349  Chairman: What do Di, Chris and Bob think of that argument?

  Bob Ashford: I have to be quite frank. It is difficult for them, but it is not my area of expertise—I may have a view, but it would be a personal view and perhaps I should not put it forward.

  Q350  Chairman: A personal view is all right. Should this very significant group of children be part of the Children, Schools and Families remit or not?

  Bob Ashford: Children, Schools and Families must have some remit for this particular group of young people. That should be the obvious starting point.

  Dr Hart: For me, thinking about Every Child Matters, we cannot say that every child matters except for certain sub-groups. My personal opinion would be that the welfare considerations need to be foremost, which does not mean to say that other factors are not important as well.

  Chairman: Chris is bursting to tell me what he thinks.

  Chris Callender: This takes me back to last week, when I was sitting by my telephone. A social worker from a young offenders institution rang me about a young Vietnamese boy, who had been arrested, prosecuted and convicted for production of cannabis. The story goes that he was locked into a house where some, presumably, adults with other intentions had been growing cannabis. He was found in this house, arrested, charged, sentenced and was doing very well in custody. He could hardly speak a word of English. Any time they wanted to communicate with him, it had to be through an interpreter. He had just been served deportation papers. The caseworker at the young offenders institution had no idea of what to do with this matter. Actually, if you dig deeper, the Crown Prosecution Service guidance would have said that they should not have prosecuted—again, we have questions about this access to justice. Was he properly legally represented when he was prosecuted in this country and then placed in custody? At great public expense, it perhaps ought to be added—a comment made earlier by the Committee. There are huge concerns about the delivery of this. I do not think that the UK Border Agency is best placed to be making sure that the welfare of these children is properly looked after.

  Q351  Mr Heppell: Reading through some of the evidence, I was very surprised to find that you are talking about almost 5% of the children in care. That really surprises. I did not think that it would be anywhere near that amount. The other thing is that, in practice, what does the Border and Immigration Agency do? When you read this stuff that they said in the Better Outcomes paper, they talk about putting children in their care with a specialist local authority. Are you saying that they do not do that? That seems a logical link to me. You have these children and you put them with someone who knows how to deal with them. I cannot see how transferring the lead responsibility to the Department for Children, Schools and Families would make a difference.

  Lisa Nandy: One of the proposals in Planning Better Outcomes, which is the document about the care of asylum-seeking children in the system and which is separate from Care Matters in many respects, is to create specialist local authorities. That system is not currently in operation. Our view is that that is generally a positive move forward, because there are a number of problems with how unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are treated. One particular problem is that they become the responsibility of the local authority that they present in, which leads to a high concentration of young people in some local authorities, particularly in port areas for example. It also leads to another problem which is that you get perhaps just one or two unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in an area, who tell us that they feel isolated, experience racism, have problems integrating with their peers and do not receive the specialist services that they need. So, we think that that system is a good idea. The danger, and there is a danger, is that other local authorities will lose those skills and services. You may have seen from our evidence—I am not sure whether we put this in our evidence to this Committee—that around 85% of children who claim asylum do so after arriving in the UK. They do not claim asylum at port of entry. Often that is because, for example, they have been brought into the country by an adult who has accepted responsibility to care for them and then that placement has broken down. Sometimes that placement has broken down because the adult cannot care for them, or does not want to any more, and sometimes because the child is in an exploitative situation. Sometimes the child will claim asylum after that, because they have a genuine protection need that was not met in the private fostering situation. There is a problem with thinking that the system of specialist local authorities will solve everything, because it will mean that children who have been in an area for some time and may be in school or college and may have formed links and networks, or be undergoing specialist mental health treatment, for example for past trauma, will have to move if everything is concentrated in these specialist local authorities. It could also potentially mean that local authorities do not realise when children in private fostering situations in their area are being exploited, because of that loss of skills. So, there are still a huge number of things to work out regarding specialist local authorities, but in general we think that they are a good idea. We do not think that they are incompatible with the idea of the Department for Children, Schools and Families taking the lead for this group of children, because if it does not, you have the Home Office negotiating a package of care for children with children's services departments, with no involvement at all from the Department for Children, Schools and Families. We think that that is a problem.

  Q352  Mr Chaytor: Is there anything in Care Matters that you think will improve the situation?

  Lisa Nandy: Yes, quite a few things. In theory, Care Matters should benefit this group of young people as it does any other child in care, but there are a few problems with that. For starters, one of the problems is the way in which the system has been set up. The UK Border Agency is not included in some of the measures to safeguard children. An example is that it is not included in the section 11 Children Act duty to have regard to children's safety and welfare when carrying out its duties. We hope that that situation will be rectified by this House in the Children and Young Persons Bill. At present, clause 7 of that Bill makes the immigration service subject to that duty. For example, in Care Matters there are a number of reforms regarding safeguarding children, including some of the duties on the local safeguarding children board. The immigration service is under no obligation to take part in local safeguarding children boards and that is a problem for us. There are things in Care Matters that should be of benefit to these children, but because of the way in which the system is structured at present they tend to miss out. The other critical bit of the jigsaw is that the document Planning Better Outcomes and Support for Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children—the blueprint, if you like, for the care of that group of children—is sometimes at odds with the proposals in Care Matters. To give two examples, the Government are proposing that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the care system should come out of their foster care placements at 16. There is a deep-rooted suspicion among several of my colleagues in the voluntary sector that that is so that, at 18-years-old, if their asylum claim has failed, it will be much easier to remove them from the UK. The second example involves post-18 support. At the moment, there is a lottery of support for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children whose asylum claims have been turned down. To be realistic, most children's claims are turned down. Only 6% of children are granted asylum on first application. At the moment, there is a lottery about what sort of care they get, and some end up destitute. The Government propose—

  Q353  Chairman: But a very high percentage get leave to remain, do they not?

  Lisa Nandy: The system as it works at present is that children are generally granted leave until 18, but at that point, most have to apply for an extension of that leave, and there are no figures on how many of those are refused.

  Q354  Chairman: There are no figures?

  Lisa Nandy: No.

  Q355  Mr Chaytor: But in terms of the section 11 duty, is that not the other way of looking at it? Rather than making a wholesale transfer of primary responsibility from the UK Border Agency to the local authority, is it not better to beef up the UK Border Agency's responsibilities?

  Lisa Nandy: What we would like to see is a two-pronged approach. Responsibility for the welfare of those children rests with the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which has the expertise and the remit. Obviously, that relies on close working with the UK Border Agency. In fact, it would be interesting to hear from colleagues within the youth justice field whether that has made a difference in terms of the joint remit that exists now for children in the youth justice system. The other thing that we would like to see—in order to counter the increasing number of powers given to the immigration service by law and policy, and particularly to their private contractors, because private contractors are increasingly used, who come into regular contact with those children—is a counterbalancing trend in law and policy that says that those children's rights and welfare will be protected. Section 11 of the Children Act 2004 is exactly the sort of thing that we think can do that, because it means that when the immigration officer goes to pick up a child at a port of entry, they must have the child in mind when they carry out their duties. That is certainly something that the Immigration Minister has said he would like to see, to promote culture change through the agency.

  Q356  Chairman: Lisa, you have thrown the gauntlet down on that particular question. Does anybody want to come back on it?

  Dr Hart: I think that it has made a difference having the joint youth justice unit, partly just because of the message that it gives out about the concern of children's social care and welfare services. I also think that it has done something in terms of culture change. I know that the youth offending teams and the Youth Justice Board are concerned with welfare, but it is not their primary purpose, and I think that the fact that DCSF has now been given a firm remit to concern itself with the welfare of young offenders is having a knock-on effect at local authority level.

  Bob Ashford: It has made a huge difference.

  Q357  Chairman: Has it?

  Bob Ashford: Yes. As I said earlier, I think that the Machinery of Government changes have been positive. Giving DCSF joint responsibility not just for the Youth Justice Board but for youth justice has made a difference. As I always say, with responsibility comes responsibility. The joint youth justice unit is a vehicle by which officials work more closely together on shared agendas. We can—and we are starting to—pull together some very good joint work between the Ministry of Justice and DCSF. We must not forget, as well, that once we have a joint unit there, we also have, as I have heard you do, very strong links with the Home Office as well.

  Chris Callender: Again, I think that it is moving in the right direction, but it needs to be more firmly focused. Also, I think that it is still not tried and tested. I would like to see some stronger results and stronger lines coming out, particularly on the sort of resettlement issues that I deal with regularly.

  Q358  Chairman: Does it strike any chord with you? I heard you give your evidence originally when we did prison education. The more you learn about prisons, the more you hear everyone say that when people leave prison they want the full package. If they go into homelessness, do not have a job or skills, or no one has addressed their addiction, they will be back pretty soon. When you were talking, I had the feeling that it would be much cheaper—Sharon mentioned the cost of all this—to give that full package to young people in the care system who go into the criminal justice system. Do you feel that it is a waste of resources not to give that full page of support?

  Chris Callender: Absolutely. I think we must turn the clock back slightly, and this is where I come back to my files. When I get social services files and youth offending team files, I draw chronologies. I go back to the date of birth and work forward, and then see all the signals coming through. I see referrals to social services at the age of two because a mother was dragging her child down the street by the hair, and at the age of four Dad was banging the child's head against the wall, and at the age of five there was screaming and shouting. Then social workers knock on the door and ask the mother how things are going, and when she replies "Fine," they say goodbye. Those signals hark back to the Victoria Climbié inquiry and so on. I see that in the files that I read daily. If we spent money earlier, we would not spend so much money later. I drew attention to the SP inquiry. SP is now in a high-security hospital, which is costing up to £400,000 a year. That was unnecessary and did not need to happen. It is a full package, but it could be introduced earlier, and the longer it is left the more entrenched the difficulties and disadvantages and the harder it is to make a change.

  Chairman: You had better not answer that, Di, because they will lynch me. Paul, we have come to the next section.

  Q359  Paul Holmes: I cannot resist. We have just spent two days in Copenhagen looking at how it deals with this, and its answer to the problem that you highlight is to take many more children into care a lot earlier than we do. Is that the answer?

  Chris Callender: Yes, as long as you are not casting me as some sort of imprisoner of children by different means.

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