Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No.95) (HC 670), on 2001-02 Special Grant For Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children

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Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Pike. I think that this is the first time that I have seen you in such an eminent position.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) and I will support the report because, as the Minister rightly said, it increases significantly the payments to local authorities. Indeed, the payments have increased significantly in each of the past two years. It also does one thing that was raised as an objection to the system last year, not just by us but by others who examined the matter independently, notably the Save the Children charity. It produced a report that said that young people over the age of 16 but under 18 should be treated like those under 16. It is important that they come into the system, which the grant rightly recognises.

I was reassured that the Minister spotted the obvious issue to which local authorities are all too alert, which is the almost entirely retrospective payment. I am encouraged that there might be a much earlier payment next year. The Minister will understand that there is huge pressure on the social services budget in every local authority in England, and that there is particular pressure on local authorities in the south, such as Kent and my borough of Southwark, because we have particular other demands, including the one that we are discussing. An almost impossible situation is made worse when the authorities do not know until a couple of weeks before the end of the year what services they will provide.

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The Save the Children report, which was funded by the Diana, Princess of Wales memorial fund and published since our last debate last year, concluded that when local authorities do not know how much they will receive the services are not as good as they might be. Perhaps the Minister could examine the recommendations in the summary of that report and ask her officials to prepare a reply on how the Government have responded on those matters that are central Government responsibilities. I hope that in the coming year there will be a decision that will allocate the money no later than the end of the first quarter of the financial year so that local authorities know the score by the summer holidays.

Secondly, it would help if the Minister could tell us in straightforward terms, rather than in algebraic formulae, for which I do not blame her, the basis of the assessment of £111 million. I know how the individual calculations are worked out. What ratio of financial responsibility do the Government think should be borne by central Government, through the grant and by local government through moneys they raise through council tax?

My third point concerns an issue that has arisen in the Chamber. The current asylum statistics, which we receive regularly, do not separate out unaccompanied children. This is obviously a Home Office matter and I ask about it with some diffidence, as I am aware that Ministers must be worried about asking officials to produce any more statistics. We have had enough trouble in the past over statistics and we have not always got them right. It is important to know periodically the figures for unaccompanied minors—that is those under 18. I should like to pause briefly to explain why it is important.

I have been struggling this afternoon to remember the name of a book, but I cannot and so this is one of those half helpful interventions. When I went last year for the first time to west Africa, a book by a south African woman journalist had just been published in this country and it won a children's book prize. It was based on the true story of two Nigerian children who were forced to flee Nigeria when the military took over. Their mother was killed and their father, who was a journalist, was at risk. He smuggled them out of his home and put them on a plane in the belief that a relative would look after them in the UK. The relative did not and they ended up in south London, where they went to school.

That book recounted the trauma and horror, touched on by the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), of what it must be like for refugee children who seek asylum here, hoping that someone will rescue them, not knowing whether they will see their parents or siblings again. They are totally dependent on strangers in an unfamiliar culture. It is hugely important that as a public policy issue we respond to that group of young people. It amazes me that there are so many unaccompanied minors. It is extraordinary that there were 6,000 last year and that the figure is now 6,500. It is not the fault of the British Government, but it is an extraordinary number in the totality of asylum seekers. We should have the figures

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if they are available. It would be helpful if arrangements could be made to ensure that they are made available at the earliest opportunity, and that at the same time other asylum statistics are produced.

Although it is undesirable in a way, it might placate some of those who have a hard and unsympathetic attitude if they understood how many people entered the country in a vulnerable position. They might understand that these people are not all exploiters, and that many of them are either exploited or extremely vulnerable.

I should like to pursue quickly the other matters that were raised this year and last year. I do not ask the Minister to give the list now, but it would be helpful if she could tell us how many local authorities fall into the category of special help because they have particularly high numbers of young asylum seekers. Last year the Minister of State, Cabinet Office said that the number had increased from 10 to 16. Has it risen again? After the debate, could the Minister give the hon. Member for Woking and me the list of local authorities in each of the categories and the number of asylum seekers?

I should like to ask a question that I asked last year. Are any unaccompanied asylum seekers still housed in detention centres? The answer last year was that some were. The Minister has been clear that it has been Government policy in the last year that no straightforward asylum seeker should be in prison, and therefore it follows that no young asylum seeker should be in a detention centre. I should be grateful for a reassurance that that is the case. What happens when the children become adults at 18? Some would prefer to remain where they are, rather than be taken back into a system and redispersed through the national asylum support service. Is that an option, and if there are satisfactory arrangements for them, can they stay?

This debate provides an opportunity every year to ask why we still continue our reservation on the United Nations convention on the rights of the child in relation to this and other matters. The Government keep telling us that nothing that they do is in conflict with the convention. If that is so, particularly now that it is government policy that no one should be in prison, it should be possible to remove our reservation. If we cannot, can the Minister explain why and whether it is government policy that we should be able to do so in the near future? That would be widely welcomed.

Will the Government examine recommendations 3 and 5 in the Save the Children report? Recommendation 3 says that the Home Office should

    ''improve procedures for assessing asylum applications from separated children in order to speed up decision times and ensure fair decisions.''

The Minister will understand that it is important to have speedy decisions in all cases, but the more certainty there can be for young people, the better. Will the Minister ask her colleagues in the Department what they have done about recommendation 5, which says that there should be a government specification of

    ''appropriate forms of care for young separated refugees, including strengthening guidance on when Section 20 of the Children Act (1989) should be applied''?

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I know from constituency experience that this is a real issue. We see how vulnerable people are at that age. They have no or very little English. They turn from the keen enthusiastic, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed youngsters, who want to try to make their way in the world, into terrified vulnerable people. This short debate is important. The additional sources are very welcome. We must ensure that we fulfil our obligations to these young people properly. I should be grateful if the Minister could as far as possible reassure us that that will be the case. I hope that the Minister can reassure the local authorities, which have the principal responsibility, that they will be adequately compensated for what is as important a job as any that they do.

4.59 pm

Angela Eagle: I hope that all members of the Committee will recognise that a 30 per cent. increase in funds goes at least part of the way to dealing with the general comments that have been made about inadequacy of funding levels. Clearly that increase is not solely taken up with the increase in numbers. I hope that it provides a more generous settlement, albeit slightly late in the financial year.

The hon. Member for Woking raised several issues. I think that I wrote them all down, but if I omit any I hope that he will remind me of them. If I do not know the answers, I will write to him. The substantial number of people in care who are under 16 is 20 per cent. of the total. There is an 80 per cent. and 20 per cent. split between 16-year-olds and 17 and 18-year olds.

I will translate the formula and the algebraic figures, if that will help. The existing formula was misprinted in the first report—the ''T'' was on top rather than underneath—so we withdrew it. The misprint would have made a considerable difference. The more a local authority overspent, the more money it would have received. That would have been the wrong incentive with regard to value for public money. The letter ''G'' is the amount of money payable to the local authority, ''A'' is the local authority's expenditure, ''R'' is the total of the amount paid to authorities that have not spent the maximum, and ''T'' is the total expenditure of authorities that have spent more than the maximum. The formula therefore means that authorities that have not spent more than the maximum will receive all that they claim. Those who have spent more than the maximum will receive a slightly lower proportion. That is the only way in which we can encourage local authorities to get value for government money under current local government funding mechanisms. Money is usually disbursed to local authorities with that incentive in mind.

The hon. Member for Woking also asked who validates the figures. Local authorities currently make returns to us and claim back for a certain number of people. We used not to require the names or addresses of those whom the local authorities support, but we are changing that. The Opposition will know that the Government and local authorities are auditing the

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interim scheme. The audit also includes unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who fall within the scope of the Children Act 1989. By the end of the year, we hope to have the names and addresses of those children, and to have a much more accurate assessment of their location. Local authorities may have that information, but the Government do not. We can identify them by their Home Office number, but those figures are not collected centrally, as I would like. The audit will change that.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned children under 16 and those who are over 16, which ties in with his question about assessment of need. He will know that there is an assessment of need under the 1989 Act. Those who need to be supported under the Act can be taken into care and then fostered, or left in some sort of institutional care. If they are more independent and do not need that level of support, they tend to be supported under section 17 of the Act, rather than section 20, which is more encompassing. We refer to under 16-year-olds and 17 and 18-year-olds as a way of referring to different needs and the difference between sections 17 and 20.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey was kind enough to realise that there is more flexibility in this year's settlement. We will maintain the higher level of funding for those who are 16 and have been in care under section 20, even when they reach 17 and 18. I hope that that change in flexibility will be welcome. Someone's institutional care does not necessarily change immediately when he or she turns 16. The costs are certainly unlikely to go down.

 
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