Parliament to debate Home Office’s accommodation of unaccompanied children

A debate is to be held in Parliament today (7 June) on the Home Office’s accommodation of unaccompanied children in hotels, led by Scottish National Party MP Deirdre Brock.

With the agreement of the Department for Education, the Home Office began housing unaccompanied children in hotels in July 2021. The Children Act 1989 unequivocally places on local authorities the responsibility for looking after children who are without parental care and protection. It does not discriminate on the basis of how children came to be in a particular locality, or how they became separated from their parents, siblings and wider family. Despite child welfare legislation applying equally to unaccompanied children, the government has housed more than 4,600 in Home Office-run hotels since July 2021, and children have gone missing on 440 separate occasions. At the end of January 2023, 200 children were still missing.

Earlier this year, with backing from the Good Law Project, Article 39 threatened legal action against the Home Office and the Department for Education unless they desist from housing unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Home Office-run hotels. We maintained that the government was unlawfully holding children outside the children’s care system and denying them vital legal safeguards, including the protection that comes from independent scrutiny of each child’s welfare and treatment through the independent reviewing officer (IRO) role.

The law requires that an IRO is appointed to every looked after child, to ensure local authorities properly plan to meet each child’s needs, carry out agreed actions and fulfil their legal duties. Where local authorities fail to carry out their duties, IROs are required by law to consider alerting Cafcass which has been empowered to take protective legal action on behalf of individual children in care, including under the Human Rights Act 1998.

Children looked after by local authorities also have the legal right to assistance from an independent advocate – to inform them of their rights and to ensure their views, wishes and feelings are known, understood and taken seriously. Children housed in Home Office-run hotels don’t have this legal entitlement, because they have been denied looked after status.

We also took the exceptional step of initiating proceedings in the Family Division of the High Court in respect of children who were missing from a Home Office-run hotel in Brighton and Hove. This followed whistle-blower allegations that children had been abducted and trafficked from the hotel. At the first hearing in March 2023, the Home Office told the family court that 66 children remained missing from the Brighton and Hove hotel. A second hearing was held in April, and judgment from that is awaited.  

The Immigration Act 2016 empowers the Home Secretary to establish a scheme for transferring children from one local authority to another. Local authorities can be directed by central government to look after children. (The Children Act 1989 similarly empowers the Education Secretary to direct a local authority to carry out its statutory functions towards children).

In June 2021, Kent County Council started legal proceedings against the Home Office because it was not directing other local authorities to look after unaccompanied children arriving in the UK on small boats. The leader of the council, Roger Gough, said: “Reluctantly, from Monday 14 June we will no longer be able meet our statutory duty to safely care for the children we support and can therefore accept no further new [unaccompanied children] arrivals until sufficient transfers have been made outside of Kent bringing our numbers back to safe levels”

In a letter to concerned charities in September 2021, the then Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, said that the ‘National Transfer Scheme’ had been launched on 26 July and “We therefore anticipate that the need to accommodate unaccompanied children in hotels will only be required for a short period”.

Nearly two years later, the Minister’s promise remains unfulfilled – there has been no government announcement that hotels will no longer be used. Instead, the widely condemned Illegal Migration Bill seeks to give the Home Secretary permanent powers to accommodate unaccompanied children, and will even (if passed) enable her to order local authorities to stop looking after individual children. The Bill further seeks to reintroduce the detention of unaccompanied children, which ended in 2011 (and its restriction to no more than 24 hours in a short-term holding facility put into law in 2014).

In another grave development, the Local Government Association suggests that reception centres could be opened to accommodate unaccompanied children, as an alternative to hotels, and that the law be amended to allow the government and charities to be each child’s ‘corporate parent’. The suggestion is that this could be “an emergency, interim measure” despite government’s failure since at least 2021 to ensure unaccompanied children are properly cared for and protected within our country’s hitherto universal children’s care system. Article 39 believes a move to reception centres, even if conceived of as temporary, would cement the removal of unaccompanied children from the child welfare system, and would be a deeply regressive and harmful move.

Last week the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the monitoring body for the Convention on the Rights of the Child, urged the UK Government to prohibit the housing of children deprived of their family environment in unregulated settings, including hotels. The Committee also recommended the urgent amendment of the Illegal Migration Bill so that clauses which threaten to breach the rights of children are removed.

The government has yet to make a formal statement in response to the UN Committee. However, in the House of Lords debate on the Illegal Migration Bill on 5 June, the minister Lord Murray simply repeated that the legislation will empower the Home Secretary to take charge of unaccompanied children when local authorities are unable to care for them. Peers widely and roundly condemned the government for its cruelty towards children, manifested through the Illegal Migration Bill. Baroness Meacher, a former social worker and Labour Peer, summed up:

As the Bill stands, trafficked children will be locked out of refugee protection. Instead, they will be detained by the Home Office outside the care system in entirely unsuitable, unacceptable accommodation without proper medical or mental health care, and removed at the age of 18. Those children will include a substantial number who are brought here as modern slaves. They have not chosen to come here. They have not come here voluntarily but have been brought against their will.