Home Office ‘loses’ 222 children, with 39 now missing for at least 100 days

New data released to Labour’s Shadow Children’s Minister, Helen Hayes MP, reveals that 222 children are missing from the so-called care of the Home Office.

Responding to a parliamentary question, Immigration Minister Tom Pursglove MP reports that 222 children “are missing” as of 19 October 2022, though provides information only in respect of 142 children.

Of these 142 children, information released by the Minister shows:

  • 39 children have been missing for at least 100 days;
  • 4 children have been missing for between 330 and 339 days;
  • 17 children went missing within a day of the Home Office taking responsibility for them;
  • 16 children went missing after being in the Home Office’s care for 7 days or more;
  • The children are aged between 15 and 17 years.

In July 2021 the Home Office, with the agreement of the Department for Education, began contracting with hotel owners to house children arriving in the UK on boats across the English Channel without any parents or carers.

The Children Act 1989 places responsibility for the care and protection of children without parents and carers on local authorities. A Home Office-led system called the ‘National Transfer Scheme’ is meant to ensure unaccompanied children quickly enter the care of local authorities, after they arrive in the UK following terrifying and perilous journeys. But last summer, in response to pressure on the children’s care system, the government started housing children in hotels along the south east coast, keeping them out of the care of local authorities.

Councils have consistently said they do not have the resources to look after unaccompanied children, though Article 39 is not aware of any publicly announcing they cannot look after any other named group of children.

Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s Director, said:

“This is a catastrophic child protection failure arising directly from a government decision to treat a group of highly vulnerable children differently on the basis of where they were born. There is no provision within the Children Act 1989 which cancels local authority child protection duties when a child was born outside the UK. Child welfare legislation does not discriminate against children on the basis of their race or nationality, but here we have a central government arrangement which does precisely that. This amounts to a form of institutional racism.

“The risks to children were always substantial, obvious and stark, yet the Home Office with the assent of the Department for Education has wilfully kept children out of the local authority children’s care system, and has failed in its duty of care.

“Had they been in care instead of Home Office-contracted hotels, every child who has gone missing, and remains missing, would have been entitled to a multitude of protections including access to independent advocates, health assessments, arrangements to get them a school or college place, visiting social workers and independent reviewing officers to ensure local authorities are fulfilling their obligations. Children should have been found loving homes with foster carers or been able to recover from their traumatic experiences in children’s homes registered and inspected by Ofsted. Instead, they have been grouped together on the basis of not being born in this country and hidden away in hotels, when the government’s own statutory guidance confirms similar bed and breakfast accommodation is unsuitable for vulnerable children, even in an emergency.”

This week, a report from the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration was published by the Home Office, having been delivered to government in June 2022. It sets out a catalogue of failures and states the Home Office has not assumed statutory responsibility for the children it has housed in hotels and is not their ‘corporate parent’. David Neal, the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, said: “This is not an area in which the Home Office should be operating”.

The inspectorate made four recommendations to the Home Office:

  • Immediately ensure all those working in hotels have been DBS checked and cleared
  • Within a month, carry out an assessment of the collective needs of children living in the hotels
  • Within three months, have arrangements in place to ensure children’s welfare is safeguarded
  • Within six months have an exit strategy for the use of hotels.

The Home Office fully accepted only the first recommendation and partially accepted the other three. In respect of undertaking an assessment of children’s collective needs (recommendation 2), the Home Office said: “We are partially accepting the recommendation as we are unable to deliver the assessment within the prescribed timescales”.

Carolyne Willow added:

“It beggars belief that the Home Office thinks it can continue to house children in hotels without knowing what the needs of those children are. That it claims a month is too short to undertake such an assessment is proof enough that it is incapable of looking after children and keeping them safe.”

Last year, Article 39 sought legal advice and indicated to the Home Office and the Department for Education that it was looking to legally challenge the housing of children in hotels. Along with many other charities, we expressed serious concerns about the safety and welfare of children. Councils were subsequently mandated to look after children (from November 2021), and the use of hotels appeared to reduce. We are discussing this latest information with our lawyers.

Unaccompanied children housed in Home Office-contracted hotels

At the end of March 2022, the Home Office reported that, during the period 14 July 2021 to 22 November 2021, 890 children had been housed in hotels by the Home Office prior to being looked after by local authorities. Of these, two children were aged 10 or under.

Earlier this week, again in response to a parliamentary question, the Home Office released data on the numbers of children taken to hotels each month between October 2021 and September 2022. It stated 3,256 unaccompanied children in total had been housed in hotels between October 2021 and September 2022, with an average length of stay of 16.34 days. The children were aged 14 to 17 years. The hotels are based in the local authorities of Kent, Brighton & Hove, East Sussex and Warwickshire.

A further parliamentary question answered this month reveals the Home Office is using five hotels to house unaccompanied children.