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Opinion: Children in need, not invaders

11 August 2023

The Home Office is failing young asylum-seekers, argues Nicholas Reed Langen

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons

IN THE NOTEBOOK, by Ágota Kristóf, set amid an unnamed war, the main characters — twins — escape the bombing of the “Big Town” by being sent to their estranged grandmother. Feared and exploited by the townspeople as grandsons of “the Witch”, the twins come to want to “get used to abuse, to hurtful words”. They contrive to wipe their memories of loving words and kind actions. To survive, they must remember that all flesh is grass.

Reading about the Home Office’s decision to paint over the Disney murals at the Kent Intake Unit for asylum-seeker children (above) brought to mind this story. Some of the arrivals may have seen a glimpse of Mickey Mouse, or Baloo’s paw reaching out for a prickly pear, before they vanished under streaks of industrial grey paint. Robert Jenrick, the Immigration Minister, ordered this on the basis that the unit is not a “welcome centre” for children travelling alone, but a “law-enforcement centre”.

It may be lawful, if contemptible, for these children to be treated as unwelcome invaders. What is not lawful is for them to be abandoned to their own devices. Handing down its judgment in ECPAT v. Kent County Council & The Home Office last month, the High Court found that the “systematic and routine” use of hotel accommodation for unaccompanied children by Kent County Council and the Home Office violated their duty of care (News, 4 August).

The Children Act 1989 requires the responsible local authority to care for this “especially vulnerable” cohort. Given Kent’s geographical location, its children’s services have been under disproportionate pressure in caring for unaccompanied children. In 2021, it told the Home Office that more would have to be done to distribute responsibility across the country, and it refused to take any more.

Accepting this, the Government agreed the Kent Protocol, establishing the National Transfer Scheme. Under this scheme, children who washed up on Kent’s shores would be relocated to other local authorities. What the scheme failed to do was to establish any short-term immediate system of care. Instead, children were to be accommodated in hotels. Here, they were housed and fed, but no one was acting in loco parentis. No one was ensuring that they remained safe and secure.

THE predictable outcome has been that almost 500 children went missing, of whom almost 150 are still unaccounted for. These are not children who have run away from the care system, but children who, as Mr Justice Chamberlain found, “never entered the care system in the first place”.

Under the requirements of the Children Act, local authorities “shall” provide accommodation to any child “within their area” and to “safeguard and promote his welfare”. This duty is an absolute one. There is no discretion within the legislation; nor is there any scope for local authorities to derogate from it. Kent’s decision to do so regardless meant that the Home Office’s decision for a short, desperate period of time to use hotels, may have been lawful; it at least kept the children warm and fed. What was not acceptable was for such a policy to become “entrenched”. This, Mr Justice Chamberlain concluded, was what had happened. The exception had become the rule.

Kent County Council might have been the first movers in their abdication of responsibility, but they are not chief wrongdoers here. Ultimate responsibility lies with central government, and with the inability of the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, to get to grips with the broader immigration crisis. Kent’s decision for the most part was driven by financial and pragmatic exigency. The council was near to bankruptcy last year, while the number of asylum-seekers in Kent has helped to push its housing, education, and children’s services beyond tipping point.

If central government was engaging with the question of asylum in good faith, the Kent Protocol would have been unnecessary. Within his judgment, Mr Justice Chamberlain noted that the Education Secretary could have mandated Kent to fulfil its legislative obligations, providing the council with the funding necessary. Alternatively, the Home Secretary could have increased funding to Kent, offered financial incentives to other local authorities, or brought in more robust enforcement measures. Neither secretary of state pursued any of these lawful courses of action.

THE children who have been failed by the Government are innocents sacrificed as part of a broader culture war. Asylum has become a totemic issue for the Government, emblematic of its broader “war on woke”. But, no matter what the average voters’ views on asylum are, few votes are going to be won through deliberately making children suffer.

As reports emerge of Ms Braverman considering resurrecting the Ascension Island relocation scheme, it might be that ministerial decision-making in the Home Office now defies comprehension. Faced with challenges that they do not have the intellect, skills, or basic human compassion to deal with, the Home Office is lashing out. Not only do its policies not address the issues, but they could — as the High Court noted — open ministers to criminal prosecution.

The children in Kristof’s novel were abandoned by society. To adopt the legalese of Mr Justice Chamberlain’s judgment, they were not “looked after by a corporate parent with the relevant expertise and experience”. So, too, are the children failed by the Government and Kent County Council. Children are society’s weakest and most vulnerable members. A government that can no longer care for this group does not deserve the label of government at all.

Nicholas Reed Langen is a writer on legal and constitutional affairs, a former Re:Constitution Fellow (2021-22), and editor of the LSE Public Policy Review.

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