Kent County Council (KCC) Leader Roger Gough and Cabinet Member for Integrated Children’s Services, Sue Chandler, have announced that the authority can no longer accept further unaccompanied asylum seeker children as from Monday (June 14).
The authority says that despite ongoing efforts to work with the Home Office regarding the voluntary National Transfer Scheme (NTS), KCC has again reached an unsafe capacity, just 10 months after having reluctantly taken similar action in August 2020.
The authority has launched legal action against the government with a Letter Before Claim sent to Home Secretary Priti Patel.
KCC says it is clear that the government does not intend to use their existing powers under the 2016 Immigration Act to make the NTS mandatory for local authorities.
KCC now awaits the Home Secretary’s formal reply and says it is hoped she will reconsider mandating the NTS to prevent KCC having to pursue further legal action through the courts.
KCC says the repeated failure of the voluntary NTS to meet the purpose the Home Office created it for in 2016, to keep pace with the rate of arrivals and provide timely transfers, coupled with Kent’s statutory duty to provide care for any unaccompanied child arriving on Kent’s shores has resulted in a significant and disproportionate number of UASC remaining in Kent rather than being dispersed fairly around the country. This has once again brought KCC support services to breaking point.
The government’s recommended maximum number of under 18-year-old UASC that Kent should care for is 231. Since the beginning of the year, Kent has seen the number of under 18-year-old UASC in care rise from 274 to over 400, with numbers continuing to rapidly increase on a daily basis.
This, coupled with the number of UASC care leavers over 18 who remain in care with the council until the age of 25, totalling 1100, means that the County Council no longer has capacity to safely look after new arrivals.
Changes announced by government yesterday include providing local authorities with increased funding to support care leavers and a ‘rota’ scheme to provide regions and local authorities with a clearer indication as to the number of children to expect and when to expect them.
But KCC says it is a disappointment that despite a long-expressed view from KCC and other local authorities that only a mandatory NTS scheme will be fair and equitable, the proposals to be launched in a month’s time will not exercise the existing power of the Home Secretary to mandate transfers under the NTS, and it will continue to be voluntary.
Cllr Gough said: “I am profoundly saddened to be in this unthinkable position once again in such a short period of time. Despite warnings, and continued dialogue with government, Kent’s UASC support resources are again significantly overwhelmed.
“I have accepted the advice from our Director of Children’s Services that reluctantly, from Monday 14 June we will no longer be able meet our statutory duty to safely care for the children we support and can therefore accept no further new UASC arrivals until sufficient transfers have been made outside of Kent bringing our numbers back to safe levels.
“I am deeply disappointed that, after having admitted that the voluntary NTS scheme is not working, government have still not invoked their powers to mandate and the proposed new NTS announced today remains voluntary.
“As we have experienced over the past few years, there is absolutely no evidence that a voluntary National Transfer Scheme has kept pace with the ever-escalating new arrivals on our shores. Having diagnosed the UASC problem in 2016 and established the prescription of the NTS, the government has used the placebo of a voluntary NTS instead of the cure of a mandated scheme.
“Kent residents have been waiting a number of years for a long-term national solution to the ongoing disproportionate strain on local services. While there have been a number of welcome measures from government – to the benefit of the Kent council taxpayer – we have not seen what is most needed: a robust mandatory National Transfer Scheme for ALL local authorities.
“We now await the Home Secretary’s response to our Letter Before Claim. If every other local authority in the UK were to take 2 or 3 under 18-year-old UASC who arrive at Dover into their care, Kent’s numbers would reduce to the council’s safe allocation immediately. This remains, a small problem for the nation to resolve but a huge and unreasonable responsibility for Kent.”
However, a statement signed by all members of Kent’s Labour Party says the young people are being used as part of a ‘political game.’
It says: “The Conservatives have been in control for the past 11 years both at Government and even longer at Kent County Council and here again, these vulnerable children and young people are caught in the middle of a political row between the Government providing enough money to support these young people and Kent County Council that want to pass these young people on across the country.
“We hear a lot at Kent from the Administration and Senior Officers about the need for KCC to support only the vulnerable rather than universal provision. This rhetoric rings hollow when some of the most vulnerable are used in a political game by two Conservative Administrations.
“Kent County Council has a legal duty of care for these children and young people, just as it does for all children and young people that come into the care of Kent County Council. So, this begs the question given that this is the second such failure of this policy following other failures including in SEND, where is the accountability for this failure and who is ultimately accountable?”
The Labour members say they agree that Government needs to find a long-term solution with Kent County Council in relation to those vulnerable children and young people, including fully funding so that other services do not suffer, but add that: “ The approach KCC has taken to challenge the Government in a game of brinkmanship shows a breakdown of communication and a lack of will of both institutions to fulfil the statutory Duty of Care that these young people need.”
Leader of the Labour Group, Dr Lauren Sullivan, added: “Following the SEND Ofsted/CQC failure in 2019 and now this second attempt by the Conservative Administration to avoid legal duties this begs serious questions about what else KCC would be willing not to deliver as a statutory service? Where and who is accountable for this ongoing failure?”