Child welfare and refugee groups implore Education Secretary to protect unaccompanied children

Article 39 has joined scores of other organisations in urging the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to take immediate action to protect children arriving in the UK on boats. A joint letter, signed by around 70 organisations, was sent to Gavin Williamson yesterday afternoon (29 July) amid reports that the Minister had authorised the Home Office to put children into hotels without adult supervision and care. This includes children under the age of 16, even though the Department for Education has introduced legislation making it unlawful from early September for councils to put children in care this age in unregulated accommodation where they do not receive care. (We are currently awaiting the outcome of our application to the High Court for a judicial review of the Education Secretary’s failure to similarly protect 16 and 17 year-olds in care – more here).

The Children Act 1989 requires local authorities to look after children in their area who don’t have anyone with parental responsibility for them. This legislation applies equally to all children in England and Wales, no matter how they arrived in an area. Local authorities have consistently warned central government of their severe funding pressures. In June, Kent County Council declared it no longer had any capacity to care for children arriving on its shores, and threatened legal action against the Home Secretary Priti Patel for failing to ensure other councils took on the care of these very vulnerable children.

Article 39’s Director, Carolyne Willow, said:

“Desperate, frightened and traumatised children arriving in the UK on boats should be met by the best our country has to offer. With the Children Act 1989, we have gold standard legislation which should be guaranteeing these highly vulnerable children care and protection from local authorities. Yet the Education Secretary has authorised the Home Office to put them into hotels with minimal adult supervision instead. This once again exposes a care system which is being starved of funding, and Ministers tolerating the intolerable when it comes to children who rely on the state to nurture and protect them.”


Dear Secretary of State

We write as organisations which promote and protect the rights of all children, including those in care and who are care leavers in England, and which work to support people seeking asylum. We have grave concerns about the treatment of unaccompanied children who are arriving on their own in Kent amid reports at a recent Home Affairs Select Committee evidence session, and in the media last week, that extremely vulnerable children are being held in short-term holding facilities and accommodated in hotels with very limited adult supervision and care.

As you know, Kent County Council stopped taking unaccompanied asylum-seeking children into its care in June dueto “extreme pressure” on its services. Despite a damning report from Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisonscriticising the Border Force for inadequate oversight of detention practices for children, children have been held for extended periods of time at the short-term holding facility Kent Intake Unit and most recently in hotels. These facilities are completely inappropriate as accommodation for children, and were never intended to meet thispurpose.

To address this, rather than ensuring that very vulnerable and often traumatised children are looked after by local authorities, as the Children Act 1989 requires, we are alarmed to learn that you have authorised the Home Office toput children into hotels. This includes children who are aged 15 and under. This is despite the Department for Education introducing new legislation, which comes into force in six weeks’ time, making it unlawful for local authorities to place children in care this age in this type of accommodation. It is also not clear on what legal basis these steps have been taken as the duty to accommodate children in need cannot simply be passed to the Home Office. The Department for Education must take the lead in ensuring these children are treated as children first.

Unaccompanied children arriving in the UK have had to flee persecution and human rights abuses, their journeys are long and arduous and they need to be looked after in a place where they can begin to feel safe as soon as possible. The Home Office’s continued holding of children either in the Kent Intake Unit or in contingency accommodation, such as hotels, not only breaches their child welfare obligations under section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009, it could also amount to an unlawful deprivation of liberty and a breach of the Children Act 1989 which is clear that corporate parenting duties rest with local authorities.

A number of us wrote to the Children’s Minister at the start of the year, raising concerns about the treatment of children arriving unaccompanied into Kent and the urgent need for reforms to the National Transfer Scheme to remove barriers to children being cared for out of the county whilst ensuring that moves only took place when in the best interests of the child. In her reply, Vicky Ford recognised that “suitable care of these vulnerable children is paramount” and emphasised that Department for Education officials had been working with the Home Office and local authorities to secure placements for newly arriving children and young people as “a matter of priority” whilst also considering and developing “the options for sustainable change”. Yet, six months on, the situation for children has become even more desperate. Reports of vulnerable children sleeping on military-style camp-beds and being placed in hotels with limited numbers of agency staff expose fundamental fault-lines in our care system, which should be able to offer loving care and protection equally to all children, irrespective of their circumstances.

Despite the numbers of unaccompanied children arriving in the UK seeking asylum being lower than last year, the situation for children arriving has worsened. We are mindful of the huge financial pressures that local authorities are dealing with, and all our organisations are working constructively with local and national authorities to improve care and protection for vulnerable children in the longer term. But right now, arguments about responsibility between national and local government are taking precedence over protecting children from harm.

We urge you, as cabinet minister with responsibility for vulnerable children, to ensure this situation is resolved immediately and that appropriate lawful care and accommodation is provided to all unaccompanied children arriving in the UK.

Please contact me if the children’s voluntary sector can be of any help as you undertake this.

Yours sincerely

Kathy Evans, CEO, Children England

Carolyne Willow, Director, Article 39

Enver Solomon, CEO, Refugee Council

Mark Russell, CEO, The Children’s Society

Melanie Armstrong, CEO, Action for Children

Norman Goodwin, CEO, Adoption Matters North West

Dr Carol Homden, CEO, Coram Group

Lynn Perry MBE, Acting Chief Executive, Barnardo’s

Leigh Elliott, CEO, Children North East

Peter Wanless, CEO, NSPCC

Kevin Williams, CEO, The Fostering Network

Patricia Durr, CEO, ECPAT UK

Mark Simms, CEO, P3 Charity Group

Lee Dema, Project Manager, St. Matthew’s Project

Lauren Seager-Smith, CEO, Kidscape

Maggie Jones, CEO, Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies

Rita Waters, Group Chief Executive, National Youth Advocacy Service (NYAS)

Andy Elvin, CEO, TACT

Anna Feuchtwang, CEO, National Children’s Bureau

Robyn Kemp, Director, Social Pedagogy Professional Association

Ross Hendry, CEO, Spurgeons

Siobhan F Kelly and Hannah Perry, Co-Chairs, Association of Lawyers for Children

Vivienne Evans, CEO, Adfam

Mark Lee, CEO, The Together Trust

Navinder Kaur, CEO, Voluntary Action Islington (VAI) 

Temi Mwale, Executive Director, The 4Front Project

Fiona Sutherland, Deputy Director, London Play

Carole Littlechild, Acting Chair, Nagalro, Professional Association of Children’s Guardians, Family Court Advisers and Independent Social Workers

Katie Clarke, Director, Bringing Us Together

Andy Gill, Chair, BASW England

Andrew Varley, CEO, St Vincent’s Family Project

Jane Collins, Director, Foster Support

Ed Nixon, Every Child Leaving Care Matters

Jon Fayle and Paul Smart, Co-Chairs, NAIRO (National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers)

Jonathan Whalley, CEO, St Christopher’s Fellowship

Debbie Hughes, Director, Hounslow Action for Youth

Riyaz Raj, Director, RCC

Edie Friedman, Executive Director, Jewish Council for Racial Equality

Sharon Martin, Chair, National IRO Managers Partnership (NIROMP)

Sheila Melzak, Director, Baobab Centre for Young Survivors in Exile

Nick Watts, Director, Together with Migrant Children

Dr Hannah Baynes, Convenor, Young People’s Health Specialist Interest Group

Amy Golding, Joint Chief Executive, Curious Monkey Theatre Company of Sanctuary

Dr Ruth Allen, CEO, British Association of Social Workers UK

Elizabeth Booker, Director, Alternatives Trust East London

Emma Parish, Co-founding member, Safer Children UK

Claire Burns, Director, Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care and Protection in Scotland (CELCIS)

John McGowan, General Secretary, Social Workers Union

Dolyanna Mordechai, CEO, Resources for Autism

Dr Guddi Singh, Advocacy Lead, British Association of Child and Adolescent Public Health

Simon Barrow, Director, Ekklesia

Cathy Ashley, CEO, Family Rights Group

Lucy McGrath, Operations Director, Phoenix Youth Services Ltd

Victoria Langer, Interim Chief Executive, Become

Tania Bright, CEO, Home for Good

Sara Robinson, Director, St. Augustine’s Centre

Philip Ishola, CEO, Love146

Brigid Robinson, Managing Director, Coram Voice

Louise King, Director, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England

Louisa McGeehan, CEO, Just for Kids Law

Margaret Clarke, President, Soroptimist International’s Midland Chase Region Staffordshire UK

Denise McDowell, CEO, Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit

Charlotte Alderson, Solicitor and Senior Case Worker, Asylum Aid

Jo Cobley, CE, Young Roots

Christina Richardson, Editor, EAL Journal, NALDIC

Celia Sands, Director, South London Refugee Association

Graeme Duncan, CEO, Right to Succeed

Ellen Broomé, Director, CoramBAAF

Tim Naor Hilton, CEO, Refugee Action