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

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 background—they certainly will have after being planted in a foreign country—there 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 figure.

  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 last—in our opinion is it a better system—are 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 people—they 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 needs.

  Q363  Paul Holmes: Thinking about this issue from the Government's perspective—which I rarely do as an Opposition Member—the 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 criticism.

  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 either.

  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 system—what is known as the National Asylum Support Service—to 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 areas—particularly areas that might not have been used to children from those backgrounds and those countries—putting 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 up.

  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 system—because 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 particular—all asylum seekers are, by definition, in some way vulnerable—have 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.

  Chairman: Briefly.

  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 not happened?

  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 Paul—and 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.[21]

 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, because—this falls slightly outside the remit of this inquiry—17-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 asylum seeker.

  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 across that?

  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

21   See Ev 194-5 Back

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