KCC’s next court date in row over care for asylum-seeking children

KCC County Hall

By Local Democracy Reporter Simon Finlay

The controversial issue of how Kent deals with lone asylum seeking children arriving in small boats is back in the High Court next week.

The hearing on December 15 is the latest stage of Kent County Council’s legal action against the Home Office over the effectiveness of the national transfer scheme (NTS), which distributes unaccompanied youngsters to other local authorities.

The session in London, said KCC, will deal with “orders and outcomes”.

KCC claimed the NTS has not worked properly since its 2016 introduction, putting extra pressure on its ability to care for the minors lawfully.

Such was the demand by unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) arriving in Kent, mainly by cross-Channel small boats, they were housed in hotels.

Earlier this year, Conservative-run KCC sought a judicial review over the effectiveness of the NTS, saying other authorities were not accepting their fair share of UASC.

The High Court judge Mr Justice Chamberlain last week threw out four of five KCC challenges.

But in his judgment he said the Home Secretary was “partly responsible for KCC’s unlawful failure to discharge” its legal obligation to look after all UASC children. The Home Secretary’s use of hotels had become “systemic, routine and unlawful”.

KCC refused to disclose how much tax-payers’ money has been spent fighting the Home Secretary as proceedings “are ongoing and cost recovery still needs to be confirmed”.

KCC’s legal team included two King’s Counsel compared to the Home Office’s one.

But Labour county councillor Barry Lewis said: “It’s like watching a bad marriage between KCC Conservatives and the Tory Government with the tax-payers paying for the argument.

“Why did these two Tory administrations end up in the High Court spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of our money on KCs? Surely, they could have sorted it out amongst themselves.”

The new Home Secretary James Cleverly will have to ensure the NTS works more effectively

Liberal Democrat group leader, Cllr Antony Hook said the judgement was “good news” for Kent but urged caution.

He warned: “What is important is what comes next. Crucially, the judgement does not outline a timescale.

“What the Home Secretary must do now is make sure the NTS works properly and Kent must be ready to go back to court to get further orders.

“The political leadership needs to publicly communicate that anything less than total compliance would be a disgrace.

KCC has spent a lot of money on this action but we don’t know how much. Two King’s Counsel do not come cheap and the proof of the pudding will in how much Kent gets back that will determine if it was worth it.”

In a statement last week, Tory KCC leader Cllr Roger Gough said: “For many years, Kent has been shouldering the responsibility of the nation in the care of UASC and the judge recognised, as we have always said, that this is not a ‘Kent’ problem but a national one, urgently in need of resolution by central government fairly and equitably across the nation.

“Kent’s public services and taxpayers should never be unfairly overburdened simply because of our geography in relation to the shortest crossing route, and following this ruling, this should never happen again.

“This is fundamentally about ensuring that the children in need of our care are at the heart of this.”

Cllr Dr Lauren Sullivan, leader of the opposition and Labour Group at County Hall said it is “another example of how the Conservative government has not got a grip on the small boats crossing crisis”.

She added: “For too many years, this issue has not be listened to or acted on by the Conservative Government, along with Conservative austerity on public services, leading to the Kent children service being overwhelmed and it took a High Court judgement to challenge the unlawful behaviour of the Home Office.”