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Children Seeking Asylum: Safeguarding

Volume 827: debated on Monday 23 January 2023

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to safeguard unaccompanied children seeking asylum, and prevent them going missing from hotels.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice, and in so doing point out my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

The rise in small boat crossings has meant that we have had temporarily to accommodate children in hotels while local authority accommodation is found. When a child goes missing, a multiagency missing persons protocol is mobilised. Many of those who have gone missing are subsequently traced and located. We must end the use of hotels, and as such we are providing local authorities with children’s services the sum of £15,000 for every eligible young person they take into their care from a UASC—that is, an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child—hotel by the end of February 2023.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. As the chief constable of Great Manchester Police has said, these vulnerable young people are going missing after they have been snatched by those involved in drug crime and child sex trafficking. Experts indicate that the present system is not working as well as it should and suggest one major change that the Home Office could implement. That is that the Home Office becomes the corporate parent of those young people until such time as the local authority has completed the assessment and arrangements have been made. Will the Home Office look into that and implement it?

There are many reasons why children go missing from care generally. This is true also of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. We are not in a position—and it would be wrong—to make generalisations regarding the reason for their going missing. I will take back to the department the suggestion that the Home Office could become a corporate parent.

My Lords, is it not deplorable that over an 18-month period, some 600 unaccompanied children have disappeared from this hotel and some 79 are still missing? What can the noble Lord tell us about the fate and the plight of those missing children? What were their countries of origin? What safeguarding is now in place at that hotel? Most importantly of all, the noble Lord has said the use of such hotels will be phased out, so how long will that take?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. Clearly, the statistics he cited are not entirely correct. Let me put on record what they are. The Department for Education collects data annually on the number of looked-after children in England, as well as missing, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. The Home Office has no power to detain unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in those hotels, and we know that some of them go missing. Many of those who have gone missing are subsequently traced and located, as I have already said. The numbers are as follows. Over 4,600 children have been accommodated in hotels since they were opened in July 2021. Of the 440 missing episodes—the term “episode” is used, as some children go missing and are then located but subsequently go missing again—all have been male save for four who have been female. Two hundred of the children remain missing, and only one of them is female; 88% are Albanian nationals and 13 are under the age of 16. The average length of stay in hotels for UASCs is 18.23 days. I am afraid I cannot give an exact answer to the second part of the noble Lord’s question, on how long it will be until we can phase out the use of hotels. Our hope is to phase them out as soon as we can.

The people I have spoken to who have been to visit the hotels have come away very anxious about the lack of knowledge or ability of anyone around or outside the hotel in safeguarding; and, as the Minister has just said, they cannot detain children. They know that predators are around, and we know that predators are one step ahead in terms of trafficking and indeed child sex abuse of most of the organisations that are around to safeguard. This is a huge issue. It is a shaming issue, and I hope the Government take it very seriously and work very hard to make sure that trafficking, as we now know it, is not being fuelled by the policy around children unaccompanied in hotels.

I can assure the noble Baroness that the Home Office takes very seriously the safeguarding of the young people who are in the hotels. Their safety and well-being are our primary concern. As I have already said, we have no power to detain them; however, children’s movements in and out hotels are monitored and recorded. They are also accompanied by support workers when attending organised activities and social excursions off site, or where specific vulnerabilities are identified.

When a young person goes missing, the missing persons protocol is followed, led by our directly engaged social workers. We have a protocol called “missing after reasonable steps”, which enables children’s homes and supported accommodation placements to have more ownership over the missing episodes of children in their care. It is a set of forms that helps with safeguarding, planning and prevention prior to a child being reported missing; it also encourages lines of inquiry, as is expected of a person with responsibility for that child. When used correctly, similar protocols in police forces have safely reduced the number of missing episodes from placements by 36%.

My Lords, as I speak at this minute, thousands of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children across Europe are suffering. They are being abused and trafficked. They are self-harming; indeed, as a report from the Council of Europe, which I took part in, showed, a number have taken their own lives. These refugee children not only need our protection; they are entitled to it. Can the Minister say whether he agrees with that and whether this issue will be at the core of the Government’s approach to looking after them?

I can assure the noble Lord that, as I have already said, the safeguarding and welfare of these children are among the department’s top priorities.

As I hope I have made clear, responsibility for the inspection of the hotels rests with the borders inspectorate. The hotels have been inspected in the past year. It is appreciated that hotel accommodation is a temporary means of accommodating children. As I hope I have made clear, we try to make those stays as short as possible and ensure that the accommodation is of the highest quality possible.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the care with which he is responding today; it is appreciated. Can he say how well qualified the social workers and others are to support unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, because there are particular issues around them? Would it not be better if we had a system of placing an advocate for each child, who could help them through the system, as soon as they arrive?

Clearly, the move into hotels is as swift as we can make it once the unaccompanied asylum-seeking child comes to the attention of the authorities. The hotels have staff consisting of team leaders and social workers, all of whom are fully trained and able to work with the young people. All the children receive a welfare interview, which includes questions designed to identify any potential indicators of trafficking or safeguarding issues. I assure the right reverend Prelate that the steps are taken seriously among the staff of the hotels to assist the children in so far as they can.

My Lords, I think it is the turn of the Liberal Democrat Benches, then we will be delighted to hear from the noble Lord.

I thank the noble Baroness. I hope that the Minister will be confirmed in his pursuing of my noble friend’s point about corporate parenting by the chorus of approval that the suggestion received. Sadly, children going missing from care is not a new issue, as the Minister said. What is being learned from the two situations? What information and experience are being swapped, including on identifying the fact that traffickers, criminals and other dodgy people are hanging around outside different establishments hoping to catch a hold of their victims, as I shall call them as well as children?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. An important feature of the hotel accommodation specifically provided for UASCs is the security for each hotel facility. Clearly, that security then matches the layout of each hotel and, as I say, residents are asked to sign in and out. Any suspicious activity identified by the security contractors is reported to the police and should be investigated by them if they think that there are grounds to do so.

My Lords, the Minister has just told us that, on his own figures, hundreds of children have gone missing. Has he asked his officials what investigations that department has made to find out where they have gone, who they are with and what risks they face?

I hope that, as I have already set out, as with children’s homes more generally, when there is a missing person episode, the missing person protocol is followed, which involves investigation by the police. The Home Office is obviously not in a position to replace the police in that investigatory task and, accordingly, that is how the children are identified when they can be.

We are all horrified by what we have heard and read about these cases of children going missing—I will say “kidnapped”—from some of these homes. Is it true that the Home Office were warned months ago about these problems? Is it true that the Home Office ignored those warnings and failed to act? If so, that is a failure of the state to act as a parent. With Home Office sources denying that these children have been kidnapped, can the Minister at least confirm that the department accepts legal responsibility for their safety now, even if it did not in the past?

Certainly, the department does not know of any cases of kidnap. The reports in the media over the weekend are of course the subject of investigation within the Home Office but, at the moment, nothing like that has been reported to us to my knowledge.

My Lords, as a matter of law, the children are in the care of the local authority of the particular hotel, so I am not sure about corporate parenthood. It may be a very important situation, but I suspect that it is not a legal situation. What is perhaps more important is the Government giving additional money to the local authorities where these hotels are to get foster parents and homes for the children so that they do not stay in hotels.

I entirely agree with the legal analysis by the noble and learned Baroness. As I hope I made clear in my earlier Answer, further money is provided—I mentioned £15,000—to each local authority in relation to the unaccompanied asylum-seeking child.

My Lords, I have listened carefully to the answers given. Having read the lurid headlines and newspaper reports, I was under the impression that people trafficking of these young people was a given. It is possible that I am confused, so can the Minister clarify that there is no evidence of what has happened or why these children have gone missing? If there is no evidence, is it not attendant on all of us in this place not to allege what we do not know to be true as though it were fact?

The noble Baroness is very perceptive. Unfortunately, there is a temptation to adopt the most lurid interpretation but, as I said a moment ago, there are many reasons why children go missing. There is no basis on which to make generalisations as to those reasons.