April 22 2024
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Kent council threatens Priti Patel with legal action over unaccompanied child migrants

Kent council threatens Priti Patel with legal action over unaccompanied child migrants

Pic: Andy Aitchison

Kent County Council has begun legal proceedings against the Home Office in the face of what it calls a ‘crisis’ number of unaccompanied asylum seeking children seeking support. The authority has announced that it may be a matter of days until it can no longer provide services to the children, many of whom arrive by boat to Kent’s shores, as reported in the Guardian (here).

The council, which claims to currently have nearly double the number of unaccompanied asylum seeking children the government says is safe to have, has issued the Home Secretary with a formal pre-action letter. The letter argues that the Home Secretary ought to use existing powers to compel other local authorities to take in child asylum seekers, and relieve the strain on resources faced by Kent County Council, one of the authorities where new arrivals are most likely to present themselves. In the absence of a satisfactory response, proceedings for judicial review will be issued on 17th June.

Kent is reported to have 403 under 18s from an asylum-seeking background within its care, almost double the number the government says it is safe to have – 231. According to a report in the Local Government Chronicle, of the 242 who have been passed to Kent children’s services so far this year, only 52 have been transferred to other councils under a voluntary transfer scheme set up in 2016 to encourage other councils to share the burden.

Kent has now taken the first steps in legal proceedings by issuing a letter before action to the Home Office urging the secretary of state to use powers under the 2016 Immigration Act’s national transfer scheme to mandate transfers across the rest of the country.

‘That is something the government has been extremely reluctant to do,’ Kent leader Robert Gough told Radio 4’s Today programme earlier in the week. ‘This has been a constant source of debate between ourselves and national government since [the national transfer scheme] was brought in five years ago.’

Kent found itself in a similar situation in 2020, with Border Force tasked with placing new arrivals directly into the care of alternative authorities across the country. ‘I am deeply saddened that we are now seeing a repeat of the same crisis of nine months ago’, said  Gough. ‘While there have been a number of welcome measures from government we have not seen what is most needed: a robust national transfer scheme [NTS] that prevents port authorities such as Kent coming under unmanageable pressure.’

The National Transfer Scheme, implemented in 2016 to ‘form the basis of a voluntary agreement made between local authorities in England to ensure a more even distribution of unaccompanied children across local authorities’, has since faced criticism for failing to achieve its aim. Back in August 2020, council Director of Children’s Services Stuart Collins denounced the scheme for allegedly failing to successfully place any children through the NTS since 2018. ’This is a national problem that needs a national solution’, he said. ‘These people are not choosing to come to Kent, they are choosing to come to England. It just so happens that the one point of the border that is coming through now and that’s Dover’.

The lack of resources causes delay and uncertainty to UASCS, with long waits for foster placements, a shortage in social workers, and an increased proportion of new arrivals subjected to lengthy and resource-intensive age assessment processes. Speaking to BBC Radio Kent, Bridget Chapman of Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN) backed the call for more funding from central government, so as to ensure that the potential trauma of young people is not compounded. ‘Give those young people the start that they need, which will pay off in the long run for all of us.’

In a statement the Home Office said: ‘We recognise the longstanding role that Kent county council has played in supporting unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and are extremely grateful for their contribution. We continue to encourage more areas to join the NTS and do their part. We have already consulted on how to improve the scheme to make it fairer – the outcome of which will be published very shortly.’