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: I welcome that, as I am sure other hon. Members will. There is still an issue about those who do not receive a full care support package before 16—a group mentioned by the Minister—and the differential rate for those over 16. The Refugee Council and others have raised that issue. Obviously, we are talking about young people who cannot undertake training or work, so by definition they depend entirely on being looked after financially. Do Ministers accept that the situation is, as I am advised, contrary to government guidance and the national assessment framework, and are they minded to change it in the near future?

Angela Eagle: The hon. Gentleman is taking me into education policy somewhat. The difference in the costs relates to the difference between sections 17 and 20. Section 17 is slightly more hands off, whereas section 20 is more about people who are dependent because they are younger and therefore likely to be fostered or looked after in institutional care.

Individuals are allocated to a particular section through the assessment of need, which is another requirement in the Children Act. The hon. Gentleman talked about a possible assessment of mental health or other need. If someone older needed to be looked after more closely, they might qualify for a different level of care depending on their individual needs. It is for the

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local authority that takes responsibility for that unaccompanied asylum-seeking child to make the decision, for which the Children Act allows. We simply pay the money for the people in the different categories as I have outlined.

With regard to adequate and sufficient training for social workers, few people would disagree that, in the past, social work was perhaps not as recognised and supported as it should have been. Many of us would welcome increased training for social workers.

The hon. Member for Woking went off on a slight tangent in relation to accommodation centres. We plan to keep families together in those centres. Current thinking is that we will provide education in them, and work is being undertaken on that. However, there is a difference between those who have been granted refugee status and those who are applying for it. If someone has been accepted as a refugee, it may be better in the long term for them to be in a mainstream school. However, that may not be in their best interests if the family is not going to stay in Britain long and has to return home. We are working on getting that balance right.

There are always difficulties in trying to define how old people are, particularly at the edges of age groups and when they turn up from wherever with no papers. In the end, local authorities must decide, on the balance of probabilities, who is under 18 and who is over 18. Clearly, there are people who pretend to be under 18 because that gives them access to a more beneficial system than the one to which they would have access if they were simply an asylum seeker. Ultimately, it is up to local authorities to decide who qualifies for help under the Children Act.

I have not read the Save the Children report, so the best thing that I can do is to promise to write to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey about the summary. I would far rather do that than waffle in Committee today, completely unsighted.

I shall say a little more about the changes that we plan to make to the system next year. We hope to introduce quarterly payments so that local authorities do not receive everything right at the end and there is much more certainty about the money that they will receive. I am jumping the gun slightly, but changes in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill will allow us to pay more flexibly than by using special grant reports. If these measures are passed, we will have the flexibility to be more helpful to local authorities with particularly onerous tasks.

I was asked about current asylum statistics, which do not separate out unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. I, too, would prefer better statistics, which is partly what the audit is all about. I hope that we shall be able to put better information to good effect in supporting local authorities in their work.

I shall write to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey about whether any unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are housed in detention centres. I would be surprised if they were, simply because they would not be deported until a decision on their status had been taken. We tend to offer extended leave to remain until the 18th birthday.

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Having unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in detention centres would surprise me, but I shall certainly write to the hon. Gentleman, as I said.

On turning 18, unaccompanied asylum-seeking child status has to give way to general refugee or asylum-seeking status. It is up to us to improve the speed with which we take decisions, so that people do not hang around in uncertainty. Changes proposed in the new Bill—including increased money for appeals and improving the capacity that can be fed into the system—should lead to faster decisions.

I heard the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey summarise recommendation 3 of the report, which I have not yet read, and he may take

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some comfort there. We are not, as I understand it, proposing to move in the direction of the UN convention of the rights of the child, but I shall write to the hon. Gentleman to confirm whether that is, in fact, the case.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the Local Government Finance (England) Special Report (No. 95) (HC 670) on 2001-02 Special Grant for Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children.

        Committee rose at twelve minutes past Five o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
Pike, Mr. Peter (Chairman)
Eagle, Angela
Gapes, Mike
Gillan, Mrs
Hughes, Simon
Kilfoyle, Mr.
McCabe, Mr.

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McGuire, Mrs.
Malins, Mr.
Prentice, Ms Bridget
Rosindell, Mr.
Sanders, Mr.
Stewart, Mr. David
Wright, David

 
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