County has nearly double the number of children in care than is deemed safe
Kent County Council is threatening the home secretary with legal action as it warns its services for unaccompanied child migrants are at breaking point for the second time in less than a year.
The authority said it may no longer be able to accept new unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) within days, and has served a formal letter before action to the Home Office.
Kent has nearly double the number of UASCs in care the government says is safe to have, the council said.
The latest move comes after the council announced last August that it had reached its capacity to care for UASCs arriving on its shores despite efforts to work with the Home Office and other local authorities.
The council has taken the first steps in legal proceedings to implement a long-term solution aimed at preventing the crisis from occurring again.
The proposed judicial review asks Priti Patel to use existing powers to direct local authorities other than Kent to receive their fair share of UASCs.
Kent’s director of children’s services has advised the leader of the council that the current pace of arrivals and strain on care services is likely to mean he will no longer be able to safely accept any new UASC arrivals in the county before the end of this week.
Border Force will then be asked to place new arrivals directly into other local authorities around the country, as they did for three months last year.
Kent County Council leader Roger Gough said: “I am deeply saddened that we are now seeing a repeat of the same crisis of nine months ago.
“While there have been a number of welcome measures from government – to the benefit of the Kent council taxpayer – we have not seen what is most needed: a robust national transfer scheme that prevents port authorities such as Kent coming under unmanageable pressure.
“Over this last year we have argued consistently and repeatedly that this must be done through a mandatory system.
“The Home Office consulted on changes to the national transfer scheme in August and September last year and have yet to publish any new proposals or a response to the consultation.
“The scheme remains voluntary with insufficient incentive for other UK local authorities to transfer UASC from Kent.
“Kent residents deserve a resolution to this issue. We still do not have one. The wholly disproportionate strain on Kent’s children’s services continues to be overlooked.
“We must ensure that all UK local authorities with capacity share in the support of these children.
“Enough is enough. A robust, long-term solution is well overdue and critical for the future welfare of all children supported by KCC, whatever their background, and the continuation of the excellent services that support them.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Those who attempt to cheat the system place an unjust burden on the taxpayer and prevent genuine asylum seekers from getting support.
“This is why the government is bringing forward the new plan for immigration which will allow us to welcome those most in need through safe and legal routes, while preventing abuse of the system.
“We recognise the longstanding role that Kent County Council has played in supporting unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and are extremely grateful for their contribution.
“We continue to encourage more areas to join the national transfer scheme and do their part.
“We have already consulted on how to improve the scheme to make it fairer – the outcome of which will be published very shortly.”
The council said that in the absence of any substantive Home Office response to its proposal by 17 June, it will proceed to issue a claim for judicial review against the home secretary.
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “Children who travel to the UK seeking safety have endured horrific experiences including abuse and exploitation both in their home country and during perilous journeys to our shores.
“On arrival, it is not unusual for them to have physical injuries, hypothermia, dehydration and be deeply traumatised.
“Kent Council has been under immense pressure and not surprisingly is now unable to provide care for so many young people.
“As their corporate parent this government is now failing in its duty to provide the love and care these children desperately need.
“This cannot go on, we need decisive action to ensure that no child who comes to the UK alone seeking safety is neglected by the state.”