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Missing Asylum Seeking Unaccompanied Children

Volume 831: debated on Monday 10 July 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to find all the asylum seeking unaccompanied children who have gone missing from Home Office care.

While the responsibility for locating missing children is ultimately for the police, the Home Office works closely with local authorities and other partners to try to locate missing unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and ensure that they are safe. As part of this, the Home Office continues to collaborate with the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the National Crime Agency to ensure consistency in our national approach and response.

I am grateful for that. Could the Minister help the House with the number of those who were lost and the number who have been found to date, and whether photographs have been passed to the police for a national campaign? What about the ongoing safeguarding issue? Recent court proceedings reveal that 40% of those now in unregulated hotels are under 16, including some as young as nine. Is that not a grave and dangerous dereliction of duty?

The noble Baroness would not expect me to comment on ongoing litigation. I can provide her with the statistics: there are presently 154 unaccompanied children who are currently missing. Of that 154, 100 have since turned 18, and 25 of the 154 currently missing were age-disputed individuals.

My Lords, the Minister will agree that these children are especially at risk, having come to a strange country and not understanding the language, of being easily picked up in cars and taken off, never to be seen again. Would the Minister be willing to explore the possibility of introducing stronger safeguards, so that we can be reassured that fewer of these children will be lost in the future?

I can reassure the noble Lord that we take the welfare of these vulnerable children extremely seriously. We have had no alternative but to temporarily use hotels to give children in this situation an immediate roof over their heads while local authority accommodation is found. I can confirm to the House that we have robust safeguarding procedures in place, to ensure that all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are accommodated and supported as safely as possible while we seek urgent placements with a local authority—and I might add that we are determined to stop the use of hotels as soon as possible.

My Lords, the judgment in the High Court in June of the Article 39 case shows that these children are indeed, as part of the Children Act, children in need, and covered by Sections 47 and 17 of the 1989 Act, and Section 11 of the 2004 Act. In light of that judgment, what changes are the Home Office going to make to ensure that local authorities can carry out their statutory duties, without hindrance, to those children who are placed in these hotels?

As the noble Lord will be aware, and as the court made clear, the situation was that the local authority was unable to accommodate these children on arrival, so the Home Office was obliged to accommodate them in the interim. Steps were taken to ensure that that accommodation was appropriate and secure. I can assure the noble Lord that obviously we continue to review the need for hotels and, as I said a moment ago, it is our ambition to close them as soon as we can.

The Minister has just said that the Government take the welfare of unaccompanied children seriously. How does that relate to the arrivals centre in Dover, which had cartoons and welcoming signs for children removed on the orders of the Home Office Minister because it might make the children feel too welcome? Is that not a disgrace? Is it not time that Government Back-Benchers felt as embarrassed as we are that this is happening in our country?

The murals that the noble Lord refers to were provided by our detention contractors and were not commissioned or approved by the Home Office. It is clearly the correct decision that these facilities have the requisite decoration befitting their purpose.

My Lords, our duty of care in the welfare of children is provided for in a number of ways: the Children Act is one, as is the routine of Ofsted inspections of schools and children’s care homes. Can the Minister confirm that, if an asylum-seeking unaccompanied child is found after going missing from Home Office accommodation, they will not be returned to hotel accommodation but instead will be returned to local authority care, where all their rights under the Children Act can be met and the quality of their accommodation will be subject to Ofsted regulation and inspection?

Obviously, each case is different. If a child were to go missing from Home Office accommodation, depending on when and where they are located, they would be either returned to the local authority, if a space has become available in local authority accommodation, or relocated for a short period and returned to Home Office accommodation. In all circumstances, the child’s needs and appropriate accommodation are paramount.

My Lords, frankly, I am ashamed of the Minister’s previous answer. I think people in this House and the wider community would have preferred his answer to be that it was a mistake to paint over those murals and that a contract will be commissioned to repaint them. We are a welcoming country. While I accept that the Government’s Bill is needed to deter people, it is time we showed some compassion.

As I say, the decoration of these facilities is a matter for the Home Office. It is a detention facility for those who have entered the country unlawfully and it is appropriate that it is decorated in a manner that reflects its purpose.

Can I ask the Minister to reflect again on what his noble friend and my noble friend Lord Dubs have just said? Is it really the Government’s position that it was perfectly justified to paint over these murals in a detention centre for children? Can the Minister not see how frankly astonished and, to use the noble Lord’s phrase, ashamed we are that this has happened? The least we would have expected is that the Government are sorry that it has happened, are looking into it and are going to make sure that it never happens again. Will the Minister reflect on his answer and see how appalled the Chamber was by what he said?

I reassure the noble Lord that we take the welfare of children in our care very seriously. The point is that those children are held at the Kent intake unit for only as short a time as possible. Of course, the age of the children held at that unit can be anything up to 18 years old and, as this House knows from repeated answers, the majority of those passing through that unit are in the upper end of the available age bracket.

My Lords, in response to my noble friend’s question earlier, the Minister said that local authorities could carry out their responsibilities under Section 17 of the 1989 Act—but how on earth can they do that if the Home Office does not tell them where these children are located?

The Home Office does of course notify local authorities of the arrival of children. We have something called the national transfer scheme, of which the noble Lord is no doubt aware, which has seen 4,875 children transferred to local authorities with children’s services between 1 July 2021 and 31 March this year. That is over six times the number of transfers as in the same timeframe in previous years.

My Lords, I think the Minister will be aware that we are at risk of losing our reputation as a country that upholds human rights, in particular those of children, because of the treatment of unaccompanied children under the Illegal Migration Bill. What plans does the Minister have to ensure that all unaccompanied children are cared for only under the auspices of local authorities and never under the Home Office in order to try to rescue the reputation of this country?

As I say, it is the Home Office’s intention to ensure that all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are placed into local authority care as soon as it becomes available. That has been achieved with great success in recent times. Indeed, for a number of weeks recently there were no asylum-seeking children in hotels—although that is not the case at the moment.