Cllr Roger Gough is the Leader of Kent County Council
Asylum seekers arriving on Kent’s shores. A council unable to meet its statutory duties. The same, Conservative council reportedly considering legal action against the government.
What is going on?
It starts with geography. As the closest and most direct link to the continent, Kent has consistently experienced large-scale arrivals of asylum seekers since around the turn of the millennium. In the last eighteen months, truck and train routes – which often meant asylum seekers making their claims elsewhere in the country – have been closed off or much reduced. It is small boat crossings through the short straits between France and the Kent coast, much more rarely seen before 2020, which have become the predominant route into the UK.
Most of those who arrive on Kent’s shores are dispersed across the country, but unaccompanied under 18s – Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children (UASC) – come into the care of Kent County Council (KCC) under the Children Act.
In 2015, 2020, and now again in 2021, UASC have arrived in especially large numbers. The Government’s National Transfer Scheme (NTS – of which more later) Protocol stipulates that no council should have more UASC in its care than 0.07 per cent of its child population. For Kent, that equates to 231 UASC. The current number in KCC’s care is 429. So far this year, over 300 have arrived and come into our care, up substantially on the same time last year.
Whatever the arguments about immigration in its various forms, KCC has no role in decision-making about it. Our role is to discharge our duties to those who come into our care, something that we have sought to do humanely and efficiently over many years, and we take pride in that record.
What starts as an immigration issue, rapidly becomes caught up in children’s services legislation. In 2018, for example, councils’ obligations to Care Leavers (young people over the age of 18 who have been in council care) were extended from the age of 21 to 25. This was a policy clearly not designed with UASC in mind but in Kent we have almost 1,100 Care Leavers of UASC background – a majority of those who use that service.
Last year’s increase in Government funding rates addressed the immediate burden on the Kent Council Taxpayer; however, this is not now an argument about money.
What this is about is the delivery of safe and effective services, not only to those of asylum-seeking backgrounds, but to all the young people in our care. With large-scale UASC arrivals, social worker caseloads rise to critical levels and placements have increasingly to be made outside the county, with safeguarding and supervision inevitably more challenging as social workers try to cover an ever more geographically disparate group of young people.
To put it another way, forget for a moment that the 115 young people who came into KCC’s care in May were asylum seekers. What council could take over 100 adolescents into its care each month for months on end without its services being affected?
And to what degree should any council, even one of the biggest in the country, shoulder the effects of what is a national and international issue?
That principle was recognised after the first of our recent crises in 2015. The Immigration Act 2016 established the National Transfer Scheme (NTS) with the aim of ensuring that councils across the country shared in responsibility for UASC. After the experience of Kent in 2015, the mood among policymakers, both national and local, was: never again.
Except that, by 2020, here we were again. Despite the Immigration Act giving the Home Secretary power to require, if necessary, local authorities to take UASC (‘mandation’), the Government disregarded Kent’s objections for a voluntary scheme. Within two years, placements under the voluntary NTS had first slowed and then stopped altogether.
Then, in a few short months in the spring and summer of 2020, hundreds of UASC arrived in Kent. By mid-August, its services overwhelmed, KCC reluctantly had to suspend its statutory duties and cease taking UASC into our care. This continued until, with numbers reduced, it was possible to resume in early December.
After this, the Home Office, working with us and with other local authorities, successfully placed hundreds of UASC across the country. Around half of the children’s services authorities in the country have accepted at least some UASC from Kent. However, half have not and by the early months of this year, the numbers being placed were once more slowing – and were rapidly overtaken by the big upswing in arrivals from the spring. And so, last Monday, for the second time in just under a year, Kent County Council once more suspended taking UASC into its care. Here we are again. Again.
The Government conducted a review and consultation on the NTS last autumn and revealed its proposals earlier this month. It proposes a regional rota system and has added to financial support to encourage local authorities to take part. But it is – still – a voluntary scheme.
The issue of these dangerous cross-channel journeys must itself be addressed, and that is rightly a government priority. But in any case I believe that we will only break this cycle of crises when there is a robust NTS sustainable over the long term. There is nothing in the experience of the last five years that suggests that a voluntary scheme can deliver this. KCC has twice had to suspend delivery of its legal responsibilities because its service was overwhelmed.
In our view, this could have been prevented by the use of provisions already on the statute book that have not been put into effect, and are still not set to do so. That is the basis of our differences with government, and of the Letter Before Claim that we presented to the Home Office earlier this month.
We have worked closely with the Government over the last year, and in some areas we have made progress. I appreciate the serious engagement of Ministers – especially Chris Philp, the Immigration Compliance Minister – in this. But in Kent, as in other areas with ports of entry, we need a resolution that will stick and that will last. We don’t yet have it.