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Children Seeking Asylum

Volume 834: debated on Tuesday 5 December 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government, in the past two years, how many unaccompanied children seeking asylum aged 12 and under have been placed in hotels while waiting for local authority placement.

My Lords, the well-being of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children is our priority. We maintain that the best place to accommodate these children is in the care of the local authority. From November 2021 to November 2023, 32 unaccompanied children aged 12 and under were temporarily accommodated in hotels, awaiting placement. It is important to clarify that this data has been extracted from live operational databases and is not available in routine published data.

I welcome the noble Lord to his new role and wish him well with what will be a very challenging brief. A report last week by the Children’s Commissioner on unaccompanied children seeking asylum who have been placed in Home Office hotels showed that, while on their way to the UK and once here, 198 reported beatings or assault, 25 reported rape or sexual assault, 34 referred to torture, and there were some indicators of organ harvesting on or before their journey to the UK. However, the Home Office could not confirm that all these children had received healthcare or appropriate safeguarding measures while in Home Office hotels. What will change to make sure that this lack of care and safeguarding never happens again?

I thank the noble Lord for his kind comments. I am acutely aware of his interest in this area. We should probably thank the Children’s Commissioner for looking into this; I understand that she has written to the Home Secretary, who will respond in due course. The cases the noble Lord raises are obviously distressing, but it is worth saying that the well-being of children continues to be our top priority and we will continue working with other departments to ensure their safety. We will continue to evaluate this and try to make improvements, as we go forward.

My Lords, I also welcome the Minister to his new post—it could not happen to a nicer person. What will happen to these children, and some of the older ones, when they reach the age of 18? Is it still the Government’s intention to remove them from the country?

I thank the noble Lord for his question, and I completely respect his views on this. I am acutely aware that he takes this very seriously and that the whole House listens to him. I can take his points away, but I know that that subject has been well covered in debates in this Chamber and elsewhere.

My Lords, I join others in welcoming the Minister to his place. I note that Kent County Council announced last week that new arrival centres for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are being planned in the area but that the council is waiting for funding from central government. As the Minister said, the right and best place for separated children is under local authority care. What is the timeline for the funding to be issued to support Kent County Council fulfilling its statutory duty, especially given that it is responsible for hundreds more children than the prescribed limit under the national distribution system? We do not want to return to the use of hotels.

I thank the right reverend Prelate for his question. He will have to forgive me, but I missed the beginning of it. I will take it away and make sure he gets a proper response from the department. He is absolutely right to say that local authority care is the right place for the children in question—we have been very clear about that. I know that the Government have provided funding support to local authorities. If he has specific examples where he feels that that has not been done then I will happily take them away. I am sure that the department is already aware of them.

Is the Minister aware that, according to the Children’s Commissioner, over 5,000 children under the age of 18 were in hotel accommodation between 2021 and May 2023—that is not quite up to date? None of those children was given any safeguarding support. The support apparently came from other people in the hotels and the hotel staff. The question asked by the commissioner, and which I now ask, is this: what on earth are the Government going to do about safeguarding children in the future?

I thank the noble and learned Baroness for the question. As I have already said, there are lessons to be learned from this. I am sure there are circumstances that noble Lords may be able to give as examples, but the department and the whole of government take very seriously the care, welfare and well-being of these children.

My Lords, I too welcome the Minister to his new role and congratulate my noble friend Lord Dubs on his birthday. What do the Government say to not one but two High Court decisions now holding them in dereliction of their duty to these most vulnerable of children? Exactly how many went missing from hotel accommodation and how many have been found? In his new role, what efforts will the Minister take to find these missing children?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. I hope I do not damage her street cred by saying that I am an admirer of hers and that she has always been very courteous to me outside the Chamber—I hope that that continues in the Chamber.

Forgive me, my Lords, but it is worth making the point that this has all been in response to a rise in the number of illegal boat crossings since 2021, to ensure that the well-being of children and others is put first. The situation in the hotels is in response to that rise in numbers. The court case—the judicial review—is something that we are looking at, and we are considering the judgment that has just been handed down. It is worth saying that obviously we take any missing child extremely seriously; there are safeguarding procedures in place to ensure that, in those circumstances, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are located. Some have gone missing and have subsequently been located. I appreciate this is a long answer but one statistic it is worth giving is that, as of 1 December, there was a total of 472 episodes of missing children, and the total subsequently located was 340; the total number of individuals still missing is 132. This data is sourced from Home Office operational databases and does not form part of our regular statistical outputs, hence why I think there may have been some issues. I hope that by providing it now it is useful.

My Lords, as the right reverend Prelate has said, in September, at the High Court hearing, the Home Office agreed a grant of £9.75 million to help Kent County Council manage the maximum number of children it should have in its care; that was 346. However, it was reported last week that the Home Office has still not agreed the funding and, worse, that the actual number of children that Kent County Council is looking after is currently 519. When will the Government deliver on their promise, and also ensure that Kent County Council gets the support it needs from the Home Office?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. I think it is similar to one I received earlier and I am more than happy to take it away. We will continue to work with Kent County Council to tackle the issue. I do not have the answer in front of me, but I am more than happy to take that away to the department after Questions.

Further to the questions that we have had, would my noble friend not agree that this underlines how important it is for the Government to continue to tackle the criminalised gangs that are responsible for bringing many of these children to this country?

I thank my noble friend. I agree with most of the things he says, and I think on this he is absolutely right. It is important, as I have said before, to recognise that the hotel situation and the pressures that have been put on local authorities are because of this significant rise in the number of crossings. Let us not forget that. We talk about children, and obviously these are sad circumstances, but this is a result of smugglers who put these children at risk in the first place.