I beg to move,
That this House has considered the EU Settlement Scheme and looked-after children and care leavers.
Good morning, Mr Bone. It is nice to be back and a pleasure to see you in the Chair. May I take this opportunity also to welcome the Minister to her post?
I want to raise today an issue that has the potential to become a serious immigration problem, but one that there is still plenty of time to avoid. The EU settlement scheme is the largest registration programme that the UK has ever known and poses the challenge of regularising the status of about 3.7 million people, including about 700,000 children, 74,000 of whom live in the west midlands.
The quarterly EU settlement scheme statistics show that only 12% of the applications to the scheme received by the end of June 2019 came from children under 16. I am sure that we all want to prevent vulnerable children from falling foul of problems associated with these plans as we prepare to leave the EU. I believe that there is significant cross-party support in both Houses on this issue, and I hope that today the Minister can provide some reassurance.
The Government have estimated that there are currently about 5,000 EU children in the British care system and perhaps a further 4,000 care leavers across the UK. We do not know the exact figure, because local authorities do not record that information, so I am relying on Government estimates. The figure does not include children classified as “in need” and therefore in receipt of considerable support from children’s services, but where the Department has not assumed parental rights. The Minister will be aware, I am sure, that there is quite a fine distinction between a child in need and therefore in informal care and a child in the formal system. It really relies on the point at which intervention is required. Therefore, I would submit that all these children need to be registered.
If previous registration is anything to judge by, it seems impossible to believe that 100% registration can ever be achieved. If just 15% of children are not properly registered, we may find ourselves doubling the number of undocumented children in this country. Recent pilot exercises suggest that there will be significant problems for local authorities in obtaining critical documentation such as birth certificates.
My hon. Friend is making a very strong case on why we need to address this issue. I speak as the MP for one of the pilot areas, in Waltham Forest. One challenge was simply getting hold of documentation, because embassies will not release documentation to a child; they will release it to a parent, but of course if the child is in care, the relationship with their parent is strained. Does my hon. Friend agree that that means that we need a specific scheme and way of dealing with children in care who are EU citizens, if Brexit is to go ahead?
I entirely agree with the points that my hon. Friend has raised. That was part of the purpose of calling this debate: I do not think that the scheme as currently designed will cope with these difficulties. As my hon. Friend rightly says, the pilots demonstrated the difficulties of obtaining documentation—particularly birth certificates, on which the Home Office puts a very high premium when determining these cases. Like her, I am concerned that many children and young people will not be able to access these documents and, as a result, will be wrongly denied settled status.
The Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), did indicate that the Home Office planned to show a degree of leniency in this respect, but unfortunately she did not spell out what she had in mind. I do not know whether the Minister is in a position to enlighten us today. No doubt she will tell us that in these cases the children will be eligible for pre-settled status, but what that actually means is that they will get temporary rights and be denied their legitimate legal rights. That is why there is a problem and why we are raising it. As Members of Parliament, we have a duty to ensure that the most vulnerable in our communities are protected and that children for whom the state is responsible receive the highest levels of protection.
It seems to me that the issue is not just documentation; there are several challenges with the proposals. It is extremely doubtful that social workers will have the time, expertise or legal knowledge to register these children.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. His comments raise a number of questions. The first is the final status of these children—ultimately—because we have seen problems in that regard before, but in addition, because of a lack of social workers, it will always be difficult for local authorities to get the accurate documentation that is needed. The lack of social workers and of funding for local authorities has been raised many times in the House. Does my hon. Friend think it is about time that central Government showed a bit of humanity and did something about that?
I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks. I hope that, in the course of this debate, it will be possible to demonstrate that this is not scaremongering, that these are real issues and that there are solutions, but that does require the Government to recognise the problems that my hon. Friend has raised and to agree to act on them.
As I was saying, it seems unlikely that social workers will have the time, expertise or legal knowledge to deal with these issues, particularly if they begin to encounter problems in the process. The Children’s Society, along with other charities, has repeatedly highlighted the problems that this group of children is facing and the challenges that exist in trying to process an EUSS application. There is no evidence that I am aware of that additional support will be made available to local authorities—the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) raises.
During the pilot phase, every application that Coram Children’s Legal Centre made on behalf of a child in care or a care leaver included detailed nationality advice—nationality advice that requires expert legal advice and understanding—and social workers had to be supported at each stage during the process. That is the evidence from the pilots.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the case that he is making. The Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit has been working with directors of children’s services in Greater Manchester to try to offer the support to which my hon. Friend refers. Does he agree with me that we urgently need the Government to get the resolution currently before the House on extending legal aid to children in immigration cases through the House and on to the statute book? If the Government did that, social workers would be absolutely clear that legal aid was available for these cases and that they would not have to rely just on the chances of getting exceptional case funding.
My understanding is that that is an outstanding Government promise; as my hon. Friend says, there is a resolution to that effect. If there are any plans to curtail the time that we will spend here in the coming days, one good use of the time here would be in dealing with this simple issue. That would certainly raise the prospects of our being able to deal with the whole issue in a much more satisfactory manner, and I would certainly support it.
The current guidance states that local authorities can make applications on behalf of children where they have full parental responsibility, but, as I mentioned earlier, for care leavers or children in care under a section 20 order they are instructed simply to raise awareness or to signpost those young people to the scheme. Children in care under section 20 orders include children with disabilities, the children of prisoners, children involved in the criminal justice system and victims of child trafficking. It seems unrealistic to think that those children will be able to gather the correct documentation, make the application for themselves and challenge any incorrect decision the Home Office might arrive at.
Looked-after children are starkly over-represented in the criminal justice system, as I am sure the Minister knows. Around half of children currently in custody in England and Wales have been in care at some point. The Government have provided no clarity as to how these children will be treated when they apply for the scheme and, if they are offending, whether that will be used against them, as in the adult scheme. I raise that point because in this country we normally take the view that juvenile criminal behaviour should be treated differently from adult criminal behaviour.
Many looked-after children and care leavers may be eligible for British citizenship, but the social worker will need to know the law in order to recognise that. Local authorities would have to pay the application fee, which is currently £1,012 per child. That is a significant disincentive for cash-strapped local authorities. As I said earlier, we are working on estimates because local authorities do not record EU nationals who are in their care or classed as children in need, but the Government estimate that around 5,000 EU children are currently in care, and there are perhaps a further 4,000 care leavers across the UK, who need to be registered. At the present time, it is virtually impossible to estimate the number of children in need, which is a broader group.
My hon. Friend raised the important issue of citizenship fees. I hope the Minister has seen the fantastic work done by Citizens UK, particularly Anne-Marie Canning, who is my constituent in Walthamstow. We deal very closely with those children and having documentation opens up doors for some of them, but I am worried about cases where they do not have it.
If we have done the right thing as corporate parents, helped these children to achieve new goals and dealt with some of the damage that led to them being in care, then watching them be denied access to university or further education colleges because they cannot sort out their status would be a horrific blow. These are some of the most vulnerable children in our country.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this is about not just these children’s status, but their future, and that is why it is so important that the Government recognise that this particular group of vulnerable young people needs a specific scheme?
That is absolutely the point. If we do not deal with this now, there will be a whole host of young people wandering around this country, sleeping on streets and unable to get jobs or to travel. That is what we will be subjecting them to for the next few years. That is why it is important that we get on top of this and deal with it now.
I checked the figures kept by Birmingham Children’s Trust. It has around 50 children whom it believes are EU citizens and will need to apply for some kind of settled status. It also has about 24 care leavers, which also fall into that category. However, at this point, the trust has not made any applications and it was not entirely clear about how the process should operate. That is in the second largest city in the country: if that trust is not sure how to operate the scheme, what will happen elsewhere?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) indicated, there are many future problems to consider, but there will also be some simple problems for children in the care system in the months ahead. Will they be able to go on school trips abroad with their peers after 31 October, or will they be stigmatised and refused that opportunity because they will not have access to proper travel rights? As my hon. Friend asked, what will happen to them when they are seeking housing, benefits and other support? They will be denied that support. We see enough problems on our streets at the present time; we certainly do not need to add to them by ignoring children for whose care we have taken responsibility. That seems the worst possible thing that any group of MPs could do.
The simplest and most cost-effective solution to these problems would be to grant automatic settled status to all looked-after children and care leavers. I do not think the number is so massive that it would impose great strains on the immigration system. However, it would tidy up one straightforward issue with one straightforward group of children. At the very least, the Government ought to extend the deadline for applying for the settled status scheme until we have really understood how some of these issues will operate in practice and what kinds of problems will arise.
If the Home Office is not willing to make changes of that order itself, it needs to instruct all local authorities to ensure that all eligible looked-after children are supported to make an application, not just children under a section 31 care order. If the Home Office is really serious about making this work, it will not leave those children exposed to such risks.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) said, the Government urgently need to bring forward parliamentary time for the amendment allowing looked-after children to have access to legal aid. That seems to be essential, if there is to be any sincerity to this process. The Government must communicate to all local authorities exactly how this legal aid will be accessed. It is not enough to place an obligation on the local authorities and then leave them with all the difficulties—we have seen that happen all too often in recent times; it is not good enough. The Home Office should also consider waiving the fee for citizenship applications for those children who qualify. As I said, the current fee is £1,012. That is a disincentive to local authorities. If the children are eligible and already in care, we should agree to waive that fee.
This issue has all the signs of a disaster in the making. Of all the people we are concerned about, I cannot believe that I am here talking about children in the care system—we say that we will look after and protect them, and give them a better chance in the future. This has all the makings of a disaster, but it is a disaster that could be avoided. If the Minister will agree to meet with those of us working on the issue and the relevant organisations, which have the knowledge and the advice, there is still time to stop it from happening.
Thank you very much, Mr Bone, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to be back and to serve under your chairmanship.
This debate is on a subject that I fear might be slightly overshadowed by other events in Parliament today and for the rest of the week, but it is no less important in the impact that it could have on a small group of very vulnerable children, and it is absolutely right that we should be considering it. I congratulate my co-applicant for this debate, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), on the way he set out the case and I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for this debate on the first day back.
I welcome the new Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy), and I hope that we will have as positive an engagement with her on these sorts of issues as we had with her predecessors. In the past, I had many discussions with those predecessors, and they recognised some of the practical implications of immigration policy on some of the most vulnerable children to whom we provide a home in this country. I am sure that dialogue will continue with the new Minister and I look forward to that.
In this country we have a great tradition of looking after children in the care system. There has been gradual progress on improving outcomes, but we need to go an awful lot further. Nevertheless, this is something that we in this country do well. One only has to go to a number of other countries that just do not have the sort of sophisticated and advanced children’s social care system that we take for granted, even with all the problems that we hear about, to realise that it is still one of the best such systems in the world.
Of course, we also have a great and proud record of giving safe refuge to vulnerable families and children from overseas, particularly unaccompanied minors fleeing from the most unimaginable danger, and it is absolutely right that we should continue to do that. Our recent record of helping those very vulnerable children from Syria and other conflict zones who have lost family, which includes participation in the family reunion schemes that I will allude to shortly, is certainly one that we should be very proud of.
I will just refer to the correspondence that the Home Affairs Committee had with the previous Home Secretary, now the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I do not think we take credit for this enough, but under the Dublin scheme there has been a significant increase in recent years in the number of children arriving in the UK to be reunited with members of their family who are already here. In 2015, just 24 children arrived in the UK under articles 8.1 and 8.2 of the Dublin regulation, but by 2018—last year —that figure had risen to 159.
It is also important that we are looking after those children appropriately, so I was pleased to hear from the Home Secretary that the Home Office, in partnership with the Department for Education, had developed and adapted its processes to ensure that Dublin transfers are conducted in a safe and secure way, and that there are new processes in place now that were not there just a few years ago.
The hon. Gentleman is right that Dublin has helped us to support some of the most vulnerable children in our communities. Does he share my grave concern about the reports that if there is a no-deal Brexit, that scheme will be abandoned, and about what that means for the children we already have in this country and indeed for some of the vulnerable children who we know may try to get safe passage to this country? Does he agree that it is important to protect Dublin and the principles that it espouses in terms of our ability to safeguard children in our own country?
I appreciate that very important point. It has been the subject of some of the discussions we have had with previous Home Secretaries. We have discussed not only what happens if there is a no-deal scenario but what happens if there is an agreement. If there is an agreement, the terms that should apply to children seeking to be reunited with families need to be at least as generous as those under the Dublin scheme, because under our domestic terms a range of family members are not included. We need to overhaul our own laws and increase the flexibility with which we can take on unaccompanied children who seek to be united with relatives who are often distant relatives but are nevertheless the only remaining members of their family, such has been the danger and the terror that they have had to escape from.
So, whatever happens in the next few weeks and months and goodness knows when, this issue needs to be looked at separately. As I say, I have had very positive discussions. When I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have approached the Home Secretary before, having been on trips to Greece with UNICEF to see some of the children who are applying for these schemes, we have had a very positive response and I very much hope that that will continue under new Ministers within the Home Office. But the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) makes a very pertinent point. Therefore, whatever happens, we need clarification under Dublin.
However, there is a problem closer to home, which is what we are discussing today, as a direct result of Brexit. It has not received the level of attention that many other aspects of the immigration scheme have, and it is a cause for concern. I have an interest in it, both as a former children’s Minister, and as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for children and vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for looked-after children and care leavers, which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak very admirably chairs. These sorts of issues come up with the children who we see.
As we know, the EU settlement registration scheme aims to establish the immigration status of EU citizens legally residing in the UK after we have left the EU. It grants settled or pre-settled status, with rights to work, travel, use public services, access public benefits and so on. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is the largest registration system ever planned in the UK. It has been a huge challenge and not without its problems, certainly early on. It needs to progress smoothly, to avoid another Windrush scandal, which has been mentioned. It has been subject to a lot of scrutiny and some criticism by the Home Affairs Committee, which I sit on. We produced a report in May on the scheme. In fact, we will take evidence again tomorrow—with the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) there, too—on how our preparedness for Brexit has hopefully improved since we last heard from witnesses on this subject.
Over a million people have now registered under that scheme; I gather that nobody has been refused. I myself have had just one complaint from constituents about the way it works, so things are better, if still not ideal.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that many people have been able to access the scheme successfully and it has been very helpful that the Home Office has begun to publish the data on the number of people going through the scheme. However, does he agree that we need one particular piece of data to be disentangled, which is in relation to 16 to 18-year-olds going through the scheme? Currently, they are being included in the number of adults going through the scheme, but nowhere in our law is a 16 or 17-year-old treated as an adult.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right; in fact, she has pre-empted what I will now not bother to say later. [Laughter.] As she says, 16 and 17-year-olds have been assimilated with adults, but children in this country are those under the age of 18. So, it is absolutely essential that that definition is applied to all children, not least those most vulnerable of children. And as a result of schemes such as Staying Put, what is effectively the definition of the children who come within that remit will expand to include those aged up to 21, 23 and even 25 in the case of some, including those children with disabilities. Therefore, those figures that she referred to absolutely need to be disassembled, because these children are probably the largest group within the cohort that we are talking about today.
The Children’s Society has been very vociferous on the issue that we are considering today and it has done a lot of work on it; I pay tribute to that work, and the Children’s Society has also helped us to prepare for this debate. It has made a calculation—it is not about children in care, but it allows us to put things in context—that between the end of August 2018 and the end of June this year, 107,110 children under the age of 16 applied to the EU settlement scheme. So far, 86% of those children have had a conclusion to their application; 65% have got settled status and 35% have got pre-settled status; 180 applications were withdrawn, or were void or invalid; and no applications have been refused. However, that still leaves 14,510 children, who are presumably waiting for their applications to be concluded. So there is also a group of children coming through the normal scheme who are slightly in limbo.
Again, the whole point about the 16 and 17-year-olds is that we do not know how that group is broken down. So I repeat the call from the Children’s Society to see the ages of applicants broken down further, so that under-18s—as well as 18 to 25-year-olds, who are another potentially vulnerable subset of children not of “child age” but who are equally important and vulnerable—can be properly identified and, as a result, supported.
The Children’s Society also says:
“Additionally, only 12% of the applications to the EU Settlement Scheme have come from children aged under 16. But analysis from the Migration Observatory suggests that there were 700,000 EU children under 18 in the UK in 2018, meaning hundreds of thousands of children may still need to apply for settled status or secure British citizenship. If they do not, they risk being left without a lawful status in the UK which means being unable to access education, employment, healthcare, housing and other vital services.”
Therefore, this is still a big problem for those children in the care system and for those who, though not looked after, are unaccounted for in the applications that have come through so far. There is still an awful lot of work to do.
That group of up to about 5,000 looked-after children who will need to apply to the EU settlement scheme does not include care leavers—some of whom may be subject to “staying put” arrangements and other special support measures—or children who are classified as in need and who receive support services and vital help from local authority children’s services departments. That figure represents something like 6% of all children in care in this country—five years ago it was 3%, so there has been a rapid increase. Those individuals are an important part of the looked-after children estate and potentially some of the most problematic children to identify, support and register.
As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak mentioned, it is a sad fact of life that children in the care system are still much too disproportionately represented in the youth justice system. Many are victims of people traffickers, many have English as a second language, and many rely on being able to access benefits and other support that we take for granted. Our children’s services departments are hugely overstretched, and the all-party parliamentary group on children has recently produced a number of reports on the issue.
I welcome hugely the announcement of an additional £14 billion for schools. I hope it will be confirmed tomorrow in the comprehensive spending review, although goodness knows what will happen tomorrow. It will be very well received, particularly in my part of the world of Sussex and other shire counties, but I want to ensure that children’s social care services are not excluded. Those services are within the remit of the Department for Education and have faced huge funding challenges, yet it is the local authority departments that provide them that will be responsible for looking out for these children, for identifying and registering them, and for the legal expertise for cases that are not as straightforward as those involving other children. For example, if children are here with a French or German family, they will be able to make the application on their behalf.
My hon. Friend is making a fantastic and well-informed speech. Of the £14 billion going to education, £2 billion is due to go to Scotland, where the issue is devolved. I am concerned about how central Government will work with devolved and local government to ensure that no EU citizen, and certainly no child in care, is left behind, and I hope the Minister will clarify that in her closing speech. Scotland has only about 8% of the UK population but about 14% of the UK’s children in care. That is a problem for us, and every single level of government needs to work together to ensure that no one is left behind.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Although we are talking primarily about the looked-after children population in England and Wales, there is a particular issue in Scotland. I had not realised that the proportion was that high. It is really important that money going into education, which is also for the wider benefit of children in the social care system, is targeted at those children who need it most. If the issue is not dealt with, the problem in Scotland could be greater even than that in England and Wales. I hope that the Minister and the Scottish Administration are listening to my hon. Friend’s case.
Many of the children in this potentially most problematic group will have come here in difficult circumstances and gone into care, and it is highly likely that they lack birth certificates and passports and will find it difficult to prove their length of stay in the UK. They may have been moved around the whole system, as so often happens. Yet these children—I repeat that they are children—are expected to produce documentation in order to qualify under the scheme, even though they may not have that documentation. Moreover, the local authorities responsible for them could face huge challenges and detective work, requiring their buying in legal expertise and acting as advocates at a time when they are already hard pressed to look after the record number of children from the indigenous population who have recently entered the care system.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak pre-empted what I was going to say about the citizenship fees, which have been flagged up by the Select Committee on Home Affairs. The increase in fees over recent years, at all levels, has been extravagant, to put it mildly—the fees go well beyond the cost of recovery of the service offered. In the past, it was always the principle that the charge should be equivalent to the cost of recovery, not that it should exceed it in order to subsidise services elsewhere in the Home Office. It is difficult to justify the high fee of £1,012 for a child to whom we have given safety and refuge. In most cases the cost will come out of local authority budgets—namely, children’s social care budgets, which are already greatly pressed—meaning less money to spend on social workers and on care placings for other children. Mr Bone, I should have mentioned my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Before I conclude with my asks, I wish to reinforce what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak said about the situation of children coming over from France. There has been recent correspondence between the previous Home Secretary—my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid)—and the Home Affairs Committee, because we were concerned about what was happening to children in very vulnerable and dangerous situations in some of the camps in France, in particular those with a claim to come to the UK through the family reunion and other schemes, the processing of which seems to be taking an interminably long time. Part of the reason for that, as I found out when I went to Greece, is that, while potential candidates are lined up by charities and authorities, the process relies on social workers back in the UK doing the investigative work to ensure that the placements properly take care of the children’s welfare. However, due to the current recruitment situation, social workers are being pulled in all directions.
The previous Home Secretary provided some reassurance in his letter:
“I am pleased to confirm that the vast majority of the cases involving children in France awaiting transfer to the UK have been resolved, with many of the children having already transferred, under either the Dublin III Regulation…or section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016, or shortly about to; others are pursuing their asylum claim in France.”
These are some of the most vulnerable children and, frankly, if they were in camps outside Dover our local authority children’s services departments and our Government would have taken care of them. It is extraordinary that that has not happened in other countries. I am pleased that we have now accelerated the process to ensure that those who qualify are brought to a place of safety.
In conclusion, I have two asks. The first is that automatic settled status be granted to all looked-after children and care leavers. The very fact that those children are being looked after by local authorities in what are recognised as legitimate placements, paid for by the United Kingdom taxpayer and the local council tax payer, is an endorsement of their legitimacy and of our responsibility to look after them in the first place. Surely, therefore, the assumption should be that they absolutely have a rightful place in this country. If there is a problem with that, we should argue the toss later on, but let us give them protection at the outset.
Secondly, the issue of fees needs to be looked at—an ask of the Home Affairs Committee to the previous Immigration Minister, the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes). It is such a complicated system, as the Windrush issue threw up, with many different avenues to qualifying for citizenship. It is a complete minefield that needs to be simplified and the charges need to be reduced. The complicated nature of the system also makes it very expensive. For goodness’ sake, on behalf of this small but vulnerable group of looked-after children and care leavers, I urge the Government to waive their fees for citizenship applications. That is essential, whether or not we have a deal to come out of the EU—which matters not a jot to those children. They need our help and support. This country has recognised their need and has provided support. Let us not let bureaucracy stand in the way of continuing to do the right thing by those children, as we have a proud record of doing.
I am grateful for the chance to contribute, Mr Bone. It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship. I welcome the Minister to her post and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) on securing this debate.
I share the concerns that have been expressed today. It is estimated that in the north-west there are around 700 looked-after children of EEA or Swiss nationality, but we do not know the numbers for sure. It is vital that we gather the data, so I was pleased to see in a written answer to Lord Russell on 9 July that the Home Office will survey local authorities to benchmark the current uptake of the scheme and to baseline cohorts of EEA citizen looked-after children and care leavers, and that the survey will take place at set intervals throughout the lifetime of the European Union settled status scheme.
Is the Minister able to update us about progress on gathering the survey data? Will she confirm that it will include children in need—a vulnerable group not encompassed by the provisions of the settled status scheme and special help from local authorities, as my hon. Friend pointed out? Will she also confirm that there will be an opportunity to disentangle data from the statistics in relation to 16 and 17-year-olds?
As others have said, we are talking about the most vulnerable children in the country who may have suffered appalling abuse or neglect. As we have also heard, securing status for those children is absolutely vital for them to thrive and maximise their potential in adult life. I share the concerns expressed about local authorities only being required to ensure that applications are made for children under section 31 care orders. I invite the Minister to explain why other children looked after in the ambit of section 20—or those, for example, who are privately fostered or are care leavers—are not also included within the obligation on local authorities: they, too, are very vulnerable young people and children.
The Government intended the application process for settled status to be straightforward and simple. However, as we have heard, that will not be the case for many looked-after children because of the difficulties they might have in accessing documentation to support their applications, because their carers might not understand the need for them to apply or because local authorities might be overstretched and not able to give them the support that they need to do so.
As I have said, many such children will be reliant on legal aid to support them in making a sufficiently strong application. Social workers do not have the expertise, training, capacity, or indeed the legal right to give advice on immigration matters; they would be in breach of immigration law if they tried to. So it is vital that the Government, having finally tabled, after a year, the order to bring immigration cases for looked-after children within the ambit of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, get the order put through in good time before 31 October. I hope the Minister will be able to commit today that the Government will ensure that that happens.
I want to mention a couple of other points: first, the issue of children’s best interests. I recognise that the Children Act 2004 requires that local authorities discharge their functions having regard to the welfare of children, and I also recognise that section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 requires immigration authorities to take into account the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in the UK. However, the lack of systems and processes to embed children’s best interests into the settled status decision-making process means that those issues might not be properly addressed. What guarantees can the Minister give us that the EU settled status scheme will operate so that children’s best interests are always paramount? Will it be made explicit in the settled status scheme, and will she undertake to carry out a child rights impact assessment of the operation of the scheme?
I, too, want to highlight particular concerns in relation to EEA and Swiss national looked-after children in the criminal justice system. As we have heard, looked-after children are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. Half of children in custody have been in care. As with local authorities, there is a dearth of data on the nationality and status of children in the criminal justice system. Will the Government put in place arrangements to collect centrally nationality data for children in youth offending services and in detention as a matter of urgency, so that where applications need to be expedited for those children, that can take place?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak has said, our criminal justice system recognises the difference between childhood and adult offending: for example, in sentencing or in the time that it takes for a conviction to become spent. However, that difference is not clearly recognised in the EU settled status scheme. Any child or young person over the age of criminal responsibility—in other words, over the age of 10— will be subject to criminality checks. Where checks reveal “serious or persistent” offending, a referral will be made to immigration enforcement for a case-by-case determination as to whether an applicant should be refused status on the basis of “suitability”. I recognise that the Government have stated that those under 18 will not be required to answer questions relating to suitability and that children under 18 will be deported only on imperative grounds of public security, but there is no single definition of what kinds of offences are likely to be captured in that exception. It would be useful if Ministers could guarantee to set out the higher threshold that will apply in guidance, and also confirm that both the non-disclosure requirements and the higher threshold applying to under-18s will continue after 31 October, even in the event of no deal.
The settled status scheme also fails to differentiate between adults and children in relation to the continuous residence criteria: the general caseworker guidance makes no distinction between adults and children in terms of resetting the clock on residence following a period of imprisonment or detention. Will the Government look at amending the scheme to ensure that a custodial sentence imposed on a child does not impact on the calculation of their continuous residence for the purpose of making an application for settled status?
Finally, may I invite the Government to publish specific guidance on children and young people applying to the settled status scheme from within the secure estate or the wider criminal justice scheme? Will the Government consider granting settled status to all children irrespective of their criminal history? I echo the calls made in this Chamber this morning and invite the Government to supply settled status to all looked-after children and children in care. We risk those children being left in a limbo that will affect them all through their adult lives if we do not make their status absolutely clear and safe now. As we have heard, those children have already demonstrated their right to our protection. We cannot afford to let them down as a result of a decision to leave the European Union, which was in no way any of their making.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). I thank her for her contribution. I give a special thanks to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and also the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), who secured the debate and set the scene so well. All their contributions have been excellent and I congratulate them. It is also nice to see the Minister in her place. She has had a tour of many ministerial positions over the last while, and I look forward to her response to this debate. If it follows in line with responses that she has given when holding responsibility for other portfolios, it will be a good one.
I was happy to support the application for today’s debate, and spoke to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak about it beforehand. I have been contacted by many people in relation to this issue; I will specifically mention The Children’s Society, which has real concerns that we must seek to address in this place, whether there is a deal—I sincerely hope there will be—or there is not a deal, which, speaking as a Brexiteer, will not be a disappointment either. The fact is that we are leaving Europe, and we must do the business for those looked-after children. We cannot ignore that. Whether we are in or out of Europe, this issue has to be addressed; everyone has said so, but it is important that we put it on the record. That is the reason for today’s debate.
An email sent to me by The Children’s Society expressed a very clear concern:
“the estimated 700,000 EU national children living in the UK are lost within public debate about the EUSS. The quarterly immigration statistics show that only 12% of the applications to the EU Settlement Scheme received by the end of June 2019 came from children under 16, meaning an estimated 600,000 EU national children still need to regularise their status before the deadline.”
Some of the background information that we have been given endorses that. The Migration Observatory’s report on settled status suggested that upwards of 661,000 non-Irish EU citizen children could be living in the UK, which indicates that at least half a million children who could be eligible to apply to the EU settlement scheme are yet to make an application. I ask the Minister what has been done to address that figure in relation to those who have not applied. That clearly needs to be looked at.
I also ask the Minister how many of those children are in local authority care. Among the European population, there will be thousands of children and young people who are currently looked after by local authorities. Although those children make up a fraction of the overall population, I believe that we owe that fraction a special set of responsibilities, so I endorse what The Children’s Society has said. There is a real concern that we are not meeting our obligations to that admittedly small number of children; another purpose of today’s debate is to highlight that issue to the Minister and hopefully receive a response that addresses some of our concerns. I am sure that she is aware of the issue and that her Department is working on it—perhaps the Minister will indicate the contrary—but I am anxious to hear how it is being taken care of. I am sure the Minister will be happy to outline that detail in her response.
Again from the background information about British citizenship, some concerns have been raised that although it might be more advantageous for eligible looked-after children to apply for British citizenship instead of settled status, they could be unaware of their rights or face difficulty paying the fee. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak referred to the £1,012 that it takes to register a child as a British citizen, and under the present system it is not clear how those who may automatically be British will be identified. There are likely to be significant numbers of European national children and young people who could fall under those nationality provisions, but who do not know their rights. Again, I look to the Minister for a response.
I hope that looked-after children are not completing settlement scheme applications on their own, without legal advice. However, it is quite possible that they are, and if so, they will not be fully aware of their options. That could result in an incorrect grant of pre-settled status, or their being refused outright or potentially missing another legal avenue available to them, such as applying for British citizenship. We must make sure that applicants have all the help they need to fill in those applications. Again, it is so important that we address these issues.
As Members know, I am a firm Brexiteer. I remain of that opinion, but that does not in any way diminish the sense of compassion or obligation that I have as an individual, or this Parliament should have. Although I do not agree with many parliamentary colleagues regarding the merits of staying in Europe, I sincerely agree that we must do what we can to ensure that those who need special status are able to access it, especially those who are children and not aware of what all this Brexit talk actually means for them. It may be lost on them.
Combined data from the four nations highlights that there were over 95,000 looked-after children in UK local authorities in 2017—a figure that has probably increased over the past couple of years. Although the Government do not currently collect and publish data centrally about looked-after children’s nationality, only their ethnicity, a recent parliamentary response highlighted that the Home Office has estimated that some 5,000 EU children are currently in care in the UK, not including care leavers or children classified as in need.
We must ensure that those children’s social workers are crystal clear about the steps that must be taken to ensure their place here post-31 October. Social workers have a key role, and it is important that they are enabled to carry out their responsibility on behalf of those young people. Again, there is no centrally collected and publicly available data about European national care leavers, although the Government estimate that 4,000 care leavers to age 25 are in scope. I believe that steps could be taken to ensure that this group of people are made aware of anything that they must do to ensure they remain post-31 October.
I have another quick question about care leavers, which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak referred to in his introduction, and others have referred to as well. Figures from across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are clear that in the year ending 31 March 2018, local authorities were in touch with 88% of 19 to 21-year-old care leavers. To be counted as “in touch”, there should be contact between the local authority and the young person about three months before, and one month after, the young person’s birthday. Local authorities therefore do not necessarily maintain contact with all care leavers, and it is possible that some will fall between the cracks. I ask the Minister, honestly and respectfully, what has been done to make sure those young people do not fall between the cracks; to address the 12% who have not been contacted; and to ensure that those young care leavers do not find themselves without the opportunity to advance their applications.
I ask the Minister to outline in her response what the current situation is in relation to the questions that I and others have asked, and whether she believes that more can reasonably be done to ensure that all the support that those vulnerable children and young adults need is available. To me, it is important that those who need help get it and that those who need support get that support. It is part of my responsibility as a Member of Parliament, and a collective responsibility of all of us in this House, to ensure that this issue is addressed. We look to the Minister for a response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for pursuing this issue and securing this debate via the Backbench Business Committee. I also pay tribute to all hon. Members who have contributed today; a tremendous range of expertise has been on show. I was slightly surprised that no hon. Member wanted to pay tribute to, and thank, our munificent Prime Minister for giving us humble MPs the opportunity to actually debate a Brexit issue today, because apparently that is something we cannot take for granted anymore. Perhaps we can address that issue later today in the main Chamber.
Thank you very much for coming to my assistance, Mr Bone.
I join hon. Members in welcoming the Minister to her place, but I do have to start with a slightly cheeky question: is she actually the immigration Minister? This settlement scheme is being rolled out and huge reform of the immigration system is ahead, but we spent the summer not knowing who was actually responsible for immigration matters and where I should send my angry letters—or, indeed, my very constructive and helpful letters. If she is the immigration Minister, she can look forward to lots of correspondence in the weeks ahead.
Turning to the issue at hand, other hon. Members have eloquently and persuasively set out the significant challenges that looked-after children and care leavers will face in accessing either the immigration status that is in their best interest, or the citizenship status that they are entitled to and will be in their best interest. I have also heard concerns about the under-representation of children among those who have already applied for settled status.
On the settled status scheme, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak said, even though the Home Office is pulling out all the stops—I appreciate it is putting a lot of work and resource into it—hundreds of thousands of EU citizens or their family members will almost certainly not apply for or achieve settled status, or even pre-settled status, by the deadline. As we have heard, for some, that will be due to a lack of awareness or to legal complexities that mean that they do not understand that they need to apply; for others, there will be barriers in relation to the evidence that needs to be sent in.
Looked-after children, care leavers and other vulnerable persons will be over-represented in those groups and the consequences for them of failing to apply in time will be dire, as they will be for everyone affected. Overnight, they will be deemed to be in the country illegally and the full weight of the hostile environment will kick in: university, education, some healthcare, bank accounts, driving licences, employment and social security will all be put out of reach.
What can we do to stop that? From my party’s point of view, the solution is to keep the free movement of people by abandoning Brexit altogether or by securing a deal that includes retaining all the advantages of free movement. It would be brave and surprising if the new Minister were to announce that she accepted that proposition, so if that is not possible, the Prime Minister should do what he, the new Home Secretary and the new Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster promised during the referendum campaign, which is to enshrine the rights of EU citizens in law.
In a declaratory system, EU nationals would not be required to apply to retain their right to live here, but would be granted that right in an Act of Parliament. They would have to apply to the settled status scheme simply for a document to prove their position in future. Professor Stijn Smismans and the3million have worked extensively on proposals about how to do that; the Home Office should engage with them.
It is not a perfect solution because, of course, after the deadline, hundreds of thousands of people would still not have applied for the necessary evidence of their settled or pre-settled status. However, the simple truth is that they would have the right to be here, and would therefore still be able to provide proof of that right and to secure the necessary documents or other means of proof as soon as it become apparent to them that they were required to do that.
The Home Office’s refusal to listen or understand that simple fact is infuriating. It has made various nonsensical arguments about a declaratory system being responsible for the Windrush fiasco, but that is not what a single inquiry into that horrible episode has determined —it is simply not true. Under a declaratory system, those who missed the deadline would have a chance to rectify their position. Under the Home Office system as established, hundreds of thousands of people—thousands of whom might be looked-after children, care leavers and other vulnerable citizens—will be left here without legal status, which would be an absolute disaster. I call for a declaratory system for everyone, but if that is not possible, I absolutely join other hon. Members in calling for a declaratory system for looked-after children and care leavers. I hope that the Home Office will think about changing paths now.
In the meantime, has the Minister or the Department made any attempt to estimate how many people they expect not to apply before the deadline? Will she make it clear today what will happen to those who miss the deadline, including looked-after children and care leavers? How will they be treated? There has been an incredible lack of clarity on that. If the Home Office will not change tack, MPs should be allowed to debate and vote on the issue. We debated it during the passage of the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill. What has happened to that Bill and what will happen to it now?
Regardless of whether the Home Office chooses to change its fundamental approach, or, more likely, is forced to by legislation, or whether it presses ahead with its current model, hon. Members have raised other issues to address and actions to pursue. The Home Office must ensure that there is sufficient funding for awareness-raising programmes, with a particular focus on making sure that local authorities have a clear understanding of what is required of them in relation to looked-after children and care leavers, and the resources to ensure that those groups can obtain all the advice and support they need.
As has been said, the position of many of those youngsters is incredibly complicated. For a child, choosing the right application to make or whether to make an application at all, or knowing whether they might have a right to citizenship, is hugely complicated but has profound implications. We cannot expect social workers to do all that. All those young people must have access to specialist legal advice and support, which should be funded by the Home Office.
The duty of local authorities must be to do everything possible to secure that expert advice, not to provide makeshift alternative advice that they are not qualified to deliver. As other hon. Members have said, that duty must extend to all looked-after children and care leavers, not just those for whom the local authorities have parental responsibility.
I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) about legal aid. The announcement in July 2018 that legal aid for separated children with immigration issues would be reintroduced, including for children who need advice and support to secure EU settled status or understand their right to British citizenship, is yet to be implemented. It is essential that we know what will happen to that proposed change, given that Parliament may not be sitting for much longer. More broadly, immigration and citizenship should be brought within the scope of legal aid, as they are in Scotland.
The distinct issue of citizenship is relevant to many care leavers and looked-after children, because a significant number of them will be entitled to register as British citizens. The key barriers are, again, a lack of awareness and the extortionate cost of vindicating those rights via the registration process, as other hon. Members have said. I repeat, therefore, that we need measures to ensure access to legal advice and to address the outrageous fees being charged by the Home Office. The new Chancellor, when he was Home Secretary, acknowledged that the £1,000 fee was a huge sum of money to charge children; I would say it is disgraceful, particularly when we are talking about looked-after children and care leavers.
At the end of the day, those kids are every bit as entitled to citizenship as anybody in this Chamber and they should not be prevented from obtaining it by extraordinary fees. I urge the Minister not to do what other Immigration Ministers have done, which is to conflate the issue with migration fees or the adult naturalisation processes—they are completely different. We are talking about a group of children for whom Parliament expressly protected the right of citizenship when it ended the general provision of citizenship by birth in 1981. If Home Office officials demanded £1,000 from every mother leaving the maternity ward to secure their kid’s citizenship, there would rightly be outrage, but to charge those kids for theirs is as morally reprehensible. In the case of looked-after children and care leavers, at least, the Home Office must see how outrageous its position has been up to this point and act accordingly.
In conclusion, I congratulate the hon. Members for East Worthing and Shoreham and for Birmingham, Selly Oak on securing the debate. I support them in what they are trying to achieve and will happily work with them to attempt to persuade the Home Office to listen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I, too, congratulate the Minister on her post and look forward to working constructively with her. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) for securing this important debate and bringing this serious issue to the fore. I also thank The Children’s Society, the Refugee and Migrant Children’s Consortium and the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit for their comprehensive briefings.
As we head ever closer to a disastrous no-deal Brexit, the rights of the 3.8 million EU nationals living in the UK are still in jeopardy. By a conservative estimate, 5,000 EU children live in care in the UK and a further 4,000 care leavers will be affected by the EU settlement scheme. Across the UK, our already stretched local authorities are now responsible for safeguarding the rights of thousands of European looked-after children and care leavers.
If that already vulnerable group of children does not secure their rights after Brexit, we could easily double the number of undocumented children living in the UK, which is a situation that none of us want to see, as I am sure the Minister agrees. Those undocumented children and young people would then be subjected to all the Government’s hostile environment policies: they will be unable to work, drive or open a bank account, and they will effectively be barred from college, university and secondary healthcare.
That is why Labour supports a declaratory scheme, as opposed to the Government’s constitutive scheme. A declaratory scheme would ensure that all EU citizens living in the UK automatically retained their rights after Brexit. I had many discussions with the previous Minister about the issue and I hope that the new ministerial team will look again at the proposal. Without reforming the system entirely, it is imperative that the Government look again at the problems faced by children in care and care leavers in applying for settled status.
I want to outline my three most pressing concerns about children in local authority care and care leavers who need to secure settled status. A number of other Members have also touched on these points.
First, many looked-after children and care leavers lack the documentation necessary to complete their application under the settlement scheme. Many children in care will not have the identity documents that the Home Office requires for settled status. If a child is born in the UK, they will more than likely not have a passport or identity card to prove their nationality. It is estimated that more than half a million children fall into this category.
As the largest-scale registration programme the Home Office has ever embarked on, the settlement scheme has brought into stark relief how little we know about the immigration status of the children in the care of the state. Does the Minister agree that we must ensure that these children do not fall through the gaps just because they are unable to prove their nationality?
My second concern is the lack of information available to local authorities. The Government has spent the last 10 years slashing local authority budgets and now they expect those cash-strapped councils to take responsibility for registering the thousands of EU national children in their care. Earlier in the year, following the roll-out of the settlement scheme, the Government issued guidance to all local authorities on how they should be supporting children in their care and care leavers, which stated that there is no general duty on local authorities to ensure that immigration status is secured for looked-after children. Does the Minister not consider securing a looked-after child’s immigration status to be a fundamental part of the state’s corporate parenting responsibilities?
Thirdly, I am concerned about the legal advice being offered to looked-after children. There is a potential for children with the right to apply for British citizenship being advised to pursue settled status in the rush to ensure they are protected. Does the Minister agree that only those with sufficient expertise should be giving immigration advice to children in care and care leavers?
All looked-after children have the right to seek legal aid in applying for their settled status. What steps is the Minister taking to make local authorities aware of their right to apply for exceptional immigration case funding for children in their care? Will the Minister also guarantee parliamentary time in what remains of this Session for the amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 that would cement that right in legislation? Labour is committed to providing early legal advice for all immigration cases. Legal aid is not just a force for good, but could also save the Treasury millions in the long run.
As we all know, there are a multitude of problems at every stage in the immigration process for children in care, and for just about all other vulnerable groups in our society. That includes the cost of citizenship applications, the time it takes to apply and the hostile environment. There are many issues I have not had time to touch on today. I hope the Minister will answer the questions we have raised. It is vital that no vulnerable child or young person is allowed to fall through the gaps of the settled status scheme.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) for securing this extremely important debate on the EU settlement scheme and looked-after children and care leavers. The co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group are great champions for children and it is right to discuss this issue today.
The EU settlement scheme is designed to deliver on the Government’s aim that EU citizens can obtain their status quickly and easily. The principle behind it is the presumption of granting status. The Prime Minister has made it clear that EU citizens living in this country will have the absolute certainty of the right to live and remain. Ensuring that those who are most vulnerable, such as looked-after children, are supported to obtain status has always been and continues to be a core element in the delivery of the scheme, and I want to assure all Members who have spoken today, including those who have left their places, that that is a cross-departmental priority for the Government.
My Department has engaged widely, including with the Department for Education, the Local Government Association—my predecessor spoke at its conference, addressing this point—and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, as well as their equivalents in the devolved Administrations and in Northern Ireland, to understand and address the needs of looked-after children and care leavers and to ensure that they are supported. Guidance has been issued regarding the role and responsibilities of local authorities for making or supporting applications for looked-after children.
The scheme was first rolled out in the spring of this year. One million people have been granted status already—that is the figure from August. If we are in a deal situation, the scheme will be open until the middle of 2021. In a no-deal situation, people will have until 31 December next year to apply.
Members have rightly raised a lot of points about the scheme in general and about the specific cohort of children. I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak—he has great experience both from his work in this place and from before that—on the different strata of children that we are discussing.
The system has been designed to make sure that a successor of mine who stands here in 40 years’ time will not be dealing with a system where people do not have their status. That is why we have registration—so that EU citizens, particularly children and vulnerable people who have built their lives in this country—
Can I just finish this point? Then I will give way, to either an angry or a helpful comment.
The registration scheme exists so that citizens, particularly children and vulnerable people who have built their lives in this country, do not have difficulty evidencing their rights to live and work here. That speaks to a point made by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green).
The Minister speaks of her successor in a few years’ time being able to say that everyone has status, but only a declaratory system will do that. If we do not have a declaratory system, it is inevitable that tens of thousands—almost certainly hundreds of thousands—of EU citizens, including vulnerable people, will not have status. Does the Minister accept that? Does the Home Office have an estimate of how many people it expects not to go through the process in time?
I profoundly disagree with that point. The registration scheme ensures that those EU citizens who are here will have settled status. If not, there will be differences, because people will not necessarily be able to prove whether they were here at that point.
Focusing specifically on the cohort under discussion, hon. Members have quite rightly referred to the fact that many of those children do not have the same documentation as most of us in this Chamber, because of the life situations they have experienced. We share those concerns. They might have no identity document, as they might have had complex or chaotic lives.
It is absolutely right that local authorities and health and social care trusts in Northern Ireland should obtain the necessary identity documents for a child in care to ensure that they have uninterrupted access to services, but the Home Office guidance on this scheme makes it clear that applicants can apply without an identity document, as they might be unable to provide one because of family circumstances. As far as I am aware, local authorities vouching for the fact can be adequate documentation.
One of the critical lessons from the pilot schemes in my local authority was the difficulty in getting hold of documentation, because embassies in other countries want parents to be involved. It comes down to a very simple question: do we want social workers to be chasing up embassies and parents, or working with these kids? Is the Minister providing a guarantee that if my local authority simply said, “Yes, we believe this child is an EU citizen and therefore should be entitled to status in this country,” that will be enough? If she is not, she is asking social workers—who do not have a legal background—to go chasing information that they cannot get hold of, not because of rules in this country but because of rules in other countries, and that risks the children not getting the status they urgently need.
May I please finish my point? For some of the children we are talking about, the local authority is the parent. A second group might be the parents of section 20 children, and another group includes children in need. The problem is that some children still have their parents, who, perhaps at a later point, might come back in order to make the application for them. We are talking about three distinct groups of children. It is important that we recognise that, although some children might temporarily be under a section 20 order, they might return to their parents afterwards.
It is important to note that not all the children we are talking about have local authorities that are in loco parentis.
On the role of local authorities, a new burdens assessment has been made. It will take into account the important work of identifying the cohort of children and their parents. We have asked local authorities to return figures by the end of August—I think the hon. Lady referred to that—and we are currently co-ordinating those returns, which came in only a few days ago. That is how we are supporting local authorities.
We have given £9 million to 57 voluntary and community sector organisations across the country, to help us reach an estimated 200,000 vulnerable or at-risk EU citizens and help them apply. Of course, it is not only children who might be in a vulnerable cohort; the Home Office is very aware of that. Additional support is available to people who do not have the appropriate access, skills or confidence to apply online. There are more than 300 assisted digital locations across the UK, and there is an opportunity for a paper application in some circumstances.
I thank the Minister for giving way again—she is being very generous with her time. Charities are telling us that they do not have the resources to do all the work that is required. Has she put in a request to the new Chancellor for additional funding, so that we can leave absolutely no stone unturned in ensuring that we help each and every vulnerable person in this country who needs to apply?
The scheme is not designed to require a lawyer or legal advice, so it is simple to use. I recognise that there might be complications in some of the cases involving vulnerable and non-EEA dependents. However, the fact that more than one third of the eligible people have already signed up in six months is a testament to its design as a simple system.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. She might be right to say that the overall scheme was designed not to require great legal expertise, but the evidence of the Coram pilot shows that that is exactly what was required for the group of children that this debate is about. Surely that is the point she needs to address.
On the Coram report and the Department’s contact with all the important groups that assist vulnerable people, guidance has been published. Most importantly, guidance is being refreshed—this debate is part of that, to ensure the guidance is relevant. There has been a series of teleconferences for social workers and local authority staff, and they will continue monthly until next March. There is a designated telephone number for local authorities to call the Settlement Resolution Centre.
I will touch on an important issue that the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston mentioned, namely legal aid. She has quite rightly mentioned the fact that the order has not been debated, and I will speak urgently to my colleagues at the Ministry of Justice in order to bring that forward. Until then, applicants can apply through the exceptional case funding scheme.
The Minister is making earnest promises to work with local government to ensure that no child is left behind. Can she assure me and other colleagues that her Department will work with the devolved Administrations and local authorities in Scotland to ensure that all children are cared for, and that the opportunities provided in England are provided elsewhere in the UK?
I am very committed to working with my counterparts in the devolved Administrations. It is a testament to the importance of this debate that hon. Members from all four nations are present—well, not the Welsh, unfortunately—which shows how strongly we feel about protecting vulnerable children in this situation.
Colleagues asked what would happen should children fail to make an application by the deadline, which, as I have said, will be either the end of December next year in a no-deal situation, or the summer of 2021 under the withdrawal agreement. The Government have a special responsibility for these children and care leavers. With these measures in place, I am confident that we will ensure that they secure a permanent status under the scheme.
I will touch on citizenship fees, because all hon. Members who have spoken have talked about them. Settled status gives indefinite leave to remain in the UK, but some countries do not allow dual citizenship. It is a personal choice; citizenship is not mandatory. However, we have committed to reviewing fees for child registration applications and will keep the House updated.
On the issue of asylum, which I think was raised by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston or my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, the UK takes extremely seriously its responsibilities to unaccompanied children. As my hon. Friend mentioned, the numbers have been increasing. In the past 12 months, we gave protection to more than 7,000 children. Whether we have a deal or not, co-operation on asylum will continue with EU countries, which is why we have taken proactive action to ensure that, whatever the circumstances, requests that relate to family reunification and that have not been resolved on the date we leave the EU will continue to be considered under existing rules.
I will touch quickly on the issue of criminality thresholds. I, too, queried why there was a 16-to-18 gap. Applicants under 18 are now not asked about criminality, but a police national computer check is still conducted if they are aged over 10. Only serious criminality, which forms consideration of deportation, is taken into account—serious persistent offenders with extended custodial sentences.
This has been a very important debate. Highlighting the issue at this earlyish stage of the EU settlement scheme is very pertinent, and I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak for securing the debate. We will continue to engage with relevant stakeholders, to understand and address the needs of looked-after children in care. I reassure the House that the Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that we look after children and care leavers, and that they are supported to obtain their status under the EU settlement scheme.
I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate. I thank the Minister for her comments. I hope she will appreciate, as I said at the outset, that this is a cross-party matter. The hon. Members raising it are doing so not because of our views on Brexit, but because of the risk to this particular group of children. I ask her to focus on that. Although I recognise that the intention is not to make the scheme complicated, I implore her to look again at some of the legal complexities that local authorities are raising, because they look as if they will adversely impact on her good intentions.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the EU Settlement Scheme and looked-after children and care leavers.