Politics

Councils forced to take unaccompanied children arriving in small boats

Councils across England will be forced to take child asylum seekers who have arrived in the country without parents or guardians in new plans set to be announced on Tuesday by Priti Patel.

Ministers are writing to more than 200 local authorities telling them that the voluntary National Transfer Scheme (NTS) is to become compulsory.

Local leaders will be informed of the changes later. The move means that young people will be moved out of hostels on the south coast, where they arrived, and into permanent accommodation across the rest of England.

The changes come as the home secretary faces growing pressure from No 10 and senior Tory MPs to stem the flow of people making the treacherous journey across the Channel in search of a better life.

Record numbers of people are entering Britain from France. According to Home Office data, the number of people who have made the journey in small boats this year is now three times the total for the whole of 2020.

At least 886 people succeeded in reaching the UK on Saturday, bringing the total for the year to more than 25,700, while 8,417 people crossed the Dover Strait in 2020.

Over the weekend, Labour accused the home secretary of “dangerous” failures, claiming she is more interested in “diplomatic spats” with the French government than finding workable solutions.

After reports surfaced that Downing Street is to send an additional minister to the Home Office to deal with the issue, Boris Johnson’s spokesperson on Monday twice declined to praise Ms Patel’s strategy.

The government has repeatedly vowed to crack down on crossings and pledged millions of pounds to aide French authorities to tackle the issue. But maritime laws mean that it is a difficult problem to solve.

Ms Patel told MPs in the House of Commons on Monday that councils around the UK needed to “play their part” in offering accommodation to asylum seekers.

The home secretary, whose party has been in charge of immigration policy since 2010, said there “is no silver bullet” to tackling the migrant issue, adding: “The only solution is wholescale reform of our…system.”

Councils such as Kent on the south coast are disproportionately affected by the issue because they are ports of entry for asylum seekers.

Earlier this year, Kent refused to take more unaccompanied child migrants after warning that its services were at breaking point for the second time in 12 months.

Speaking after the changes were announced, councillor James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association, said the majority of local authorities had stepped forward voluntarily to offer help and that councils will want to work “closely with government to ensure the rights and needs of children are at the heart of these new arrangements”.

He added: “These need to enable local partners to give children the help they need, including mental and physical health support and appropriate education.

“Councils continue to face challenges in finding appropriate homes, with ongoing issues around centrally-led age assessment and delays in decision-making adding uncertainty for both councils and young people.

“These new arrangements must continue to swiftly take into account existing pressures in local areas, with greater join up across government to improve engagement with councils on all the programmes that support new arrivals to start new lives in the UK.”

Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “Children who arrive in the UK on their own seeking safety are highly vulnerable. They must receive local authority care immediately, a responsibility that must be shared equitably by all local authorities in the UK.

“This important decision should reduce the unacceptable delays in vulnerable children, who have often experienced great trauma, getting the vital care they need and is a very welcome move.”

A Home Office spokeswoman said: “The government is working to ensure the needs of newly arriving unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are met.

“We are grateful for the continued support of local authorities to provide vital care to vulnerable children and we continue to keep the NTS under review to ensure a fair and equitable distribution of responsibility across the UK.”

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