Examination of Witness (Questions 360-377)|
23 JUNE 2008
Q360 Chairman: What he means is:
does it worry you that Denmark has twice the number of children
in care as we have?
Chris Callender: Not if those
children are being looked after and they are leading relatively
happy and productive lifestyles, and not ending up in prison being
banged up for 23½ a day. It would not be a problem if the
cycle of reoffending were broken.
Q361 Chairman: In most societies,
do the life chances of children in care not plummet?
Chris Callender: I do not know.
Is that what happens in Denmark?
Mr Heppell: It happens here, and in Denmark.
Chris Callender: Then there is
something wrong with the care system.
Chairman: Sweden has the same rate as
us, as has Norway. Denmark is interesting. It takes more into
care. It is enthusiastic about that.
Dr Hart: I think there is an issue
about coming into care at the right time. Many of the children
I was working with when I did the project had come in at 11 or
12 and, as Chris said, when you looked back you could see that
the family had not been functioning. If those children had come
into the care system, if they had needed to, at an earlier age
when their needs could be met, there would have been a better
outcome. The other better outcome is not necessarily to bring
more in, but to provide better services for families so that they
can look after their children themselves. I do not think there
is a single track answer to the question. It is about getting
the right children into the system at the right age.
Chris Callender: I get a bit frustrated
with the argument that the care system does not work so we should
not bring kids into care. Is the answer to leave them on the streets?
That cannot be the answer. It is to improve the care system. The
care system does not work because the minimum is done, and the
assessments are not done and the care plans are not done. If that
is not being done, the system is not looking after anyone, and
it is not a care system.
Bob Ashford: Children's services
have a tough call. At a local level, they are criticised if they
take too many young people into care, and they are criticised
if they do not take enough young people into care. The issue should
be assessment. When there is an absolutely sound multi-agency
assessment and young people need services, as far as possible
those local partners should provide those services to those young
people and their families, ideally in a way that prevents them
from coming into care and becoming part of the youth justice system.
The earlier those services can be provided, the better. Again,
to focus on the youth crime action plan, it looks at very early
years prevention services, not just prevention at 15, 16 or 17,
but prevention at birth and beyond, and very much looking at the
end to end youth justice system.
Q362 Paul Holmes: You have already
touched on some aspects of the huge range of problems of unaccompanied
asylum-seeking children. They have probably been smuggled around
the world to a completely alien country; they have probably got
trauma in their backgroundthey certainly will have after
being planted in a foreign countrythere are probably language
difficulties; they may quickly be placed in temporary care that
is cross-cultural and that bears no relationship to what they
know. There are all those issues and uncertainty about what happens
next. Your answer to that, partly, was that the Department for
Children, Schools and Families should have responsibility, because
it would be better than the Border and Immigration Agency. But,
as to the more Rolls-Royce package that the DCSF would provide,
does not that stack up bigger problems when it comes to deporting
children, 94% of whom you said were turned down on the first application.
Care Matters said it was 95%, so you agree roughly on the
Lisa Nandy: There are a couple
of things to say about that. That was a very good question. You
have hit exactly on one of the debates that is going on about
this at the moment. The first thing that I would say is while
these children have an enormous range of problems, they are also
a hugely inspiring bunch of children and young people, when you
actually get to meet them. Many have survived some absolutely
appalling things, and they have a real will to survive, succeed
and contribute to their local colleges, schools and communities.
It is quite inspiring to meet them and see that. Often, what we
are looking at is trying to remove some of the barriers that the
state is placing in their way, particularly through the asylum
system. Part of the reason why we are so keen to see the remit
for this group of children and young people moved to the DCSF
is because we think that it would help to remove many of those
barriers. They would be better supported, and they would also
not be treated as asylum seekers first and children second. The
other thing to say, I think, is that although 94% of children
have been turned down on first application, the figures coming
out of the new asylum process, which was set up the year before
lastin our opinion is it a better systemare showing
that more children are now being accepted as refugees on first
instance. Although there are not robust figures at the moment
to support that, as far as I am aware, the figures that the Home
Office is producing for stakeholders have shown that. That is
backed up by our own experience, so one of the things that we
would say very strongly is that the asylum process is not right
for these children at the moment. It is very difficult for children
to make their case for protection and, in our experience, children
are wrongly being refused asylum when they should not be. That
goes to the absolute heart of the care and support that they are
receiving. Try to imagine a UK child who was alleging abuse, which
is essentially what you get with this group of children and young
peoplethey are alleging that they have been abused in some
way. It would be unthinkable to put them through the sort of adult
adversarial process that we put these children through at the
moment, with very minimal support. If they are lucky, they get
a good social worker who they have met before they go through
the asylum process. If they are not lucky, and often they are
not, they get no one. The sheer bewilderment among these children
about the process that they are going through is incredible to
behold. Finally, there will be a proportion of children who come
to this country who do not have a recognised protection need,
whether that is because they do not have a protection need at
all, or because the international instruments that we have are
incapable of recognising children's protection needs, which is
a huge issue. There will come a point with some of these children
and young people when they will have to face the situation of
returning to their countries of origin. We do not think that that
means that while they are in the UK, they should not receive the
same standards of treatment as any other child or young person.
It does not necessarily mean they will be treated the same; but,
in terms of any child in the care system, they have hopes, they
have aspirations, they want to make friends and they want to do
well at school. This group of children and young people are no
different at all. It just requires somebody to sit down with them
and think about their individual needs in that system. It might
mean, for example, that you talk to children who have been refused
asylum at first instance, and who are going to spend the next
four years in this country before they are removed, about the
sort of skills and education that would be useful to them, given
that they are facing the prospect of returning to that country.
We think it an absolute scandal that they are allowed to sit for
that time with nobody looking at their welfare support or educational
Q363 Paul Holmes: Thinking about
this issue from the Government's perspectivewhich I rarely
do as an Opposition Memberthe better the service you provide
in that four year period before deporting the 18 or 19-year-old,
the harder it will be to deport them at that point. They will
put down roots in the community, make friends and local people
may campaign for them. When I was a head of sixth form, the whole
community got up in arms to defend some Tamil refugee children
and to say that they should be allowed to stay. In the end, they
were. Four years earlier, perhaps they should not have been in
the country. The Government will say that if they do what you
are asking, they would never be able to deport anybody. We would
then become a magnet for the smugglers who, you say, bring a lot
of these children in.
Lisa Nandy: The smugglers argument
is one that we find difficult to counter because there is no evidence
on either side. The Government's view is that if they treat these
children well, they will attract child trafficking to this country.
I am paraphrasing because I am sure that they would not put it
quite like that. We are not aware of any evidence to confirm that.
It is certainly not our experience. Secondly, it is unrealistic
to expect children not to put down roots if they are in this country
for any length of time. Generally, children adapt. We work with
children in families, who are not the subjects of this inquiry,
but they adapt much more quickly than their parents. They learn
English fast and make friends. They are children; they behave
like children and do what children do. There is no evidence to
suggest that treating them properly while they are here and ensuring
that their needs are met would make any difference, except that
it would make a phenomenal difference to their lives. If you provide
these children with better support through the asylum process,
you get better asylum decisions. All the evidence suggests that
when people feel that they have had a fair shake of the dice,
it is easier to engage with them about voluntary return if that
is the outcome of the process.
Chairman: I want to move on. I want quick
questions and please evince short answers, ladies and gentlemen.
You are giving good answers, but sometimes they are a little long.
You are getting near to the ministerial length, but that is no
Q364 Mr Heppell: In some respects,
this question follows on from the last. Are you saying that you
would have different care plans for children who were likely to
be removed than you would for children who thought that they might
win their appeals?
Lisa Nandy: I will try to be brief.
Our view is that a child's care plan should be based on their
circumstances. That is no different for children who are seeking
asylum than for any other child in the care system.
Q365 Annette Brooke: Do you have
any statistics on how many asylum-seeking children go on to university,
compared with the larger cohort of looked-after children?
Lisa Nandy: I do not think so.
I can check among members of the consortium and write to you on
that point, if that would be helpful.
Annette Brooke: I am just picking up
on the aspirational point that you have been making.
Lisa Nandy: My sense is that generally,
a very low proportion of such children go to university. I do
not know whether that is lower than the number of children in
the looked-after system. There are huge issues with funding for
unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who go into higher education.
Q366 Chairman: How many go into criminality
or get into the criminal justice system? You do not know that
Lisa Nandy: No. One of the points
that I would like to make to the Committee is that there is a
dearth of information, not just about this group of children,
but about any asylum-seeking child in the UK. That is one of the
problems that we must grapple with. For example, there are no
statistics on the number of age-disputed children who are detained
in adult immigration detention centres, or on where they are.
When such cases come to light, they are often not recorded. That
is a real issue.
Q367 Annette Brooke: Can you tell
us about how the child is treated when the decision is made that
they will be removed? Do they lose contact with social services
once that decision has been made? Who manages the removal? Who
is in charge once that decision has been made?
Lisa Nandy: This is a critical
issue at the moment because, in the current system, children are
not removed prior to their 18th birthday unless they are being
removed to another European country under what is known as the
Dublin II convention, so if they had claimed asylum in a different
country, they would be removed there to have their asylum claim
heard. At the moment, children are not removed until they reach
18. As the Chair pointed out earlier, children are given discretionary
leave to remain in the UK until their 18th birthday. Often what
happens to children around the time that they turn 18 is that
they lose support. That will often relate to their immigration
status. At that point, they will be functioning as a single adult
who has to think through all those issues for themselves.
Q368 Annette Brooke: That is another
interesting issue. You touched on specialist local authorities
and pointed out that you can see advantages and disadvantages.
Is there anything else you feel that you should flag up? A specialism
is obviously helpful. You pointed out that we could be moving
children and young people from their roots, and perhaps people
from other countries who are already settled here. Are there any
more concerns that you want to flag up?
Lisa Nandy: There are two critical
things. The first relates to the access to services that will
be in place in those areas. We have been urging the Government
to learn lessons from the roll-out of the adult dispersal systemwhat
is known as the National Asylum Support Serviceto make
sure that services such as specialist legal advice, specialist
mental health services and education places are in place in those
areas. The last thing that anybody wants to see is numbers of
children placed in areasparticularly areas that might not
have been used to children from those backgrounds and those countriesputting
any kind of strain on services. That would be bad for the children
involved and for community relations. The second brief point is
that we have been asking the Government for some time to change
the system for conducting age assessments. An ongoing age assessment
working group is looking at how that might happen. We strongly
endorse a report produced by the Immigration Law Practitioners
Association called When is a child not a child? Asylum, age
disputes and the process of age assessment, which sets
out a blueprint for a system of regional age assessment centres
that would be capable of establishing the age of a child or young
person before they went through any kind of system. What we would
hate to see with the specialist local authority system is people
getting that wrong at the beginning. A child may be sent through
the adult dispersal system and may end up in Newcastle, for example.
If it then comes to light that they are a child, a year later,
they may be uprooted and sent to Birmingham, for example. We would
say that would be a disaster for the child and also a waste of
money. Those are the two key things that we would like to flag
Chairman: No carbon-dating system for
human beings, is there?
Q369 Fiona Mactaggart: You referred
to the ILPA report. It and a number of other groups, including
the Joint Committee on Human Rights, have argued for guardianship
for these children. I am very attracted by that for a number of
reasons. First, the children I know who are unaccompanied asylum
seekers who have made it to university have done so only because
people have cheated the systembecause of the generosity
of individual social workers who have found some money, sometimes
from their own back pockets, to deal with fees and things like
that. Inevitably, in the present system, there is real lack of
clarity in the period before a child is 18, if they are initially
given discretionary leave until the age of 18. What do you think
is the best way of protecting children in that period? I am worried
about children who disappear in that period, and I am quite worried
by what you say about not knowing about numbers, in view of the
fact that if some of these children have been trafficked, they
might be very vulnerable if they were to disappear again. I wonder
how we can protect them more effectively.
Lisa Nandy: There are a number
of things that we, the Immigration Law Practitioners Association
and various other members of the consortium have been calling
for. You will see from our evidence that there is an issue relating
to support for those children, which is patchy at the moment.
We think that the system of specialist local authorities will
help that by concentrating skills and expertise. There is another
issue relating to the funding of care placements for children,
because there is a view in government that the needs of children
under 16 are greater than those of children aged between 16 and
18. I do not endorse that view for any child or young person,
and with regard to what Chris was saying about children who become
homeless at 16, it is obvious that that is a problem for many
children. However, this group of children and young people, in
particular, face some of the biggest decisions of their lives
around that period, because their support is changing and decisions
are being made on their asylum claims, so they need more support,
rather than less. We certainly support local authorities that
have been pushing for an adequate funding settlement, particularly
for post-16 support, and also for all those children and young
people. Another key reform would be to make the asylum system
more humane. We endorse the recommendations of the Independent
Asylum Commission, which has been reporting throughout the year
and found that vulnerable groups, in particularall asylum
seekers are, by definition, in some way vulnerablehave
a very hard time standing up to the adversarial nature of that
system and the treatment that they receive from it. I think that
that would make a huge difference. Finally, we have been supporting
calls for guardianship, and one of our members, Save the Children,
has been doing a modelling exercise to look at different models
of how guardianship in the UK might work. I do not think that
the details have been finalised, but Save the Children has been
working with a range of stakeholders, including local authorities,
other charities and the Government, to try to come up with a system
on which we can reach consensus and that could work in the UK.
One of the key gaps that needs to be plugged is the difficulty
that children have when they need to instruct their own solicitors
in that system. It is incredibly difficult for a child to instruct
a solicitor and for the solicitor to be able to take those instructions.
A better asylum process would sort out a lot of those problems.
Q370 Fiona Mactaggart: It seems to
me that the Home Office is now bringing forward, into childhood,
the date when it makes a final decision on someone's asylum claim,
which it used to defer until after the age of 18. I would like
your view on the consequences of that.
Lisa Nandy: We certainly want
to see permanence and the greatest stability for children. There
is an inherent cruelty in the system because children are waiting
for a long time to find out what will happen to them. We think
that, in general, early decisions could be very positive because
they would enable people to plan better. However, one major caveat
relates to how that is handled for individual children. In the
consultation on the proposals for unaccompanied children, we found
that the vast majority of those children, when asked what they
would do if given an early negative decision, gave the answer
of suicide. There is therefore a huge issue about how you handle
very vulnerable children when giving them those decisions at an
early age. The social worker would have to be very heavily involved
in communicating that decision to a child, because it is a huge
thing for children to face.
Q371 Fiona Mactaggart: My other serious
concern relates to child trafficking and the number of children
who disappear in those circumstances. Does anyone anywhere have
any figures about that?
Lisa Nandy: There are estimates.
I am sure that you are aware that ECPAT UK, UNICEF and Save the
Children have produced estimates of the number of children who
go missing, and we can certainly send you all the available estimates
that we have.
Q372 Fiona Mactaggart: All the things
that I have read are just estimates. No one has collected from
local authorities, or anywhere else, the number of named individual
children who have disappeared, and whether they are asylum seekers.
Lisa Nandy: A national register
for unaccompanied children was set up. We hoped that that would
help that situation, particularly where children are moved around
the country, because we hoped to see where the gaps were. Unfortunately,
however, the register is not used to the extent that had been
hoped. The original intention was that local authorities would
put children on the register and then receive funding for them.
The idea was that that would be an incentive.
Q373 Fiona Mactaggart: Why has that
Lisa Nandy: As I understand it,
it has not worked because funding has not been attached to it.
The trouble is that until a critical mass of local authorities
are using it regularly, it is not really worth people's while.
Chairman: A very quick one from David
and Pauland I mean quick.
Q374 Mr Chaytor: Some 65% of child
asylum seekers are 16 or over. Of those under 16, what proportion
are in school, and is there a case for treating those aged 16
and under quite differently from 17-year-olds?
Lisa Nandy: Off the top of my
head, I do not know what proportion is in school, but we could
certainly write to you with the figures.
Generally, children under 16 get into school,
but often they have to wait a considerable time to do it, because
they arrive at some point during the school year and often lack
the necessary support. It is not uncommon for children to ring
up to find a place for themselves, which is very difficult if
you do not know the system or speak English. There are differences
between younger and older children, but I do not think that that
means that 17-year-olds, for example, are any less vulnerable
than 15-year-olds. As in any area of children's policy, it is
not helpful to draw those arbitrary distinctions.
Q375 Paul Holmes: On teaching asylum-seeking
children English, about five years ago, the Committee visited
George Dixon school in Birmingham, which has many asylum-seeking
children. One of the head's big bugbears was that he could not
get funding for crash courses in English and that such pupils
had to attend ordinary classes and pick it up as they went along,
by and large with just an hour or so of special tuition. Do we
have it better five years later?
Lisa Nandy: I think so. We have
certainly seen an improvement in the provision of English as an
additional language in schools. The real issue is around the restrictions
that the Government placed on English for speakers of other languages,
becausethis falls slightly outside the remit of this inquiry17-year-olds
coming to the age of 18 are having problems getting on to courses
because they lack the entitlement. In particular, we have seen
refugee children in families who are entitled to learn English,
but whose parents are not, so they are acting as interpreters
for their parents. That is a real problem.
Q376 Chairman: Just a very quick
one to make sure that you are all paying attention. We have had
a very good session and it was good of you to stay with us. Is
there anything that you want to impart that did not come out earlier
to which we should give a high priority and pay attention? Did
we miss anything in our questions?
Dr Hart: All I would say is the
constant reminder of Every Child Matters, the pressing
need for children's welfare, and not being sidelined by other
factors in their lives, whether they are offending or being an
Chairman: That is a nice general point.
Thank you, Di.
Chris Callender: Child first.
What they do is neither here nor there, in some ways. The child
comes first, and we need to look after them.
Chairman: You were beating Lisa for long
answers at the beginning, and now you have astonished us all.
Bob Ashford: Just to be clear
about the responsibilities of local children's services and to
be sure that there are effective levers to ensure that that happens.
Q377 Annette Brooke: I have a quick
question for Bob about something that my local youth offending
team told me, which we have not touched on today. It said that
it found it harder and harder last year to house young people
as they came out of custody because of the risk assessments that
had to be done, even by some of our specialist local housing associations,
before they could take any young people. It was actually placing
young people in bed and breakfasts because it could not get them
into supported hostel accommodation in Bournemouth. Have you come
Bob Ashford: I have not come across
those specific examples, but it does seem rather peculiar that
following a risk assessment, it is okay to leave a young person
in lodgings, as opposed to putting them in good-quality accommodation.
There is something perverse going on there.23
Annette Brooke: Perhaps I can leave that
with you, because it was a big issue and I have discussed it with
Lord Ramsbotham, who said that that does happen.
Chairman: Thank you very much to all
four of you for your wonderful evidence. We want to remain in
touch with you because we can write a good report only if we listen
to the people who know about this stuff. We do not have a bad
record on writing reasonably good reports, so stay with us to
help make this one a really good report. If, on the way home,
you think of something that you did not tell us, get in touch.
23 See Ev 196
20 See Ev 194-5 Back
See Ev 194-5 Back