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Volume 616: debated on Tuesday 1 November 2016

I am pleased to publish this statement about the safeguarding of unaccompanied asylum-seeking and refugee children jointly with the Home Office Minister of State for Immigration (Mr Robert Goodwill).

The Government are committed to safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children, and providing help for those in genuine need of international protection. The UK takes their responsibilities towards children extremely seriously, and we already have a comprehensive approach to safeguarding children, including unaccompanied children.

We recognise that the number of unaccompanied and refugee children arriving in the UK has risen over the last few years, including through the transfer of hundreds of children from Calais. Some of these children can be among the most vulnerable in society. That is why we are, today, committing to publishing a strategy, by 1 May 2017, which will set out further detail on how these children should be safeguarded and their welfare promoted. This strategy will complement and build on existing safeguarding guidance and procedures, in recognition of the increased numbers and specific needs of unaccompanied asylum-seeking and refugee children already in the UK, unaccompanied children who we transfer to the UK from Europe, and unaccompanied children who we resettle directly from outside Europe. It will also set out the practical steps the Government will take to implement this plan.

In recognition of the important role fostering plays in caring for unaccompanied asylum-seeking and refugee children the strategy will set out plans to increase the number of foster carers. This will include evaluating the need for any additional training needs required by foster carers and support workers in looking after unaccompanied children. Supported lodgings, where young people can live in a shared and supportive environment, can also play an important role in meeting the needs of these children as well as ensuring placement capacity so we will set out our plans to encourage provision of this type.

We recognise that these children may have family or potential carers with whom they are seeking to be re-united, under the Dublin regulation. The Department for Education and Home Office will work together to make sure the system for identifying these children and uniting them with family or potential carers is further strengthened bearing in mind that the primary responsibility of all involved must be safeguarding and promoting the best interests of the child. We are already working closely with the Local Government Association and local authorities where children are arriving, and will look to build on these strong relationships. Specifically, we will regularly review funding to support and care for unaccompanied asylum-seeking and refugee children, working closely with the LGA and local authorities.

In developing our strategy we will evaluate the procedures for, and speed of, transferring unaccompanied asylum-seeking and refugee children who have been identified for transfer from Europe. We will also ensure that the strategy is informed by evidence from other immigration programmes, including the measures in place to ensure sufficient safeguarding and security checks are undertaken on those being transferred to the UK.

We recognise the particular vulnerabilities of these children and will review the information currently provided to asylum-seeking and refugee children about their rights, their current circumstances, and the role of local authorities in caring for them.

We will also consult the devolved Administrations to ensure a joined up approach across the United Kingdom. We will also consult with all relevant public bodies on the strategy, including local authorities in England, NGOs, the Children’s Commissioners for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In doing so, we will seek the views of local authorities to identify any further action that might be taken to prevent unaccompanied asylum-seeking or refugee children going missing and we will consider whether to introduce a new set of standard actions for the police on first encountering an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child. We will also consider arrangements for Children’s Commissioners across the UK to make representations on behalf of children transferred where appropriate and consistent with their statutory remit.

In taking forward this work my Department will also revise the statutory guidance published in 2014 on the care of unaccompanied and trafficked children so it covers the safeguarding of children transferred under Dublin provisions and unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who arrive spontaneously who then explain that they have family in the United Kingdom with whom they wish to live.

Finally, in recognition of the importance of this issue, we commit to updating Parliament annually on delivery against the strategy and providing quarterly updates to the Children’s Commissioners for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, ensuring transparency and appropriate scrutiny. We will also commit to publishing regular updates on the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children transferred to the UK.

The Government’s strategy has been to support efforts to find a comprehensive and sustainable solution to the refugee crisis; we must deal with the root causes of this crisis, as well as respond to the consequences. The UK has been at the forefront of the response to the crisis in Syria and the region. The Government have pledged over £2.3 billion in support of the crisis in Syria; our largest ever humanitarian response to a single crisis. Under the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement (VPR) scheme, the Government have committed to resettle 20,000 of the most vulnerable refugees direct from the region. Around 2,800 people have arrived in this country since the Syrian VPR scheme began, around half of them children, and we are on track to meet this landmark commitment. The Government have also established a new resettlement scheme focused on children at risk in the Middle East and North Africa, the first of its kind focused on the region and which will see up to 3,000 people, of all nationalities, resettled to the UK over the next four years. We have worked closely with the UNHCR to develop this scheme and it reflects their advice on how best to safeguard the children caught up in this conflict.