There is consensus that a hotel is not the right place for children to be living. The LGA agrees with the Government in wanting the National Transfer Scheme (NTS) to work well in ensuring unaccompanied children.
- Councils continue to work hard to support and deliver the many programmes for refugees and asylum seekers currently in operation. Local government is keen to play a constructive role in supporting asylum seekers and refugees, and to work closely with the Government to ensure systems of support work well.
- There is consensus that a hotel is not the right place for children to be living. The LGA agrees with the Government in wanting the National Transfer Scheme (NTS) to work well in ensuring unaccompanied children have a placement which best meets their needs.
- Placing large numbers of vulnerable children and young people, up to 100 in some examples, in a hotel in a short timeframe will impact on councils’ abilities to deliver on their own statutory responsibilities. For example, it will not be practical to provide the additional social worker support that will be needed to keep children safe.
- The key issues in councils’ roles and responsibilities to support unaccompanied asylum are summarised below, with more detail and potential solutions in the following section:
- Placement capacity. There are significant challenges across children’s social care with regard to the sufficiency of appropriate placements for all children in care.
- Workforce capacity. Councils are reporting increasing difficulties recruiting and retaining children’s social workers, with these problems being exacerbated in recent months by the dual impact of the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis.
- Funding. Councils are concerned that current funding rates do not fully cover councils’ cost of supporting these children and young people, particularly care leavers.
- Asylum decisions. Children and young people can wait for a significant period of time for a decision on their asylum claim. Lengthy delays mean that many children turn 18 while waiting for a decision. This means that they no longer automatically receive the same protections and support as children, such as a legal representative, responsible adult and interpreter.
- Age assessment. This is a challenge to local authorities, both from a child protection perspective to ensure that children are appropriately safeguarded (either as children or ensuring that adults are not placed with children inappropriately) and from a legal perspective.
- System capacity. The broader asylum and immigration system has been under significant pressure for some time, with these pressures increasing as a result of high numbers of asylum-seekers arriving on small boats.
- The LGA is keen to work with the Government to ensure there is more placement capacity for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) to support better integration outcomes for them and to end the use of hotels for vulnerable groups of young people.
- There needs to be a clear recognition from and understanding by the Government that while it is important for children to be moved swiftly from hotels, councils also have clear statutory responsibilities to ensure that children transferred to their care are moved to placements that best meet their needs. These duties ensure children are not only safe but receiving the support they need, and careful placement planning allows councils to appropriately manage the inherent risks that are transferred to them when they take on corporate parenting duties for a child.
- The LGA believes it is not right and unacceptable that the Home Office is able to take actions in delivering on its own responsibilities to accommodate asylum seekers in a way that will result in councils being unable to meet their statutory duties in relation to UASC and also adversely impact the delivery of their statutory responsibilities to their wider populations, including children already in their care.
Key issues: Support for lone children
The key issues in councils’ roles and responsibilities to support unaccompanied asylum include:
- Placement capacity. There are significant challenges across children's social care with regard to the sufficiency of appropriate placements for all children in care. Councils also highlight the importance of acting in a child’s best interests when agreeing a placement. For UASC, children may wish to be placed close to friends they have travelled with or within communities that speak their language or practice similar customs. Some councils report that UASC have run away from placements where these are not in areas they wish to be. The LGA has been calling on the Government to help councils to develop more placements for unaccompanied children so they can be moved directly to their long-term homes. While some commitments have been made to trial new approaches to providing placements, including a focus on foster carer recruitment and regional working, these will not deliver an increase in placements before arrivals start to increase again this Spring.
- Furthermore, the Department for Education in March confirmed that it will proceed with plans to introduce regulation for supported accommodation settings for children in care aged 16-17; these regulations will apply from October 2023. While the LGA supports regulation of these settings, which will help to ensure high quality provision, we are very concerned that in the short-term this will see providers exit the market and the cost of provision increase. 69 per cent of UASC aged 16-17 live in such settings (much higher than the 27 per cent of non-UASC children in care), and the ability to find them suitable homes will therefore be significantly affected should these impacts materialise.
- Given the potential impacts on support and accommodation for lone children, amongst other issues, the LGA is keen to work with the Government on the development and subsequent implementation of the Illegal Migration Bill. More information is given in our briefing on the Bill.
- Workforce capacity. Councils are reporting increasing difficulties recruiting and retaining children’s social workers, with these problems being exacerbated in recent months by the dual impact of the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis. These challenges are diminishing capacity within children’s services departments, making it more difficult to provide support to additional children. Supporting UASC can also require specialist skills, including an understanding of the tensions between immigration legislation and child welfare legislation and a recognition of the likely trauma suffered by children on their way to the UK. These skills may not always be available in social work teams, particularly in areas with less experience in supporting UASC.
- Funding. Councils are concerned that current funding rates do not fully cover councils’ cost of supporting these children and young people, particularly care leavers. Furthermore, this funding does not address the more fundamental funding challenge in the system which is in relation to the daily or weekly funding rates for councils supporting unaccompanied children and care leavers (the latter in particular). Certainty that funding is sufficient to cover the costs of appropriate support to a young person is vital if councils are to feel able to offer homes to unaccompanied children. The LGA and local government have been calling for shared understanding of the true cost of care.
- Asylum decisions. Children and young people can wait for a significant period of time for a decision on their asylum claim. Lengthy delays mean that many children turn 18 while waiting for a decision. This means that they no longer automatically receive the same protections and support as children, such as a legal representative, responsible adult and interpreter. They can also have a significant emotional impact on children and young people whose futures are uncertain, while children’s social workers and personal advisers face additional challenges in developing plans for children’s futures. Furthermore, while young people aged over 18 are waiting for their decision, they have no recourse to public funds and subsequently require additional support from their local authority.
- Age assessment. This is a challenge to local authorities, both from a child protection perspective of ensuring that children are appropriately safeguarded (either as children or ensuring that adults are not placed with children inappropriately) and from a legal perspective. Challenges to age assessments can be lengthy and expensive for councils, drawing on significant financial and human resource. There is also growing concern around the number of presentations from those claiming to be children in accommodation for adults and families and the impact that has on local social care capacity.
- System capacity. The broader asylum and immigration system has been under significant pressure for some time, with these pressures increasing as a result of high numbers of asylum-seekers arriving on small boats. There are local challenges in relation to sufficiency of support services, long waiting lists for health services including mental health services, availability of housing and community cohesion issues, including far right activity centred around hotels. Pressures across the system, from financial and capacity pressures in children’s services through to long waiting lists for NHS support, have also been cited in the cases of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who have died by suicide, highlighting the risks to children as a result of failures in the current system.
Recommendations for change
The LGA and councils share the Government’s ambitions for unaccompanied children not to be in hotels. The LGA has always been clear that placing lone asylum-seeking children in hotels is unacceptable and needs to be a driver of system change.
Whilst the LGA recognises that the Home Office have made improvements to the support for children in hotels, we have grave concerns about the decision-making process in relation to standing up a hotel for UASC in a local area. There needs to be a proper assessment of the implications for local services, especially in relation to the statutory responsibilities of councils for unaccompanied children in their area.
The LGA believes it is not right and unacceptable that the Home Office is able to take actions in delivering on its own responsibilities to accommodate asylum seekers in a way that will result in councils being unable to meet their statutory duties in relation to UASC and also adversely impact the delivery of their statutory responsibilities to their wider populations, including children already in their care.
Recommendation: Improvements to post arrival support and reception
This may mean developing child-centred reception centres for unaccompanied children as an interim measure to stand down hotels and clarity on the legislative and regulatory framework for hotel use in the interim.
While hotels are plainly unsuitable for unaccompanied children, we are currently in a situation where a range of factors – in particular, a lack of suitable placements and an underfunded system – mean that we are unable to place every child as soon as they arrive in the UK. We must therefore find an alternative to hotel use to ensure children are safe and receiving appropriate care as soon as they arrive, while they wait for their long-term placement. Such an alternative should be used only as long as is required to develop sufficient new placements and to overcome challenges within the current system. We would expect a clear action plan detailing work that would lead to alternatives being stood down and all UASC being immediately transferred to their new homes.
The Government can learn from the experiences of Kent County Council (see Appendix A) in providing temporary support to new arrivals, as well as expertise from organisations such as Save the Children, and develop a series of reception and safe care services to replace hotels as an emergency, interim measure. These should be staffed by those appropriately trained in child safeguarding and support, including social workers. Children should remain in these services for as limited time as possible, which should be spent providing initial support such as mental and physical health services, assessing their needs to ensure that appropriate services are in place at their long-term placement, and identifying the best possible long-term home. This must be accompanied by a clear exit strategy.
In order to begin conversations with councils on possible sites, there is an urgent need to develop a clear ‘offer’ to councils including clarity of funding and legal arrangements, to recognise the additional pressure that hosting a reception service will place upon the local area. Councils with a reception centre should be exempt from mandatory participation in the NTS or be asked to provide permanent accommodation to a smaller number of UASC. Options to reassure host areas that adult asylum hotels or large sites will not be stood up in their area would also be welcome.
The Government should also explore options for primary legislation allowing the Government or a charity to act as the corporate parent to children in these reception services as a longer-term solution where reception services need to be stood up quickly in response to high numbers of arrivals.
Recommendation: Operational improvements
That is, improvement to age assessments before transfer, health assessments before hotel placements, accelerating decisions and a plan for children who have gone missing.
The crisis in the broader asylum system has seen increasing numbers of children being placed in adult asylum accommodation. These children, when identified, then need to be brought into local authority care to ensure they are appropriately safeguarded. However, these children do not then count towards a council’s assigned number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children that they are expected to accept through the NTS. This means that some councils have had to find upwards of 20 additional homes for UASC in addition to those they are asked to accept through the NTS, placing yet further pressures on placement, funding, workforce and support capacity.
The Government must ensure that unaccompanied children placed by the Home Office into adult hotels and subsequently identified by councils count towards a local area’s NTS allocation, to help manage local system capacity.
Young people should also not be waiting significant periods of time for decisions to be taken that will affect the rest of their lives. The Government should have clear targets to process most asylum decisions where children are involved. Given the impacts on councils and on children of the current decision-making process, the LGA is also keen for the Government to explore options for safe legal routes to the UK for asylum-seeking children, including strengthening rights around family reunification.
Recommendation: Addressing placement capacity
Much of the focus has been on foster care capacity but given the majority of the cohort are males aged 16-17, many of whom do not wish to live in a family setting, we need to work together and look at rapidly expanding other forms of accommodation and support that can best meet children’s needs including children’s homes, supported lodgings and semi-independent accommodation.
The Government should work with providers of supported lodgings and semi-independent accommodation to scale up provision, including the potential to build on support for the Homes for Ukraine scheme by encouraging people to consider if they could provide supported lodgings (subject to assessment and approval).
The Government could also consider the potential to block-book, or support councils to block-book, to enable swift transfers from reception authorities.
Additionally, the Government should investigate where planning regulations may be preventing councils and providers from using property to provide homes to children, including issues raised by the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care.
Recommendation: Addressing workforce capacity
That is, clearer ways for councils to use their workforce flexibly to support UASC.
While councils are working to use their workforce flexibly to support children, there is a significant shortfall in staffing. The Government must work urgently with partners to address this, for example through funding Return to Social Work programmes and identifying new routes into social work.
Recommendation: Recognition of the cost of care
Urgent uplift to funding rates for former UASC care leavers is needed, as well as reinstating access to additional funding for exceptional costs to support councils to provide homes to children with additional needs, including disabilities and health needs.
Recommendation: Sharing the learning
This could involve a funded programme of sector led support to share practice and support quick transfers.
There is good practice to be learned from those councils around the country who have worked to welcome UASC, including in areas not traditionally associated with supporting those seeking asylum such as more rural areas, particularly around building placement capacity.
The Government should consider funding the LGA to utilise its extensive experience in delivering sector-led improvement to implement an improvement support package to support councils to develop the capacity and holistic support to provide more homes to UASC. While this will not tackle the existing issues in the NTS, there is significant value in supporting councils to work together to identify solutions and make best use of existing resources while work continues at a national level to address the structural challenges.
Kent Reception and Safe Care Service
In September 2021, Kent County Council (KCC) signed an agreement with the Home Office to provide up to 120 care places at any one time for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) while they waited for their transfer via the NTS. This service is called the Reception and Safe Care Service (RSCS).
KCC remains the corporate parent for all UASC in the RSCS, and also supports UASC in its permanent care at the 0.07 per cent threshold (now increasing to 0.1 per cent). KCC receives funding per child to operate the centre.
The RSCS is supported by two social work teams responsible for placing the children and undertaking statutory social work tasks and includes a variety of provision:
- Two reception centres with capacity for up to 90 16–17-year-old boys.
- Semi-independent provision with tailored support for 16–17-year-old girls.
- Foster placements (often with independent fostering providers) for children under 16.
For all children, placement planning will identify needs to be addressed as part of care planning. A dedicated Independent Reviewing Officer supports the arrangements.
Reception Centres offer each child their own bedroom and food is provided. Both centres are overseen by an operational manager who is responsible for day-to-day management and developing the centre programme. The offer for children includes daily education activities focussing on English language learning, alongside sports, cooking, orientation to living in the UK and other activities guided by young people’s wishes. Each child has an allocated key worker who offers individual sessions, and there is a weekly residents’ meeting to seek young people’s views.
Council support for lone children
At 31 March 2022, councils were caring for 5,570 UASC. This was an increase of 34 per cent (1,430) on the previous year (though this followed a large decrease of 18 per cent in 2020-21 which was likely caused by the pandemic). 95 per cent (5,290) were male, and 87 per cent (4,870) were 16 and over (source).
On the same date, councils were supporting 11,650 former UASC care leavers aged 17-21. 91 per cent of these were male. Statistics published on 17 November 2022 identified that 26 per cent of care leavers aged 19-21 in England were formerly unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.
As arrivals disproportionately affect port authorities, the NTS has been established to move children from the area where they are first identified to care placements around the country. This was first established in 2016 and refreshed in June 2021 to incorporate a UK-wide voluntary rota, to encourage more councils to participate. Funding for councils supporting UASC was also increased at that point.
In November 2021, the Government informed all councils in the UK of its intention to temporarily make participation in the NTS mandatory under section 72 of the Immigration Act 2016. Since February 2022, all councils have been expected to accommodate UASC on a rota system, with the rota taking into account various issues including numbers of children in care and wider asylum pressures. Councils already at the UASC cap do not have to accommodate more children, but are able to if they wish.
There is currently a threshold applied to the numbers of UASC a council is expected to support. While councils are below this threshold, they must participate in the NTS and they cannot refer any UASC who arrive in their area into the NTS. The Government changed the threshold from 0.07 per cent of a council’s child population to 0.1 per cent on 24 August 2022. Councils receive more funding to support children when they are above the 0.07 per cent threshold.
- £143 per person per night (councils at or above 0.07%) - £52,195 per year.
- £114 per person per night (councils below 0.07%) - £41,610 per year.
- Where a council below 0.07% accepts a child from a council above 0.07%, the higher rate follows the child. This funding arrangement remains in place despite the increase in the threshold to 0.1 per cent outlined earlier.
Funding for UASC care leavers has also increased, with councils receiving £270 per week (£14,040 per year) per UASC care leaver until the young person reaches 21, or until 25 if they are in education or training. This funding is subject to the young person having eligible immigration status (for example, they have indefinite leave to remain, refugee status or they have an outstanding asylum claim). Councils continue to highlight the additional costs of supporting care leavers with no recourse to public funds.
There have been significant increases in the numbers of children arriving in the UK, largely in small boats off the south coast. In July 2021, the Home Office began placing UASC in hotels as children could not be placed quickly enough via the NTS. On 24 August 2022, in response to growing concerns around the number of children in hotels and the length of time these children were waiting, the Government implemented changes with immediate effect:
- Increase the UASC threshold on when a council can refer UASC into the NTS to 0.1% of a council’s child population.
- Reduce the number of days a council has to transfer a child referred to them from a hotel from 10 working days to 5 working days.
- Councils transferring a child from a hotel within 5 working days will receive an additional £6,000 to support that child.
The Immigration Minister, Robert Jenrick, wrote to councils on 16 December 2022 outlining details of a new funding pilot to support councils to invest in local authority infrastructure to enable movement of children out of hotels. Stage One of this pilot introduces a new conditional lump sum of £15,000 to accompany the transfer of each UASC from a hotel run by the Home Office from the Kent Reception and Safe Care Service. This could be made in advance of a transfer, allowing councils to pool funding to build capacity. The lump sum applies to transfers completed by the end of February 2023.Subject to the success of the first phase in reducing the number of unaccompanied children in hotels, phase two of the pilot will provide funding for councils to directly invest in long term accommodation options and more sustainable placements for UASC.
The mandation of the NTS was intended to reduce the use of hotels, however while rates of transfer have improved, at the start of September 2022 there were still more than 300 children accommodated in 5 hotels, with the fifth opening in Warwickshire days after the changes to the NTS were made in response to a period of particularly high numbers of arrivals. At January 2023, seven hotels were in operation.
3,256 children have been housed in hotels between October 2021 and September 2022, with the average length of time spent in a hotel 16.34 days. The legal framework for this provision remains unclear. As of 19 October 2022, 222 of these young people had gone, and remained, missing.
A report by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration in 2021 found that the length of time claimants wait for an initial decision has increased year-on-year since 2011. UASC who received a decision in 2020 had waited on average 550 days. Most are waiting for decisions that will be positive. In the year ending December 2021, 90 per cent of asylum applications from unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were granted; an increase from 78 per cent the previous year.
The age assessment of UASC is a challenging and controversial issue. It is an inexact process, with even “biological methods” such as dental checks or x-rays only offering a minimum age and a broad range of possible ages. Home Office guidance states that all asylum seekers and migrants who claim to be children must be asked for documentary evidence to help establish their age when they are first encountered. Where this is not possible, the principle of “the benefit of the doubt” is applied. Where there is uncertainty about whether the individual is an adult or a child, they should be treated as a child and referred to a local authority with a request for a “Merton compliant age assessment”. Individuals should be treated as adults if their physical appearance and demeanour “very strongly suggests they are significantly over 18 years of age and there is little or no supporting evidence for their claimed age”.
 Up from a maximum of £200 per week prior to 2020
2021 Q2 - 101 children transferred
2021 Q3 – 66 children transferred
2021 Q4 – 293 children transferred
2022 Q1 – 304 children transferred
 Much of the guidance and minimum standards for age assessments was set out in a High Court case involving Merton Council