Skip to main content

Asylum-seeking Children: Hotel Accommodation

Volume 733: debated on Wednesday 7 June 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the accommodation of asylum-seeking children in hotels.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone.

In preparation for the debate, I spoke to many organisations that support unaccompanied asylum-seeking children day in, day out. It was impossible not to be moved by some of their testimonies. A children’s rights officer at the Scottish Refugee Council shared this:

“All the children I worked with demonstrated little to no knowledge of systems in the UK prior to arrival, they were completely bewildered. They were also terrified, terrified of anyone they perceived to be in a position of authority. At times that included me, until they got to know me. One girl even asked me if I intended to send her back to her village, where she was at risk of female genital mutilation…

Another girl I worked with had been in Scotland for around two months when I received a call from the hospital asking me to attend, as she was very distressed. She was pregnant. As soon as the doctor left us alone, she broke down sobbing, asking me if the Home Office would kill her for being unmarried and pregnant.”

Those are just a couple of anecdotes, but they speak to the reality of life in the hostile environment for many highly vulnerable children who have reached our shores. Those anecdotes should shame UK Ministers who have used degrading language such as “asylum shopping” or “invasion” to describe people risking their lives for safety and refuge in this country. Many have experienced physical and sexual violence, persecution, torture, human rights abuses and extreme poverty. Their perilous journeys to the UK have exposed them to exploitation, human trafficking and modern slavery.

Two years ago, when the Home Office started to house unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in hotels, we were told that it was on a short-term, emergency basis until permanent placements could be found via the national transfer scheme. It should not be forgotten that such hotels are considered to operate unlawfully: under section 20 of the Children Act 1989, children under 16 should be in the care of local authorities, not in unregulated accommodation where they lack the same protections as other looked-after children. Children whom the Refugee Council in England has spoken to say that they feel anxious, frightened and lonely in the hotels, with no phone to communicate and clothes that do not fit them properly.

Since the Home Office took charge of the day-to-day care of unaccompanied children, at least 4,600 of them—some as young as 10—have been placed in such accommodation. We know that the number is rising, but up-to-date and accurate figures have been hard to come by.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate. She is making a powerful speech on an important topic. In January, at Prime Minister’s questions, I asked about the 200 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who were missing from Home Office-run hotels. Two months later, a response to one of my parliamentary questions stated that 186 of those children—some of the most vulnerable young people in the country—were still missing. Does the hon. Lady agree that if we as politicians are not safeguarding the most vulnerable children in the country, we are letting them down severely?

I absolutely agree. I will elaborate on this, but it is our moral and legal duty to assume responsibility for those children, and that has been sadly lacking from the Government and the Home Office.

In early April, the Children’s Commissioner for England requested data on the number of children in Home Office hotels since July 2021. I understand—I hope the Minister will bring us up to date—that the Home Office has yet to reply to that statutory data request. I believe that is unprecedented, so I will be very interested in whether the Minister can explain why that information has not been provided and when the Home Secretary will endeavour to do so.

Part of the issue is that the real number of children in the system is obscured by the visual age, or “glance”, assessment process. The Refugee Council report “Identity Crisis” highlights the cases of 233 children that it supported last year, 94% of whom the Home Office wrongly judged to be over 18. They were housed with adults, with no access to support or education and at clear risk of abuse and neglect. On top of that, last year the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration found staff at some hotels without Disclosure and Barring Service checks.

Shockingly, despite repeated warnings by the police that children would be targeted by criminal networks, the Home Office has failed to prevent hundreds from going missing, as the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) referred to. She mentioned the 440 occurrences that we know of and the 186 children who remained missing as of April 2023. Members from across the House have asked time and again about that, but have received little detail on what action is being taken.

The UK Government’s inability or unwillingness to guarantee the safety of those children has been condemned at home and abroad. More than 100 charities wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister in January calling for the Home Office to stop accommodating separated children in hotels, without delay. UN experts echoed that call in April, commenting that the UK is failing

“under international human rights law to…prevent trafficking of children.”

A report published by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration in October last year recommended that a viable and sustainable exit strategy from the use of hotels should be delivered within six months. The Home Office has no exit strategy; instead, Ministers are doubling down. The asylum hotel accommodation system is becoming institutionalised, and the Illegal Migration Bill—or, as it is known by some, the refugee ban Bill—will empower the Home Secretary to accommodate even more children outside the care system.

Under article 22 of the UN convention on the rights of the child, children seeking refugee status must receive appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance, but the Illegal Migration Bill is effectively a ban on the right to claim asylum if the claimant arrived in the UK irregularly, such as through trafficking or modern slavery, regardless of their individual circumstances. It will create a two-tier system where the immigration status of refugee and asylum-seeking children overrides their rights as children in the UK. It has been said to me that, in the eyes of the Home Office, they are seen as illegal migrant first, everything else second.

Analysis by the Refugee Council based on publicly available sources and conservative estimates suggests that 45,000 children could be detained in the UK under the Government’s plans. Both the Children’s Commissioner and the chief inspector have warned about the pressure that that will put on local authorities in England to fulfil their duties under the Children Act.

The Bill also includes an attack on devolution, which is unfortunately becoming customary from the UK Government. Clause 19 gives the Home Secretary the unilateral power to extend the provisions to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining the debate and doing the research beforehand. What is her experience of the Home Office’s interaction with the devolved Scottish Government and local authorities in Scotland? In Wales, we have found its approach extremely disappointing—riding roughshod over devolution and not taking any notice of the way that we treat children in Wales.

I agree entirely. That has certainly been the experience of the many different organisations that I have spoken to in Scotland, and that is what they say to me. As always with this Government, the proposals that Scottish Ministers put to UK Ministers are often either ignored or not taken fully into account. Again, I hope that the Minister can assure us otherwise.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining the debate. Further to the intervention by the hon. Member for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith), whose constituency neighbours mine, we have a specific issue in Carmarthenshire, where a hotel will be used to house asylum seekers without any consultation whatsoever with the local authority. The Welsh Government have a policy that Wales is a nation of sanctuary, and it is beyond my understanding why the UK Government would act unilaterally without discussion with the Welsh Government or Carmarthenshire County Council.

I was looking at a contribution by the Local Government Association, which I believe operates only in England, and that seems to be one of its bones of contention too, along with the fact that insufficient moneys are being provided to support the welfare of these children and other asylum seekers. Again, I hope that the Minister will address that point.

The Scottish guardianship scheme, run through the Scottish Refugee Council and the Aberlour charity, provides personal, sustained support for these children, and it is funded by and delivered on behalf of the Scottish Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who will be winding up the debate for the SNP, has urged the UK Government to provide a similar scheme to support, in particular, young people in care in Scotland.

Clause 23 of the Illegal Migration Bill strips Scottish Ministers of their powers under the Scottish Parliament’s Children (Scotland) Act 1995 to support and assist victims of trafficking if those victims meet removal criteria, with very limited exceptions. Given that that clearly encroaches on devolved responsibilities, will the Minister tell us why the legislative consent motion process was not engaged? Scottish local authorities are responsible for caring for these children and treating them as they would other looked-after children. If there are credible indicators of exploitation or other issues, local authorities have obligations under Scots law to intervene. Under the European convention on human rights, Police Scotland and local authorities have a duty to protect, investigate and take people out of a trafficking situation, but that will clash with the requirements on Home Office officials to remove people.

Even if those powers are used sparingly, as the UK Government claim they will be, organisations and charities in Scotland remain terrified about the effect of moving responsibility to the Home Office and away from Guardianship Scotland, the scheme I mentioned that is delivered on behalf of the Scottish Government to all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and survivors of child trafficking. The Scottish Refugee Council says that some of these children are so afraid of the Home Office that they are up the entire night before their interview, praying that they will not be removed or detained. The possibility of being taken into Home Office care, coupled with the closing down of asylum and trafficking protections, while the prospect of removal looms, will lead only to more children running away. That will be a powerful recruitment tool for traffickers, who might look like a preferable option over being deported to Rwanda or remaining in detention.

We in the SNP have said repeatedly that creating safe and legal routes is the only realistic way to disrupt the human traffickers’ business model. If the Home Office has no interest in creating an asylum system that is based on fairness and dignity, it should devolve the necessary powers to the Scottish Parliament to allow Scotland to do so.

In the meantime, we need answers from the Home Office, so I close with these questions. Will the Minister give us the latest figures on how many unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who went missing from Home Office hotels are still missing? Will the Home Office commit to publishing a written report on the circumstances surrounding those missing children, including immediate steps to prevent similar issues from happening again? Finally, will the Minister advise whether and how an order from the Home Secretary under clause 16 will supersede protective orders issued by the Scottish courts? As a signatory state to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, the UK needs to step up and meet its responsibility to uphold all children’s rights to protection, health and education.

The children’s rights officer from the Scottish Refugee Council whom I mentioned earlier recalled a boy from Afghanistan she had worked with through the guardianship service who was haunted by the image of his inconsolable mother saying goodbye to him. Rather than compounding the fear and trauma of children like him, we have a legal and moral duty to look after them.

Order. The debate can last until 5.57 pm. I am obliged to begin calling the Front Benchers no later than 5.34 pm, so the four Members standing have just about half an hour between them. The guideline limits for the Front Benchers are five minutes for the SNP spokesman, five minutes for the Opposition spokesman and 10 minutes for the Minister, and then, hopefully, Deidre Brock will have three minutes at the end in which to sum up the debate.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak; it is not often that I get called first, so this is a real pleasure.

I commend the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) for securing the debate. I spoke to her beforehand. She has a big heart and she brings forward issues that concern us. She referred to a moral obligation. I, too, feel that we have a moral obligation to deliver for those who seek sanctuary and help. I have been very clear and consistent in my approach to the refugee crisis and I will be equally clear today. It is a real pleasure to see the shadow spokespersons and the Minister in their places. I know that the Minister will try to address some of the questions that we will put his way.

As I said, I believe that we have a moral obligation to help those who are displaced in the best way that we can. I believe very much in the foreign aid budget and in giving a fresh start to women and children who have been oppressed and are in danger, or have left danger.

My heart is for the family unit. I am very much a family person; I focus on family. I understand that we cannot take the world in and that we must be selective about who comes to our country. I do not believe that limited capacity should be given to every young, single, fit man who is able to build a life safely in other countries. However, today’s debate is on a matter that is close to my heart—children who are in need of compassion, care and a decent standard of living.

There are not many people in the Chamber who will not be bothered by the subject of this debate when they see the photographs and the stories on TV. Indeed, in our constituencies, we experience the cases and hear the heartbreaking stories that the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith referred to.

Since June 2021, 4,500 unaccompanied migrant children, some as young as 10, have been placed in hotels. I was shocked to learn that some 440 children have gone missing from hotels and that, as of April 2023, 186 of those children still had not been found.

Child trafficking is the most horrible and destructive crime, committed by those who have no morals and no scruples about what they do, and it is not limited to third-world countries; it happens here daily. Data from the UK’s national referral mechanism for the year ending December 2021 showed an increase of 9% in the number of potential child victims being referred compared with the previous year—an increase from 5,028 to 5,468. That is a stark figure, and it should give us some focus.

It grieves me to think of a child coming from the frying pan of a war-torn nation, with the ravages that that brings with it, and seeking safety in our great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland only to become a victim of trafficking. We are under an obligation to prevent that from happening.

I believe that children in hotels must be treated in the same way as looked-after children in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There must be accountability for their wellbeing. With the greatest of respect, I am not sure that children are currently being looked after to an acceptable standard. I seek the Minister’s assurance that that is the case, especially since children in Home Office hotels are not classed as looked-after children, which I suggest means that the appropriate protections and safety measures may not be in place. Prolonged stays in hotels have an impact on whether children will meet the 13-week rule for care leaver support once they move into local authority care.

I am conscious of the wee note that you sent me, Mr Hollobone; I will comply with your request and conclude. I commend the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith for bringing this issue forward. It must be addressed. I think that other Members, in their contributions, will add to our requests and to the concern that we have in our hearts for asylum-seeking children in hotels. I look to the Minister for a clear and concise strategy for these children, to fulfil our obligations as a nation that simply does the right thing. We have a chance to get this right. We must take that opportunity and deliver for the asylum-seeking children in hotels right across this great nation—this nation that reaches out and helps. I know that the Minister wants to help, but it is important that, through this debate, we receive the assurances that we seek and have our requests addressed.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. It is a particular pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who gave a typically eloquent and heartfelt speech. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) for securing this important debate and for her powerful introduction to it.

In July 2021, bypassing councils and operating outside the statutory national transfer system, the Home Office started using hotels to house unaccompanied children who have experienced unimaginable horror and upheaval coming to our country in search of safety. This was initially characterised by Ministers as an emergency measure and, as we have heard, since then there have been 447 missing episodes, and 186 children are still missing, according to figures revealed in a parliamentary question in April. A significant number of those children went missing from a hotel in Hove, which neighbours my constituency. Brighton and Hove prides itself on being a city of sanctuary, and the safeguarding crisis created by the Home Office remains a matter of profound concern to our community.

I shall touch on just three things: first, the lack of legal basis for this Home Office practice and regulatory failure; secondly, the Government legislation that makes matters worse; and thirdly, what safeguarding for these truly vulnerable children should really mean.

First, Brighton and Hove City Council has been raising concerns about the dangerous practice of using these hotels for the best part of two years, since Ministers first started bypassing councils. After months of obfuscation, on 24 January, when Mr Speaker granted my urgent question about the hotels and missing children, the Secretary of State did not even show up; instead, she sent the Immigration Minister, who again is here today. Meanwhile, as we have heard, multiple children’s charities have been clear that they consider there to be

“no legal basis for placing children in Home Office hotel accommodation”.

In April, UN experts called for the UK Government to

“put an end to the practice of placing unaccompanied children in hotels”.

While there has been a significant reduction in the practice in the first quarter of this year, shockingly, the Government are now legislating to provide a legal basis for hotel use to continue.

These hotels quite simply should not be used, and when they have been, serious safeguarding questions have gone unanswered. For example, earlier this year, I met both the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration—the ICIBI—and the Ofsted chief inspector. I raised the concern with both of them that the use of these hotels amounts to the Home Office running unregistered children’s homes with no inspection framework. I have since written to and questioned Ministers repeatedly to ask: if they persist in using these hotels against all the advice, will they at least consider an Ofsted-led inspection regime? As with many other important questions, the non-answer is that Ministers consider the best place for children to be a local authority placement—well, yes, it is, but the Government are not doing that. I have had yet another letter to that effect this week, which makes it clear that, in fact, they expect hotel use to continue. Indeed, Brighton and Hove City Council has just been warned that the Government may use the hotel in Hove again, despite the time that has been available for proper planning to avoid that. Will the Minister commit today to a full and immediate consultation with the local authority on all aspects of the scheme, including its legality, before any more children are placed there?

I sincerely hope that the steps the Government are taking to increase foster placements work, but I know from discussions with directors of children’s services that there is an acute national shortage of such placements, and we should not forget that, with their 13 years of cuts, that is something for which Ministers are also responsible.

As we have heard, the Government are now pushing through their unspeakably cruel and immoral Illegal Migration Bill, which breaks international law. It will strip children of their rights to claim asylum, legislate for the use of hotels, and increase the risk of children going missing. Like the Children’s Commissioner, and in concert with the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith, I am gravely concerned that, as a result of young people’s fear that they will be deported at age 18, potentially to Rwanda, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children will be more likely to go missing from care to avoid that, and therefore be at even greater risk of exploitation and abuse by traffickers.

I have asked Ministers what unaccompanied children are told about their rights when they are first placed in hotels. What will unaccompanied children be told now? Is it really the Minister’s intention to legislate to strip them of their asylum rights the day after they turn 18, when they could be put on a plane to Rwanda? Is that really what he intends?

Safeguarding surely means remaining shocked that the Home Office has been housing children without legal basis and that we still do not know where nearly 200 of those children are. I and other Members have repeatedly questioned the Minister about the need for a national dedicated operation to find them. His answers have not instilled confidence. On the contrary, the Government’s plan to degrade children’s rights even further will increase the risks.

After the hon. Lady’s debate, I invited her to visit the hotel in Hove that she says she is profoundly concerned about. Has she visited it? If so, what are her reflections having visited it?

I am delighted to take that intervention because, alongside the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), I did indeed visit those premises. In fact, we took some food there from a local restaurant that was offering its food to that hotel because a concern had been raised that the food people were getting was pretty inedible most of the time, so they were delighted to have more suitable and appropriate food.

I have no problem with the conditions inside the hotel. As the hon. Member for Hove and I have repeatedly said, our concerns stem from what happens when the child steps outside that hotel. Frankly, everything that I saw does not take away the concern that young children, particularly traumatised young children, simply should not be housed in such hotels. However, I am glad to put the Minister’s mind at rest about the fact that I have visited the hotel and that I know of what I speak.

Safeguarding means that Ministers should close their nasty, hostile environment playbook. They should back more generous family reunification rights and support safe, functioning legal routes. Safeguarding means not housing children in hotels at all and scrapping the illegal and immoral Illegal Migration Bill.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) for securing this important debate. Before I begin, I point Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and the support that I receive from the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy project for my work on these issues. I also co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on migration.

It is an absolute scandal that 440 asylum-seeking children have gone missing from Home Office hotels and that, according to the Home Office, there are still 186 who have not been found. But that is only half the question. Are the children who have been found safe, and what is happening about the remaining 186? It is alarming that the Government seem interested in the horrific crime of people trafficking only when it can be used as an opening to restrict the rights of people claiming asylum in this country. When we deal with missing children who are in real danger of ending up in the hands of traffickers, it seems that the Home Office is not concerned enough to act swiftly and thoroughly. Will the Minister update us on what steps he is taking to ensure that children in Home Office care are given the care and support they need and that they are safe? What actions have been taken to find the lost children?

Some organisations I have spoken to have raised concerns about whether the missing persons protocol has been properly followed. That is an important point. When a child first goes missing, those crucial early hours and days can help in finding them quickly and preventing further harm. Will the Minister give clear assurances that the protocol has been followed for every missing child? Will he also say whether there are instances in which the full guidance was not completely followed? If so, why that was the case? Can he give any new update on the number of children who have gone missing since the start of this year? If we do not understand how it is possible for that to happen in the first place, we cannot prevent it from happening again. Therefore, will the Minister commit to publishing a report on the circumstances around the disappearances, including lessons learned and immediate steps to prevent a repeat?

The policy of accommodating children in hotels was supposed to be temporary, but as is so often the case with the Government, a crisis has turned into business as usual. To my knowledge, since 2021, 4,500 unaccompanied children, some aged as young as 10, have been placed in hotels. Will the Minister make available as soon as possible the latest figures on how many unaccompanied children are currently housed in Home Office hotels? According to the Refugee Council, those hotels essentially operate outside the child protection system and that is a fundamental point in this debate. Local authorities are often not involved in looking after those children’s welfare or their best interests. They are not classed as looked-after children, but children are children both morally and under the law. The matter needs to be thoroughly looked at because it is clear under section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 that the Home Secretary is obliged

“to safeguard and promote the welfare of children who are in the United Kingdom”.

Children in Home Office hotels must be treated like all resident UK children in the statutory children’s protection framework. Does the Minister seriously believe that accommodating children in hotels is compatible with that obligation?

The Children’s Commissioner has been mentioned. The Home Secretary was given a hard deadline of 17 April to provide a response to the Children’s Commissioner about her concerns around the appropriateness of care and I am surprised that that has not been provided. That is highly unusual. Will the Minister clarify whether that is due to the Home Office’s failure to systematically record the data that has been requested, or whether it simply constitutes a refusal to provide the information?

Two years after the Home Office began using hotels, there is still no strategy for moving children into suitable accommodation. It is business as usual and that is unacceptable. Will the Minister provide an update on the plans to develop a strategy to move the children out of hotels and into the care of social services through the national transfer scheme? Will he outline the steps taken to support local authorities with procuring additional placements for children? I have spoken in this place before about the current extreme costs of placements for local authorities, where £15,000 is not enough and will not cover months or weeks of many of the placements that local authorities are trying to procure from the private sector. More needs to be done in that space.

A recent report in the UK on the implementation of the UN convention on the rights of the child found a serious regression in the rights and protections of refugee children in the UK. That is shocking and forms part of a worrying trend that the Government are providing substandard care and potentially dangerous accommodation to refugees, whether that be through overcrowded hotel rooms, disused army barracks in which diseases spread or now a new masterplan for barges that essentially detain people offshore. The cruelty in that is evident, especially when we are considering children.

Others have touched on how the Illegal Migration Bill will affect children and significantly undermine the Children Act. When will the Government finally produce their impact assessment of the Bill and why, after all the failings the Government have presided over in this space, does the Home Office intend to legislate for new powers to house asylum-seeking children outside the provisions of the Children Act? Will the Minister look again at the individual approach to safeguarding that is necessary for each child? Will he recognise that children can, and do, often have other vulnerabilities such as disability? What actions are being taken to ensure that those are being taken into account?

We all have a responsibility to keep children safe. We know from safeguarding failures that have been reported both historically and more recently that safeguarding must be everyone’s top priority. The Government cannot pass the buck on this; they must intervene to keep children safe and to ensure that these children are found and then made safe.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) for securing this debate. I find it outrageous that, since July 2021, more than 400 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have gone missing from Home Office hotels. I could stand here and say that Government Members are so and so, but no, I will not do that, because this is about the children. This is about children, who matter more than anyone else in this country.

We have a responsibility as corporate parents, as did local authorities, and it is incumbent on us all to recognise that the system in place is not fit for purpose and that we must do all that we can to protect the children from going missing. One child missing is one too many.

However, instead of urgently intervening, the Government announced in January that 200 of those 400-plus children were still missing. That number came down to 186. What it is today, I do not know, but I would guess that it is far more than the 200 reported earlier in the year, not less than that.

What has gone wrong fundamentally? That is what we need to look at. We have had announcement after announcement, but the reality is different from what the Government and Ministers have being saying regarding not only refugees and asylum seekers but—most importantly, the issue being debated today—unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

Do we treat them as if they matter less than the children of this country? Are they second class to them? Are they third class to them? If they are not, this is a serious issue that no other parent figure would get away with. If 200 parents were responsible for this issue, action would be taken against them, but where is the action that is needed regarding those responsible? We can pass the buck all we like, but the fact is that these children have gone missing on our watch. We must take responsibility for that.

Rather than shift blame from one place to another Department, to another institution, to local government, to the Home Office, to Ministers, we need to work together. Whether that urgent work is through the Select Committee process or another mechanism, it must be done to ensure that we do not have any more children going missing and that children are not denied fundamental protections but are afforded the opportunity of safeguarding, which is central to all this.

This is a plea today for us all to come together on this issue and put the politics to one side. We must look at the interests of the children, stand behind them, and say that enough is enough.

As the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith said earlier, I believe that some of the staff at these hotels are not even DBS checked. How can we allow basic fundamentals like that to slip through the net? The staff working at the hotels where the children are living, and going missing, are not even DBS checked. Can the Minister confirm whether that is true? Honestly, would we allow any of our children to stay in such places for even a minute, let alone days, weeks or months on end? These children are our children—that is all I have to say.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) for calling this afternoon’s debate, because it is as important as it is timely.

I will start where the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali) left off: if any one of these children were our child, we would be frantic. If your child goes missing for a couple of minutes or a couple of hours, you are on the edge of your seat—you are terrified. A child inadvertently went missing on a street near me, and the whole neighbourhood was out searching for that child. The child was found and everything was all right, but who is searching—who is going street to street and door to door—to look out for every one of those 186 children who are still missing? We know that if it were any one of ours, that is exactly what we would be doing in that situation.

As a corporate parent, the Home Office has taken on these children in these hotels, outside the legislative framework that should be there to protect them. What is the Home Office doing to find each and every one of those children? By putting 4,500 unaccompanied children into hotel accommodation in that way, it has put every single one of those children at risk. There were 440 missing episodes and 186 children still not found as of April 2023. Can the Minister update us on how many of them remain missing—unfound, lost, perhaps falling into the hands of traffickers, perhaps terrified at the prospect of being removed to Rwanda or locked up or detained indefinitely?

It is very clear to me that the Illegal Migration Bill will make a very bad situation significantly worse, because it will remove rights from those children. They will never be able to claim asylum; they will not be counted; they will not matter; they will be left in limbo forever. Further to that, the Home Office is overruling in this legislation the obligations that devolved Administrations have, as the hon. Member for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith) and others have pointed out. In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland we have legal obligations, both in our legislation on children and in our provisions on trafficking, that the Illegal Migration Bill seeks to overrule.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith mentioned the Scottish Guardianship Service, which is operated by the Scottish Refugee Council and Aberlour. I always want to pay tribute to that service, because I know how hard those support workers work to ensure that the children in their care are looked after properly and given support. Those workers come to my surgeries in support of the children they look after, and they do a tremendous job, but they know as well as I do that the Illegal Migration Bill will prevent them from providing any service at all. That service, on the Home Office’s watch, will become obsolete: there will be no refugees, because this is a refugee ban Bill.

In order to safeguard the children in its care, the Home Office should be answering questions about the legal basis for holding children in hotels in the way it has done, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) so correctly pointed out. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) asked whether missing person protocols have been followed in those cases, and what the strategy is to get children out of that inappropriate accommodation and into somewhere they can be, and remain, safe.

The independent chief inspector of borders and immigration has said:

“long-term hotel accommodation is not suitable for families with children. A hotel car park does not constitute a safe or appropriate play area, nor does it provide the variety of activities required by children.”

It is children that we are speaking of this afternoon. They should have space to learn, play and grow, but when the Home Office houses them outside the usual rules and obligations that organisations in England such as Ofsted would have, it prevents that system from having any kind of integrity.

That is not the only way in which children are inappropriately accommodated. In my constituency in Glasgow, I have children who have been in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for a considerable time. Families are squeezed together in a room without cooking facilities and without the ability to live a proper life with space to grow and live. There are children who cannot study for school because they do not have the space, because they are crammed into a small room.

I know that this is a choice. The Home Office has outsourced this to organisations such as Mears, and in doing so it has turned a blind eye to the situations that families find themselves in. I know that Mears has three and four-bedroom flats, but it chooses to put three or four people into them because it will get more money for that, rather than housing one family. That is a choice. It also chose to have a mother-and-baby unit in Glasgow that left babies with no room to crawl safely on the floor. That is a choice, outsourced by the Home Office to its accommodation providers.

I ask the Minister: what if these children were his own? What is he doing to ensure their safety and ensure that they can prosper, grow, thrive and get the protection they so richly deserve?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I thank all hon. Members for their excellent contributions, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) on securing this vital debate. Colleagues have set out, far more eloquently and powerfully than I could, the deeply troubling situation in which we find ourselves. Rather than repeating that, I will set out Labour’s plans for addressing some of the challenges that we face because of the broader chaos and shambles of the asylum system across the board, which is the root cause, context and backdrop for the appalling issues that we are discussing. I will then ask the Minister some more specific questions.

Labour has spent the past nine months urging the Conservative Government to adopt our five-point plan to end the dangerous channel crossings, defeat the criminal gangs and reduce the asylum backlog, based on hard graft, common sense and quiet diplomacy. First, we would scrap the unworkable, unaffordable and unethical Rwanda scheme and redirect the money put aside into an elite cross-border 100-strong police unit to relentlessly pursue the real enemy, the ruthless criminal smuggling gangs, upstream where they are operating away from the French coastline. Secondly, we would negotiate an agreement with France and the EU that would enable us to return asylum seekers who have crossed on small boats back to mainland Europe in exchange for a more generous but strictly capped offer from Britain on resettling genuine refugees with family connections in the UK. Thirdly, we would clear the backlog by fast-tracking the processing and returns for low grant rate countries, and we would address the incomprehensible decision to downgrade the seniority and expertise of Home Office decision makers. Fourthly, Labour would fix the broken resettlement pathways, particularly the Afghan schemes. Finally, we would develop an international development strategy that would include tackling the root causes of migration.

We need to look at the issues surrounding unaccompanied children, and Labour would look very carefully at how they are treated within the system. We are deeply concerned about the changes that were introduced in January this year with regard to short-term holding facilities. Ahead of the changes coming in, I wrote to the Minister privately to raise my concerns, particularly on the scope for women and children—some of whom will be fleeing sexual violence—to be held in small rooms together with men they do not know. Unfortunately, I have not received a reply to that letter. I know that the Minister is a very busy man, but perhaps he could comment on why I did not receive a reply within the expected three-month window. Perhaps he will also make clear what action he is taking to ensure that women, girls and unaccompanied children are safeguarded.

Meanwhile, the Illegal Migration Bill has raised real concerns. Clause 14 will disapply the safeguard duty to consult the independent family returns panel when a child will be removed or detained. Clauses 15 to 20 deal with issues relating to the rights of separated children, with the provisions likely to undermine the key principles of the child protection framework, including by giving the Home Secretary the power to terminate a child’s looked-after status when they are in the care of a local authority.

For the past 18 months, the Home Office has been providing accommodation to vulnerable children, yet provision of accommodation and support to children sits outside the Home Office’s competence and knowledge base, raising serious concerns over safeguarding. It was therefore shocking but not surprising that the Minister announced on 24 January that as many as 200 unaccompanied children had gone missing from hotels. What progress has he made on finding those children? What additional safeguards are in place?

Charity workers have said that children are being picked up by gangs from outside their accommodation. What action is the Minister taking to prevent that? We have heard heartbreaking stories from my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) about children who have been sexually assaulted. On 7 November, she asked the Minister to publish the details of all those cases and the number of incidents. Does the Minister have the latest data on that to share with the House?

I will end with some additional questions on wider asylum system failures, which have led to vulnerable children being placed in dangerous conditions. Last December, the Prime Minister said that the Home Office would recruit 700 new staff to the new small boats operational command. How many are in post? Last year, the Home Office announced plans to increase the number of asylum caseworkers from 1,277 to 1,500 by the end of March this year, and then to 2,500 by the end of August. Will the Minister tell us whether he has met the first target and what progress he has made towards the second? Less than 10 years ago, almost 90% of asylum claims were decided in six months. Last year, that figure stood at barely 10%. Can that possibly be explained by anything other than incompetence? Is there perhaps another agenda that explains why the backlog is so large?

The asylum system is a mess. Vulnerable children are victims of this failing system, a system that has failed because of 13 years of sleeping at the wheel and the Government taking their eye off the ball. We need a Labour Government to sort this out—and we need that as rapidly as possible.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I will come first to the points raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), who secured the debate. I think it has to be said that it is surprising that she would choose this topic, important though it is, given the extremely poor record of the Scottish Government.

Just to be clear on the facts, there have never been any temporary UASC hotels in Scotland. They were all in England. In Scotland as a whole, the Home Office’s internal unverified data suggests that there are currently 398 individuals in Scottish local authority care. That compares with 8,206 in local authority care across the United Kingdom. I add the caveat that those numbers require further assurance, but they suggest that Scotland is not taking its fair share.

I will make the point, please. I have listened to the comments that were made earlier.

With respect to accompanied children, there are currently 24,300 children under the age of 18 in our accommodation across the United Kingdom. Of those, 1,353 are in Scotland. That represents just 5.6% of the overall population, when Scotland’s total population makes up 8% of the United Kingdom. Of the unaccompanied children in Scotland, only 27 are in a hotel—that is one hotel. That is not a hotel in the constituency of the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith, but I am told that there are no reported issues in that hotel.

The point I am making is twofold. First, the Scottish Government are doing nothing to resolve this issue, so, with the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, this is humanitarian nimbyism. It is posturing of the absolute worst kind. If the hon. Lady cared so deeply about this, the first thing she would do after leaving this debate would be to go and speak to the Scottish Government and then to each and every one of the SNP local authorities that are not playing their part in the national transfer scheme. That is the best thing that she could do to help vulnerable children who are currently or might in future be in hotels in England to get the good quality care that they deserve.

With respect to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who raised a point about the hotel in Hove, the reason I asked her whether she had visited the hotel—I am pleased that she has done so—is that I was aware that the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) had visited the hotel. I am pleased to see that they visited together, but when I visited I was told by the staff that certainly the hon. Member for Hove, who is not in his place any more, left satisfied that the accommodation was of a high quality and that the individuals working there were doing a good job. In a previous debate, the hon. Member said that I was ignorant and that I did not know what was happening in the hotel. Well, I went to visit the hotel immediately after that, and not only did I see extremely good work being done there, but I heard from the people doing that work that the hon. Member felt that the work was of that quality.

I will not give way. What I saw when I visited the hotel was security guards, social workers, and team leaders who previously worked for the police and the military all doing a superbly good job. [Interruption.]

Order. The Minister heard the debate in its entirety with courtesy. I want the Minister to be heard with courtesy in his response. Mr Grady, you have been very well behaved throughout the whole debate. Let’s not spoil it now.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone. It is important that we approach this debate in the spirit not of posturing but of seeking to find solutions to this difficult problem. Obviously, the enduring solution is to reduce the number of unnecessary and dangerous crossing across the channel all together. That is the purpose of the Illegal Migration Bill. If we cannot do that, or until we do it, as soon as a young person arrives in this country we have to treat them with the greatest decency, respect and compassion, and the way to do that is to get those young people into local authority care as quickly as possible.

Given the numbers of people crossing the channel at the moment, it is not possible to do that instantaneously. On a single day last autumn, 1,000 people arrived at Western Jet Foil. The UK had literally saved their lives. We then had to feed, clothe and water them, and do security and health checks on them—all, incidentally, in 24 hours. To the point from the shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), that is why I changed the law to 96 hours. I will never compromise on security checks when people arrive in this country. It is not possible to security check 1,000 people in 24 hours, and I wanted to make sure that the police and our counter-terrorism officers have the powers they need. Ensuring those young people leave Western Jet Foil and go as quickly as possible to good quality local authority care has to be the mission of us all. That means supporting local authorities in every single part of the United Kingdom to step up and play their part.

The Home Office is doing this in a number of ways. We have provided financial incentives; I created a further financial incentive—a pilot of £15,000 per young person to encourage local authorities to take those individuals as swiftly as possible on the national transfer scheme. That has had success. Today there are no unaccompanied young people in hotels whatsoever. There may well be more young people in the future if more small boats cross in the months ahead. We need to encourage more local authorities to take part in that scheme.

I completely appreciate the points that have been made by a number of hon. Members that there are huge capacity constraints within local authorities and local authority care homes, and that there is a desperate shortage of foster carers. Those are issues that we should all be united in trying to tackle. The Home Office, in the short period when we house people in an emergency situation in hotels, will always do so decently and will always ensure that those hotels are as well run as possible, but we have to get people out of hotels and into local authority care as quickly as possible.

Will the Minister clarify whether, if he goes ahead and uses the Stradey Park Hotel in my constituency for asylum seekers, he is considering housing any unaccompanied children there? What measures will be taken to prevent them from going missing?

As far as I am aware, we do not intend to use that location for unaccompanied children. I will confirm that in writing, but that is not my understanding. To the point that the hon. Lady and others made about what we do when a young person goes missing from one of the hotels, as a parent and a Minister I take this responsibility extremely seriously. When I heard that young people had gone missing from the hotels, I wanted not only to visit them, but to meet all the officials involved in the task.

When I visited the hotels, including the one in Hove, I wanted to meet the social workers privately, not with Home Office officials or others present, so that I could hear directly from them, in private, whether they believe that we are doing everything we can and that we treat a missing person who is a migrant in exactly the same way as we would treat a missing person who is a British citizen—my child or your child. I was told, time and again, that we do: that we follow exactly the same processes in reporting missing people; that we engage thoroughly with the local constabularies, which are fully involved; and that we have created a specific new process called the MARS—missing after reasonable steps—protocol by which we report missing persons

That MARS process has had some success and has enabled us to track more individuals than we did previously. Crucially, every single step is taken as it would be if any other young person in this country went missing. We also have as thorough procedures as is possible in the hotels for checking people in and out, when they leave to go to the park or for a walk, as they can in such facilities.

On that point, it is worth noting that the facilities are not detained facilities. In the debate, I heard no hon. Member urging us to create detained facilities for young people. As long as the facilities are non-detained, inevitably some young people will decide to use the opportunity to leave, which on the intelligence we have is mostly to meet family or friends, or to prearranged meetings with individuals whom they had already agreed to meet, who would no doubt then help the young people to work in the grey or black economies. We have heard no evidence that people have been abducted from outside hotels. In this important debate, we have to trade in fact, not anecdote.

I will give way briefly to the hon. Gentleman, but I must wrap up soon, because we have only a few minutes left.

The Minister says he met staff and officials. Did he meet any of the children? Did he look any of them in the eye and tell them that they should not be here and were not welcome?

Well, I regret giving way. I thought that the hon. Gentleman wanted to make a serious point; sadly, he wanted to make a frivolous one. I did talk to the young people—of course I did—to understand their perspectives. We care deeply about their safety. We want to ensure that fewer young people cross the channel illegally in small boats. I urge the hon. Gentleman to go to see the conditions that those young people are in when they get into those small boats: the risk to personal safety that the crossing involves; the cruelty and depravity of the people smugglers and traffickers behind the trade; and, at times, the irresponsibility of parents and others who put their children through this journey.

I cannot, because I have to bring my remarks to a close.

The purpose of the Illegal Migration Bill is to put an end to this trade once and for all, so we can focus our resources as a country on supporting young people and families, among others, who are in great need, directly from conflict zones—through our world-class resettlement schemes such as those we have established in recent years—from Ukraine, from Syria and from Afghanistan, and through the global scheme that the United Nations runs on our behalf. We want the UK to be an even greater force for good in the world, and we do that—

I cannot give way because there is no time left.

We do that by beating the people smugglers and stopping the boats.

I am glad that I was able to secure the debate. I was outraged to hear about those missing children, and what appeared to be shocking indifference by the UK Government in regard to their going missing. I was very dissatisfied with the inadequate response that the Minister recently gave to a Member about this.

I have seen nothing but an unrepentant, defensive attitude from the Minister today, with no answers to the many questions raised by Members today. I remind him that Glasgow City Council, under an SNP Administration, has consistently taken more asylum seekers than local authorities in most of England, particularly the south-east. [Interruption.] No, it is not. Scotland has taken more arrivals per head of population under the Homes for Ukraine scheme than any of the four UK nations. I remind the Minister that councils across the UK have pointed out that Home Office funding for the dispersal scheme is insufficient and must be looked at again.

The proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child”, surely means that all of us are responsible for every child’s wellbeing, and that includes Government Ministers and the UK Government. We want transparency, accountability and responsibility from Ministers on that, and I am sorry to say that I did not hear any of that from the Minister today.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the accommodation of asylum-seeking children in hotels.

Sitting adjourned.