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Transfer of Responsibility for Relevant Children (Extension to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) Regulations 2017

Volume 788: debated on Monday 22 January 2018

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 7 December 2017 be approved.

Relevant document: 14th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, in bringing forward this secondary legislation the Government are seeking to extend the scope of the national transfer scheme for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The scheme, which the Government launched on 1 July 2016, makes it easier for local authorities to transfer legal responsibility for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children to another participating local authority. The scheme is designed to encourage a fairer distribution of unaccompanied children in local authorities across the UK so that a small number of local authorities are no longer asked to look after a disproportionate number of unaccompanied children and safeguard the best interests of the children concerned.

The national transfer scheme is underpinned by provisions in Part 5 of the Immigration Act 2016. Section 69 of the Act creates a mechanism in England to transfer the responsibility for caring for unaccompanied children from one local authority to another. Section 70 enables the Secretary of State to direct local authorities to provide information about their support to children in their care. Section 71 enables the Secretary of State to direct a local authority that refuses to comply with a request to accept an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child, with written reasons explaining its refusal. Finally, Section 72 enables the Secretary of State to require local authorities to co-operate in the transfer of unaccompanied children from one local authority to another.

These provisions currently apply only to English local authorities. This has meant that local authorities in Wales and Scotland and health and social care trusts in Northern Ireland have not participated in the scheme so far. In extending the scope of the transfer provisions in the Act, this statutory instrument provides the legal framework for local authorities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to accept transfers under the scheme.

I want to make it clear that the national transfer scheme was designed as a voluntary scheme and we hope that local authorities in Scotland and Wales and health and social care trusts in Northern Ireland will feel able to participate. My officials have worked closely with their counterparts in the devolved Administrations and the local government associations in Scotland and Wales to take account of the unique circumstances in each nation.

As I have already mentioned, there are provisions in the Act for the Secretary of State to mandate the scheme. The Government want the scheme to remain a collaborative effort between central, local and devolved government, and it is in that vein that we have worked with partners across the UK to develop proposals to extend the scheme.

The national transfer scheme has made significant progress since it was launched in July 2016, and we are grateful for the support provided by local authorities that are looking after unaccompanied children. Up to the end of September 2017, 555 unaccompanied children had successfully been transferred. That is a significant achievement but obviously there is more to do. There are still more than 4,500 unaccompanied children in English local authorities, and a handful of local authorities continue to look after a disproportionate number. If we are to achieve a fairer distribution of caring responsibilities across the UK, we need local authorities from all parts of the UK to be able to participate in the scheme so that all children can be afforded the best possible care and support.

We know there is support for the national transfer scheme across the country. That is why it is so important for this legislation to come into force: so that we can build on the excellent work of local authorities in every part of the UK in caring for asylum-seeking and refugee children, and ensure that the national transfer scheme is truly national. I beg to move.

My Lords, we on these Benches support the national transfer scheme. We believe it is only fair that it should be extended, preferably on a voluntary basis, to the devolved Administrations, particularly since they have been widely consulted. We thank and congratulate those local authorities that have accepted children. Often it is a significant burden, particularly to certain local authorities because of their geographical location, so it is only right that the burden should be spread.

However, I have some questions. How many unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have already been received by the devolved Administrations under the voluntary scheme? What representations have been received from the devolved Administrations about the adequacy of the financial support available to them? How well are families who look after asylum-seeking children supported? There are considerable language and cultural issues with which they need support.

What about the social workers and, preferably, guardians who are needed to steer the children through the process of giving statements to solicitors and to the Home Office? They need advice on the meaning of, for example, “leave until 17 and a half”, which actually means the refusal of an asylum application although it does not sound like it. They need proper professional advice. Lastly, under the present circumstances, what will be the effect on these regulations, if any, of the lack of a power-sharing Administration in Northern Ireland?

My Lords, of course, the transfer scheme has been necessary. There has been more pressure on Kent and Croydon than on other parts of the country, so no one questions the necessity of the scheme. Therefore, it is good to bring Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland within its scope. I am a little puzzled as to why that has not been done sooner. The scheme has been going for some time. Either it was unnecessary earlier, in which case the Minister will tell us, or there is some other reason. Perhaps she could also tell us how some children have been transferred to Scotland without being part of the scheme, which did not then exist.

I notice from the Explanatory Memorandum that the Government intend to review the funding to be provided for local authorities. I know that the Explanatory Memorandum is not an integral part of the regulations, but it is nevertheless interesting that it has been stated there, and I very much welcome it.

I also welcome the reference to the safeguarding strategy. Can the Minister assure us that the strategy, which was agreed some time ago, will apply equally to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? I think that was the intention, but I am not sure it has happened.

Will the Home Office set up a new consultation to deal with the process of getting children to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? I assume that it has some method of contacting the local authorities there directly—perhaps the Minister will confirm that—so that they can respond immediately; or will this be done through the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly? In any case, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, there is also the question of what will happen specifically in Northern Ireland.

We have discussed before the adequacy or otherwise of previous Home Office consultations with local authorities, and we need a new one. If we are to have another consultation on children covered by the transfer scheme, could it not also address other unaccompanied asylum-seeking children dealt with under the new agreement reached between the Prime Minister and President Macron a few days ago? The Home Office could have one wider consultation covering local authorities’ possible responses to the new children coming in, and to those who are the subject of the transfer scheme. This is not the occasion fully to discuss the Sandhurst agreement. All I would say is that, as far as it goes, it is very welcome.

My Lords, I am happy to support the regulation before the House and declare an interest as a local councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham and a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

I first pay tribute to Kent County Council, members and staff, who have for many years worked very hard to deal with the issue of asylum seekers, particularly vulnerable unaccompanied children. Kent’s proximity to France and mainland Europe, and its ports of Dover, Folkestone, Ramsgate and other ports and harbours has meant that it has had to carry a heavy load. We are very grateful for that, as we are to all the other local authorities that have taken unaccompanied children in recent times.

All of local government should play a full role in looking after children fleeing conflict and there is no excuse for any local authority not to do so. So I welcome the Government taking these powers. It is right that they should be extended UK-wide, as this is a national response to a human tragedy. I hope it will not be necessary to use these powers as I hope every local authority in the UK will be willing to step up and play its part.

That is not to say that I do not have some criticism of the Government’s handling of the child refugee crisis. Despite votes being won in this House, pledges given and legislation amended, the Government’s response can sometimes be seen as mean-spirited in respect of children, and that is a matter of much regret. More should and could be done to protect vulnerable children who are fleeing persecution. We could take more children if we were minded to do so.

That means not only children in northern France but those in Italy and Greece who are also vulnerable. My noble friend Lord McConnell could not be here. He had another engagement and could not wait, as business has gone on a bit longer than we thought it would today. I know that he had some positive discussions with officials from the noble Baroness’s department. He was going to raise the issue of discussions between Ministers in the UK Government and Ministers in the Scottish Government, and whether there had been correspondence between them. If so, could that correspondence be published?

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and my noble friend Lord Dubs raised important points, and I look forward to the response to them. Having said that, I support the instrument and think it is a positive step forward.

I thank all noble Lords who have spoken on this statutory instrument. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked about the numbers in the devolved authorities. According to our management information, at the end of July 2017 there were 124 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the care of Scottish local authorities, the majority of whom are in the care of one Scottish local authority—Glasgow—while Edinburgh has 22. According again to our internal management information, at the end of July 2017, there were 55 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the care of Welsh local authorities.

The noble Baroness asked whether the number of children being transferred would be affected by the power-sharing agreement. I do not think so. Power sharing is a huge matter, but in Northern Ireland it is power sharing that has been argued over, not this issue. On the same note, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, asked why some children went to Scotland even though the secondary legislation is not in place. There was never any reason why they could not go to devolved authorities. Some went directly from countries abroad and never came into England; they went directly to Scotland, and to Wales, I think. The noble Lord asked why we have not brought this instrument forward sooner, but it is for that very reason. It could always have happened, but the devolved Administrations were unsure of their position. In many ways, this clarifies the position and puts it beyond doubt.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, talked about funding for local authorities, which is a very important point. It has been a key concern raised by local authorities and local government partners. To coincide with the launch of the NTS in July 2016, the Government significantly increased the funding they provide to local authorities for unaccompanied children below the age of 16. We increased it by 20% so that local authorities now receive over £41,000 a year. For those aged 16 and 17, who account for more than 60% of newly arrived unaccompanied children, we increased the funding by 28% so that local authorities receive £33,215 per annum. In addition, we increased the funding we provide to local authorities for former unaccompanied children who go on to attract leaving-care support by 33%. Local authorities now receive £200 per week.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked about social workers and guardians. The Home Office and the Department for Education have been working closely with local government’s Association of Directors of Children’s Services to ensure that guidance is available to local authorities on immigration outcomes. All unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are referred to the Refugee Council’s children’s panel and are entitled to legal advice.

Further to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, about bringing forward secondary legislation, we are looking for parliamentary time to allow it. He also asked whether we would consult the Scottish and Welsh Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive. As the noble Lord knows, we consulted the devolved Administrations in developing these regulations and will continue to do so. In operating the scheme, we will work very closely with regional strategic migration partnerships in the devolved Administrations with a view to identifying suitable placements. I hope that I have answered the noble Lord’s questions.

Motion agreed.