– in the House of Commons at 12:38 pm on 24th January 2023.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary if she will make a statement on what steps she is taking to find missing unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and to keep them safe.
The rise in small boat crossings has placed a severe strain on the asylum accommodation system. We have had no alternative but to temporarily use specialist hotels to give some unaccompanied minors a roof over their heads while local authority accommodation is found. We take our safeguarding responsibilities extremely seriously and we have procedures in place to ensure all children are accommodated as safely as possible while in those hotels. This work is led on site by personnel providing 24/7 supervision, with support from teams of social workers and nurses. Staff, including contractors, receive briefings and guidance on how to safeguard minors, while all children receive a welfare interview, which includes questions designed to identify potential indicators of trafficking or safeguarding risks. The movements of under-18s in and out of hotels are monitored and recorded, and they are accompanied by social workers when attending organised activities.
We have no power to detain unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in these settings and we know some do go missing. Over 4,600 unaccompanied children have been accommodated in hotels since July 2021. There have been 440 missing occurrences and 200 children remain missing, 13 of whom are under 16 years of age and only one of whom is female.
When any child goes missing, a multi-agency missing persons protocol is mobilised alongside the police and the relevant local authority to establish their whereabouts and to ensure they are safe. Many of those who have gone missing are subsequently traced and located. Of the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children still missing, 88% are Albanian nationals, with the remaining 12% from Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Vietnam, Pakistan and Turkey.
As I have made clear repeatedly, we must end the use of hotels as soon as possible. We are providing local authorities with children’s services with £15,000 for eligible young people they take into their care from a dedicated UASC—unaccompanied asylum-seeking children—hotel, or the reception and safe care service in Kent.
I fully understand the interest of Caroline Lucas, and indeed the whole House, in this issue and I am grateful for the opportunity to address it. I assure the House that safeguarding concerns are, and will remain, a priority for me and for my Department as we deliver the broader reforms that are so desperately needed to ensure we have a fair and effective asylum system that works in the interests of the British people.
This is horrific. Vulnerable children are being dumped by the Home Office, scores of them are going missing, and I can tell the Minister that there is nothing “specialist” about these hotels. We are not asking him to detain children; we are asking the Home Office to apply some basic safeguarding so that we can keep them safe. Does he know how many have been kidnapped, trafficked, put into forced labour—where are they living, are they allowed to leave, are they in school? He should know because the Home Office is running these hotels. It has told me it is commissioning everything from social work to security, but it is still unclear whether it is prepared to take legal as well as practical responsibility.
Meanwhile, these children are in legal limbo. I was told before Christmas that Government lawyers were deliberating over their ultimate legal responsibility. We need to know the outcome today: what is it? We need to know why successive Home Secretaries have played into the hands of criminal gangs.
The Minister will talk of new money being given to local authorities, but where will they get the foster care capacity, which he knows is in seriously short supply? Brighton and Hove City Council has been raising concerns about the dangerous practice of using these hotels for 18 months, and as Peter Kyle has made clear on many occasions—I pay credit to him for his tireless work on this—it was entirely foreseeable that children were at risk of being snatched, abducted and coerced by criminals.
Has the Minister taken up offers of help from charities working with children? What is the response to the migration watchdog’s finding that some staff in these hotels were not DBS—disclosure and barring service—checked? What role is the Children’s Commissioner playing? Why is not Ofsted inspecting these hotels regularly? Will he commit to publishing regular data on missing children—how long they have been missing, whether they are still missing, when they went missing? Where is the special operation to find the missing children? This feels like the plight of the girls in Rotherham who were treated like they did not matter and, frankly, it is sickening. Lastly, the use of these hotels must stop—when will that actually happen?
The staggering complacency and incompetence from the Home Office are shameful. We need immediate answers and an urgent investigation, and we need to ask how many more children are going to go missing before we see some action.
If the hon. Lady has not visited the hotel in her constituency, or indeed in her neighbouring constituency, I would be happy to organise that. I spoke with the chief executive and director of children’s services of Brighton and Hove City Council yesterday to ask for their reflections on the relationship with the Home Office and the management of the hotel. We have a good relationship with that council and I want to ensure that that continues.
As regards the level of support provided in that hotel, and indeed others elsewhere in the country, it is significant. On any given day, there will be a significant security presence at the hotel. Those security guards are there to protect the staff and the minors and to raise any suspicious activity immediately with the local police. I have been assured that that does happen in Sussex. A number of social workers are on site 24/7. There are also nurses on site and team leaders to manage the site appropriately. So there is a significant specialist team provided in each of these hotels to ensure that the young people present are properly looked after.
The report by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration in October last year—I believe that Ofsted was involved in the inspection—did find unanimously that the young people reported that they felt safe, happy and treated with respect. Now, that does not mean that we have any cause to be complacent, because it is extremely concerning if young people are leaving these accommodation settings and not being found. I have been told that any young person leaving one of these hotels and not returning is treated in exactly the same way as any young person of any nationality or immigration status who goes missing anywhere else in the country and that the police follow up as robustly as they would in any other circumstances. That is quite right, because we have a responsibility to any minor, regardless of why they are here in the United Kingdom.
Working with police forces and local authorities, we have created a new protocol, known as “missing after reasonable steps”, in which further action is taken to find missing young people. That has had significant success: I am told that it has led to a 36% reduction in the number of missing people occurrences. We will take further steps, as required, to ensure that young people are safe in these hotels and not unduly preyed on by the evil people smuggling gangs that perpetuate the trade.
The key task ahead of us—other than deterring people from making dangerous crossings in the first place, of course—is to ensure that these young people are swiftly moved out of hotels, as the hon. Lady rightly said, and into more appropriate settings in local authorities. Since being in position I have reviewed the offer that we have for local authorities and significantly enhanced it. From next month—this has already been announced—any local authority will receive a one-off initial £15,000 payment for taking a young person from one of these hotels into their care in addition to the annual payment of about £50,000 per person. That is a significant increase in the amount of financial support available to local authorities.
The hon. Lady is right to say that money is not the only barrier to local authorities, because there are significant capacity issues including a lack of foster carers, a lack of trained social workers and a lack of local authority children’s home places. Those are issues that the Department for Education is seeking to address through its care review. The best thing that any of us can do as constituency Members of Parliament who care about this issue is speak to our local authorities and ask them whether they can find extra capacity to take more young people through the national transfer scheme so that we can close these hotels or, at least, reduce reliance on them as quickly as possible.
I share the concern about the story, but it is not new news. Last year, the Home Office came in front of the Home Affairs Committee to be interrogated about this, and there was a particular problem with the hotel in Hove, which instigated the story in The Observer at the weekend, because the Home Office did not tell the local council when it was putting children there in the first place. However, there have not been any reports to Sussex police of children being snatched and abducted by gangs outside.
There are two questions that the Minister may like to clear up. First, there is a grey area over who is responsible as the safeguarding body for children in hotels. Is it the Home Office or the local authority? There seem to be different stories. Secondly, is he using specialist refugee children’s charities, which have welfare and safeguarding training, to look after children in the hotels and ensure that they are not being taken advantage of, as he has done at Dover and other ports of entry? Those children are not criminals, and we cannot put them in a secure facility. They are free to come and go, but we need people keeping a special eye on them.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those questions. He is right to make the final point, which is that these are not secure locations. Young people are not detained in them. We do not have the legal powers to do that and I do not think any right hon. or hon. Member from across the House would wish us to do that. It is inevitable that some young people will choose to leave these settings, as, very sadly, they do from local authority care homes, but that is not to diminish or renege on our responsibility to reduce that as far as we possibly can.
We have relationships with charities and the voluntary sector. I will happily take up with the Department whether there is more we can do there. We have made good use of those relationships in other settings, such as hotels for adults and Manston. As I said earlier, there is a very significant amount of specialist support in the hotels. I specifically asked the officials running them what we would find on any given day. It is several security guards, a number of nurses and a number of social workers, as well as team leaders running the operation. So they are well staffed by well-trained and professional individuals who are drawn from other settings where they are used to looking after vulnerable young people.
Lastly, on the first point my hon. Friend made, there is a challenge around the legal status of a local authority with respect to these hotels. Our objective is to reduce demand for hotels as fast as possible, so that young people are in this accommodation for a very short period of time while we get them to local authorities where they can be cared for properly in accordance with the law.
I call the shadow Secretary of State, Yvette Cooper.
The report from Sussex police is that one in four unaccompanied children in a Home Office hotel have gone missing—one in four—and that around half of them are still missing. It would appear from the figures the Minister has given that that means one hotel accounts for 40% of the missing children.
A whistleblower is reported as saying:
“Children are literally being picked up from outside the building, disappearing and not being found. They’re being taken from the street by traffickers”.
Greater Manchester police warned that asylum hotels and children’s homes are being targeted by organised criminals. There is a pattern here. The gangs know where to come to get the children—often, likely because they trafficked them here in the first place. There is a criminal network involved and the Government are completely failing to stop it. They are letting gangs run amok. Last year, there was only one—just one—conviction for child trafficking, even though it is now believed to involve potentially thousands of British children, as well as the children targeted here.
Where is the single co-ordinated unit involving the National Crime Agency, the Border Force, the south-east regional organised crime unit and local police forces to hit the gang networks operating around this hotel and across the channel? Why are the Government still refusing to boost the National Crime Agency? Why have they repeatedly ignored the warnings about this hotel and unregulated accommodation for 16 and 17-year-olds being targeted by criminal gangs?
It is unbelievable that there is still no clarity on whether the Home Office or the council is legally responsible for these children. Will the Home Office now agree to immediately end the contract with this hotel and move the children out to safer accommodation? Will it set up a proper inquiry and team to pursue the links between organised crime, trafficking and the children in these hotels? This is a total dereliction of duty that is putting children at risk. We need urgent and serious action to crack down on these gangs, and to keep children and young people safe.
I gave the figures the Home Office has at the start of this urgent question. Of the 4,600 unaccompanied children who have been accommodated in hotels since July 2021, 440 have gone missing at one point and 200 remain missing, so I am afraid the statistics the right hon. Lady quotes are not those that I have been given by the Home Office.
On press reports that individuals have been abducted outside the hotel, those are very serious allegations. I specifically asked the officials who run the hotel whether they have seen evidence of that, and I also asked the senior leadership of Brighton and Hove Council. I have not been presented with evidence that that has happened, but I will continue to make inquiries. Senior officials from my Department are meeting the Mitie security team in the coming days to ask them whether they have seen any occurrences, whether the individual quoted in the press as a whistleblower raised issues with Mitie, and, if they did, why those issues were not subsequently passed on to the Home Office. The right hon. Lady has my assurance that I will not let the matter drop. I am also going to meet a number of staff who work at the site in the coming days to take their opinions and reflections.
On the broader point the right hon. Lady makes about our policy, she is incorrect when she says the NCA is insufficiently financed. The Prime Minister announced at the end of last year that we would step up NCA funding. In fact, I visited the NCA just last week to be briefed on the work it is doing upstream throughout Europe and into Turkey, Iraq and a number of other countries. There is very significant activity happening to tackle the evil people-smuggling gangs.
The problem the right hon. Lady has is that she does not support any of the measures the Government bring forward to stop the trade. She votes against every Bill we bring forward to try to address this challenge. There is nothing compassionate about allowing unsecure borders and allowing growing numbers of people, including young people, to cross the channel. She will have an opportunity to put her money where mouth is when we bring forward further legislation in the weeks ahead.
What assessment has my right hon. Friend’s Department made of the availability of specialist foster carers able to accommodate unaccompanied asylum-seeking children? In light of the Abdulrahimzai case reported today, can he reassure the House that foster carers are provided with the information and support they need to keep both themselves and any young person in their care safe?
My hon. and learned Friend raises a very important issue. There is, as he knows as well as almost anyone in this House, a lack of capacity in relation to specialist foster carers. That is why the Department for Education conducted its care review, is considering the findings, and will be bringing forward recommendations in due course. Most young people in the hotels we are discussing today are older—predominantly 16 and 17-year-olds—so it is about a national lack not only of foster care capacity, but of supported accommodation and the kind of settings that a 17-year-old, for example, might be placed in for a relatively short period of time before they move forward with their life. Those issues are very important to us, which is why, for my part, I have made available significantly increased funding for local authorities so they can, for example, use that money to procure more supported accommodation.
On the case my hon. and learned Friend referred to, that is a truly shocking case. We are reviewing how it has happened and how the individual was able to enter the UK posing as a minor. We will learn the lessons and set out more in due course.
I call the SNP spokesperson.
It is completely unacceptable that vulnerable young people who need care and support continue to vanish under the Home Office’s watch. The Children’s Commissioner for England made her concerns clear on the safeguarding of these young people. Has the Minister met the Children’s Commissioner for England? Has he considered an equivalent to the Scottish Guardianship Service, which provides personalised and sustained support to unaccompanied refugee children? Would that be a useful model to keep young people safe?
Sussex police say 76 children are unaccounted for in this case. The Minister said that 440 children had gone missing and that 200 remained unaccounted for across the UK. Is he certain of those figures, and will he provide regular updates to the House on the number of children missing and still unaccounted for? Will he end the practice of putting children in hotels, a practice that many stakeholders and whistleblowers have repeatedly flagged as dangerous and putting children at risk?
I want to end the practice of putting children in hotels, but the key to that is stopping people crossing the channel in the first place. If we continue to have tens of thousands of people, including very significant numbers of minors, crossing the channel every year, I am afraid that there is no choice but to accommodate people for a short period of time in hotels before they can flow into better accommodation within local authorities.
The hon. Lady and others across the House should appreciate that this is a national emergency. It is part of a global migration crisis, and we need to take the most robust action we can to deter people from making the journey, or I am afraid that we will find this problem magnified in the years to come. That is why we have taken the steps that we have in the recent past; that is why the Prime Minister set out his plan at the end of last year; and that is why we will shortly be bringing forward legislation, which I hope the hon. Lady and her colleagues will support.
I will certainly look into the Scottish guardianship model that the hon. Lady raises, but as I have said many times, it remains true that as a proportion of its population Scotland takes far fewer unaccompanied asylum-seeking children than England. One practical step that she could take would be to encourage the SNP Government and local authorities in Scotland to play a fuller part in ensuring that these young people are given the care and attention they deserve.
I know that the Minister cares profoundly about the fate of these children, and it is reassuring to hear of the assertive action taken by local authorities and police when they go missing. However, if dozens of children had been going missing from, say, boarding schools across the country, I have no doubt that there would be a national mobilisation involving the NCA and indeed the National Police Chiefs’ Council. Could the Minister enlighten us as to what the national response in British policing looks like at the moment? Does he feel that more could be done to address this systemic problem, not least given the possible links to serious and organised crime?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that, as I made clear earlier, we should treat any child who goes missing with the same focus and intensity of effort, regardless of their background, nationality and immigration status. That is exactly what happens in this case. If a young person leaves a hotel—for example, the one that we are discussing this afternoon—and does not return within four hours, they are immediately recognised as a missing person. The local police—in this case, Sussex—are contacted, and the case is treated with all the same effort as it would be for any other individual.
That is why a significant proportion of these young people have, fortunately, been found and returned to care. But too many have not, so I think my right hon. Friend makes a valid point that we should be working with local police forces and others to see whether the procedures that we have in place are sufficient or whether we need to go further. That work was done last year, and it led to the new protocol that I described earlier. From the numbers that I have received, that has made an impact: occurrences have reduced by about a third, but if there are further steps that we should be taking, we will do so.
This is a broader challenge, because the numbers going missing from these settings are, sadly, not dissimilar from the numbers going missing from local authority children’s homes. We should be applying all our learnings from this to local authority settings as well.
I call the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee.
In July last year, the Home Affairs Committee raised our serious concerns about unaccompanied asylum-seeking children going missing from hotels. I can assist the Minister: the Home Office’s permanent secretary, Sir Matthew Rycroft, told the Committee that
“broadly speaking…it is the Home Office” that acts as the safeguarding authority for a child placed in a hotel.
We called on the Government to
“provide a clear timeline for ending the accommodation of unaccompanied children in hotels.”
May I press the Minister on that today, because it has not been forthcoming so far? Given the Home Office’s clear child safeguarding responsibilities, can we have a clear commitment today from the Minister as to the date by which it will end the clearly unsafe and unsatisfactory placement of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in hotels?
I respect the right hon. Lady and her Committee, but it is not as simple as my being able to set a date by which these hotels will close, because we have to be honest with ourselves about the challenge that we face as a country. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of young people crossing the channel on small boats every year. What we need to do is flow those young people as swiftly as possible into local authority care, but if local authorities do not have the capacity to take them immediately, we have to bear in mind that we can detain somebody for only 24 hours—or now 96 hours, with the recent legal change that we have made. In a relatively short timeframe, we have to have a short period of bridging accommodation. For as long as the challenge remains as pronounced as it is today, we will need that.
The task for us is twofold. The first part is to work with local authorities and provide the incentives for them to boost their own capacity. The other is to deter people from making the crossing in the first place. We are trying to do everything within our power to do so, including by making further legislative changes, but until we beat this trade, there will be young people placed in this position.
The particular vulnerability of children in distress touches our hearts and must move us to further action, as my right hon. Friend says. Will he tell the House when the legislation that he has described will come before us? Will he implore all those who share my compassion and concern for these desperate children to support that legislation without equivocation? Unless we deal with this problem at root, the sheer scale of it will overwhelm our capacity nationally or locally to protect these children. It is as simple as that.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is a symptom—a very serious and disturbing symptom—of the problem, which is the people-smuggling gangs luring tens of thousands of people, a significant proportion of whom are minors, across the channel. We have to do everything we can to deter those people and break the business model of the people smugglers. That is what we are determined to do, and that is the purpose of the legislation that we will bring forward very shortly. My right hon. Friend and others have only a short period to wait until we present it to the House. I hope it will have broad support, because if we do not address the problem, all the evidence suggests that in the years to come we will find it magnified, with tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands, attempting to make the crossing.
The Minister says that safeguarding these children is a priority for him. He will know that since October last year, I have been asking to see the safeguarding requirements that he has placed on the private companies involved in running these hotels for both unaccompanied and accompanied children. I understand now why he was so reluctant to give that information: when I finally used a freedom of information request to get it, there was no mention at all of requiring these private companies, which are making millions of pounds running these places, to do anything about modern slavery or human trafficking—not one word.
Let us be clear. It does not matter whether these children are Albanian, Syrian, Pakistani or Iranian. It does not matter whether they are boys or girls. They are children. Will the right hon. Member now use his authority as the Minister responsible to require these companies to have a duty to prevent human trafficking and modern slavery? Will he finally make sure that, for all the money they are making out of this, they do something to protect these children? It is on his watch that these children are going missing, and it was on his watch that he missed out that requirement from the contract.
The hon. Lady and I have met to discuss the issue on a number of occasions. We take this very seriously. We have asked all our providers, of course, to take their responsibilities for safeguarding seriously. We have a safeguarding hub in the Home Office and we work closely with the local authorities, which also have a duty to support people in their care.
The hotels that we are discussing today are not run by private providers. There are providers that support us in terms of security arrangements, but these hotels are run by the Home Office, so the hon. Lady is not correct to say that they are run by external providers. But that does not change the reality that, as I have said on a number of occasions, we should take the care of these minors as seriously as we would take that of our own children. I hope that I have given her the assurance that we do.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that to place vulnerable asylum-seeking children in the care of local authorities whose Ofsted rating is inadequate is a dereliction of not only our international but our moral obligations?
That is an important point. We want to place these minors in the care of local authorities, and, of course, we want to place them in the care of local authorities with good track records of looking after young people. I presume that my hon. Friend is referring to his own local authority, Sefton Council. If there are concerns about its performance, he should bring them to my attention and, in particular, to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education.
Thank you for allowing me to contribute, Mr Speaker; I appreciate it.
The community that I represent was given just a couple of hours’ notice that 96 unaccompanied children were to be placed in a hotel in that community. I visited the hotel within days and have visited it many times since, so I am able to say that it is ignorant to suggest that these are specialist facilities.
In those ensuing days, I saw for myself, having met the children who were there, that some of them were extremely vulnerable—vulnerable emotionally and vulnerable, should they leave the premises, to being coerced into crime—so I contacted the council, the police, social services and the Minister’s Department, the Home Office. The only organisation that responded effectively, in my view, and with the kind of seriousness that one would expect, was Sussex police, but it lacked the facilities, the resources and the powers to do the job that needed to be done. It is incorrect to say that these children are not being coerced into crime, because just last year Sussex police pursued a car that had collected two of them from outside the hotel. When the officers managed to get the car to safety, they released the two children and arrested one of the drivers, a gang leader who was there to coerce the children into crime.
The uncomfortable truth for us is that if one child related to one of us in this room went missing, the world would stop, but in the community that I represent, a child did go missing; then five went missing, then a dozen went missing, then 50 went missing, and currently 76 are missing—and nothing is happening. My question to the Minister is this: the next time I visit the hotel, in the coming days, what will be different there from what went before? If nothing is different, children will continue to go missing.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman and I should visit the hotel and see its facilities together, as I am due to visit it in the coming days. According to the assurances that I have had, when we visit the hotel—if the hon. Gentleman does visit it— he will see that there are several security guards who immediately raise with the police any suspicious activity that they find, and also a number of nurses and social workers, so there is a strong set of support staff on site. He will also see that there are robust procedures for signing in and out when young people want to leave the facility, and that as soon as any concern is raised that someone has not returned within the agreed time, Sussex police are alerted and the usual procedures are followed.
However, I take the hon. Gentleman’s remarks very seriously, and will continue to listen to him. If he would like to meet me and discuss this, I should be happy to do so, because it is in all our interests to ensure that this never happens again.
The Minister is demonstrating a great deal of seriousness and compassion in gripping this very concerning situation, but does he agree that the best way in which to safeguard these children is to prevent them from crossing in the first place? Does he also agree that it is both concerning and shameful that Opposition Members are standing up to speak having failed to back legislation that will do that, and will, furthermore, enable us to test the age of these children? Does he agree that it is vital for us to know that they are in fact children, and not dangerous criminals? Does he, like me, hope that the next time he introduces legislation, we will strengthen our sovereign borders, as we as a country have a right to do?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. This is a serious issue, but it is also a symptom of the problem of people smugglers bringing very large numbers of people across the channel, and we must tackle that with the most robust response possible. However, the Opposition continually oppose any effort by us to strengthen our borders.
We will be introducing further legislation, and, as my hon. Friend knows, we are reviewing whether we can adopt a more scientific approach to the verification of ages, as is being done by a number of our European counterparts. It is right for us to do that, because any adult who poses as a child coming into this country poses a serious risk to the young people alongside whom they then live, whether in these hotels or in any other setting.
Locally, I am afraid, my council also does not have a grip on this serious situation. It is out of its depth and, unfortunately, it is in a legal limbo. Past child protection scandals have shown us that all agencies must take both joint and separate responsibility for the protection and safeguarding of children, so this process cannot continue—the process of the Home Office pointing at the council, the council pointing at the Home Office, and nothing being done.
At the centre of this is the fact that Home Office is moving children into our local authority in a way that is wholly outside the law. The Home Secretary’s failure to enforce mandatory requirements to transfer children into foster care is creating an unregistered children’s home in our area, and that is counter to law. The children’s home, by the way, is owned by a man called Hoogstraten who changed his name to Adolf, so we can guess where his sympathies lie. May I ask this Home Office Minister what statutory powers he is using to transfer children into an unregistered children’s home in Hove?
Let me say first that there is no pitting of the Home Office against the local authority. The Home Office is working closely with Brighton & Hove City Council, and we have a good working relationship. My officials speak regularly to those at the council, and, having spoken to the chief executive and the director of children’s services, I can say that they too feel that the relationship is working. We also work closely with other partners, including Sussex police. Can we do more to strengthen those relationships? Perhaps we can, and that is exactly what we intend to do in order to prevent any of these instances from happening again in the future.
As for the hon. Gentleman’s ideal solution, we are in agreement. We both want to see the number of hotels of this kind reduced and, ultimately, to see them closed, through better use of the national transfer scheme. However, that does require local authorities to come forward and offer places. We have therefore provided significant financial support, so there should be no financial barrier to local authorities’ investment in more accommodation and, indeed, more social workers and supporters.
Order. We need to speed up both questions and answers, because a great many Members still need to get in.
As my right hon. Friend has said, effective co-ordination between police, local authorities and healthcare providers within communities where hotels are being used to provide asylum accommodation is very important. A meeting of that kind in Folkestone and Hythe has been organised for this coming Friday. If the Minister cannot attend the meeting through virtual participation, can he at least ensure that relevant Home Office officials are there to answer questions about policy and also to co-ordinate with the local authorities?
I will certainly arrange that. As my hon. Friend knows, Kent has borne a particular burden in this regard, so it is right for us to do everything we can to support it and his constituents.
The only surprising aspect of this whole sorry affair is the fact that anyone is surprised by it. Young people are placed in totally unsuitable accommodation, and are then left there while the Home Office fails to process applications for them and, indeed, for all asylum seekers. This was always going to happen. On
Before I arrived at the Department in the summer there was already an initial payment to local authorities, which I believe was £6,000 or thereabouts. That did ensure that more local authorities came forward, but, given the scale of the challenge that we have been discussing today, I took the view that it needed to be more, which is why we made this more generous offer available. We have operated it as a pilot to establish whether it encourages more local authorities to come forward. I am receiving advice in respect of the number of local authorities that have taken up that offer, and before it is closed we will decide whether it was successful enough to warrant its continuation. However, I am open to continuing it further into the future.
Given some of the horrors of war that asylum seekers can witness, they can become desensitised to the difference between right and wrong and, without intervention, could pose a threat to society. Can I ask for a formal Home Office investigation into the Afghan asylum seeker Abdulrahimzai, who murdered Tom Roberts in Bournemouth last year? Abdulrahimzai had a criminal record for murder in Serbia and a criminal record for drugs in Italy. He then threatened his foster carer here in the UK and bluffed his way into our asylum system, posing as a minor. So many red flags were missed that could have revealed what a threat to society this individual was, and there are lessons to be learned. Please will the Minister launch an investigation?
My right hon. Friend is right to say that this is a terrible case, and our thoughts are with the family and friends of Thomas Roberts. As he will know, sentencing has yet to take place but we will be investigating the full circumstances surrounding the case so that we can ensure that we learn all the lessons. One that we will certainly take forward is, as I said earlier, a more robust method for assessing the age of those coming into the country, taking advantage of modern scientific methods.
One child missing is one child too many. It is horrendous that these children have left their home country seeking safety in the UK, only to be put at serious risk because of the incompetence of the Home Office and its failure to ensure basic safety in hostels. Can the Minister explain to the House what measures are in place to safeguard children and adult asylum seekers to ensure that no refugee needs to face such preventable dangers?
These young people are not being put at risk primarily by the Home Office; they are being put at risk by dangerous people smugglers and criminals—those who smuggle them into the country and those who might exploit them when they are here. Our efforts are focused on protecting the young people in the hotels, as I described earlier, and we are also doing everything we can to fight the people smugglers, whether upstream or here in the United Kingdom, through working with the National Crime Agency and the security services and police forces.
Does my right hon. Friend concede that unaccompanied minors in our asylum seeker system are being targeted by criminal gangs and does he agree that we need more resources to tackle the organised criminals who are causing this problem, in order to resolve it?
It is wrong to generalise about where all the missing young people go. Some leave hotels to meet up with familial contacts, but my hon. Friend is right to say that others are drawn into criminality at the behest of people smugglers and trafficking gangs. We are working with the NCA, with police forces and with immigration enforcement to bear down on those gangs. One element of that is the work we are now doing to significantly increase the amount of immigration enforcement activity occurring in the UK, including raids on illegal employers such as construction sites, car washes and care homes, so that we can find the illegal employers, issue them with penalties and deter them from taking this kind of activity.
I am a bit troubled, listening to the Minister, because how can he claim that this is a robust vetting procedure when there are still 76 young people missing? This story is yet another failure and a stain on the Home Office. This was entirely avoidable. We have heard stories about the security and safety failings at the hotels. Many of those who are missing are teenagers—young people who are at the prime age to be groomed by the criminals who target 16 and 17-year-olds. Does the Minister accept that it was a mistake not to ban the placement of 16 and 17-year-old children in unregulated accommodation? What will he do to end this practice?
I am not sure what the hon. Lady is suggesting. If we did not use these hotels, which have a range of security and support staff available to them, is she suggesting that we put them in hotels with adults? [Interruption.] She says, from a sedentary position, regular hotels—
No one would want to do that. The only alternative to using these settings is for young people to go into good quality, permanent local authority support, and I have already said that we have made available substantial financial incentives for local authorities to do that. The best thing that we can do is to encourage our own local authorities to take part in the national transfer scheme and ensure that there is a better solution.
It is totally right that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children should be safeguarded in the most appropriate settings. It is totally wrong that there are all-too-frequent reports of young adult asylum seekers claiming to be children in their asylum claims. Other countries employ far more scientific methodology to establish the age of a child who will not reveal their true age. Will the Minister urgently bring forward such measures to the House so that they can be approved and introduced?
My hon. Friend is correct. We recently published a report from the Age Estimation Science Advisory Committee on scientific methods to assess the age of asylum seekers and resolve age disputes. These practices are widely used across Europe, including in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. We are considering that report and we will set out further details in due course, because we need to address this challenge.
I declare that I am a former childcare social worker, a former social work educator and a member of various committees of the British Association of Social Workers. I am unclear from the Minister’s answers so far: is he saying that qualified and trained social workers are available on every site, 24 hours a day?
We persuaded the Home Office that the accommodation in which it placed asylum seekers in my constituency was below acceptable standards, and it moved them earlier this month. However, it failed to give the asylum seekers any notice or tell them where they were going, and some absconded out of fear of that. Will the Minister look at the poor standards and poor treatment of asylum seekers by the Home Office and its contractors, which is at the root of this problem?
As the hon. Member may recall, one of my first priorities was to ensure that the Home Office engaged better with local authorities, and although there is always room for improvement, the level of engagement is now enhanced from where it was at the end of last year. I continue to push officials to do more and to give local authorities more notice, either of new hotels opening up or of changes to the hotels. I have also recently met the providers and told them that we expect these hotels to be run professionally and appropriately with decent standards of accommodation and food, and that we will be making unannounced visits to the hotels to ensure that those standards are upheld. If the hon. Member has any matters he wants to bring to my attention, he should please do so.
I would like to ask a question about the funding for local authorities. Does the Minister realise that the average cost of a local government place is nearly £5,000 a week, so £65,000—both the £50,000 and the £15,000 that he mentioned—would only cover up to 13 weeks? And that is only for those who are lucky enough to have a local authority placement. If they have to go to the private sector, it costs up to £20,000 a week, which would give a coverage of only three and a quarter weeks from the money that is being provided. Will the Minister meet officials in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and urgently come up with a solution that will work for these children so that everyone can take their safeguarding responsibilities seriously and no more children will go missing?
I have met representatives of local authorities, London Councils and the Local Government Association to raise this issue. They made the points that many Members across the House have made about the lack of general capacity in this area and the cost of providing this care. We worked with DLUHC in providing the package that has just been made available, and we will learn the lessons from that and make any changes that we need to, so that there is a fair package of support for those authorities that support the national transfer scheme.
We know that 200 children across the country are missing from accommodation for which the Minister is responsible. That is nearly seven classrooms of children, or about an entire year group in many secondary schools across the country. The complacency of this Government is disgraceful. Where is the cross-departmental ministerial taskforce with the Department for Education and DLUHC to ensure a day-by-day focus on this issue, to ensure accountability and to drive urgent improvements in the safeguarding of children?
I share the hon. Lady’s concern and I have already set out the steps that we have taken so far to ensure that the hotels have significant support attached to them, and the work that we are doing to ensure that local authorities can make more placements available in the future. I can assure her that we are working with all those Government Departments and with the police to ensure that any young person who goes missing is tracked as far as we can, and certainly to the same standard we would expect for any of our own children.
I welcome the Minister’s clarification, but our obligations go beyond simply providing safe and secure accommodation. It has been a few years since I met unaccompanied asylum seekers who were unable to obtain the education maintenance allowance because they could not access a bank account, due to the complexities and what they were required to provide. Those complexities may have been resolved, but others will have arisen. Can he assure me that, as well as safe and secure accommodation, such complexities will be looked at so that unaccompanied asylum seekers can develop and flourish while they are in our care, whether or not they ultimately remain in this country?
We take all those things into account, which is why we want to ensure that young people get into local authority care, where they can access education. If the hon. Gentleman has any suggestions from his own experience, I would be pleased to read about them and to take action accordingly.
These revelations, once again, expose shocking neglect by the Home Office, which is failing in its basic duties to unaccompanied children who have often experienced war and persecution. As charities and campaign groups have warned, housing children in hotels without basic safeguarding measures is unlawful. More than 136 children have been reported missing from one hotel alone, with 76 still unaccounted for. Does this scandal not show it is time for a fundamental change in the Home Office’s attitude, from one that portrays people seeking asylum as invaders and denies them their basic rights, to a humane approach that cares for those seeking sanctuary?
We do care for these young people, and we take our responsibilities to them very seriously. I have set out the safeguarding procedures we have in place, and we are always keen to learn how we can improve them. The key task ahead of us is to reduce the number of people crossing the channel. I hope that the hon. Lady will support the measures we take in the years ahead, because an attitude of open borders and unlimited migration will only lead to more young people being placed in these difficult settings.
Our focus today is the acute child protection issues flowing from the chaos that the Home Office has allowed to develop in the asylum system. Many children in my constituency, and in many others, have their needs and rights over- looked every day, including their right to education, their right to a space to play and their right to live a normal family life. As we are hearing again today, the widespread use of hotels and other inappropriate contingency accommodation is a symptom of the Home Office implying that, because it does not like an issue, it will just go away. The need for international protection is a reality in this world, and the Government have a legal and moral duty to respond appropriately. Is it not time for the Home Office, instead of demonising asylum seekers, to get a grip of the processing issues, create safe routes and provide a system that is both humane and cost-effective?
We are putting in place a comprehensive plan to reduce the backlog of cases, and good progress is already being made. With regard to safe and legal routes, this country is a world leader on resettlement schemes. More people entered the United Kingdom last year for humanitarian purposes than in any year since the second world war—people from Ukraine, Hong Kong, Syria and Afghanistan. It is simply untrue to say that we do not take those responsibilities seriously. We think it is naive to believe that a safe and legal route would stop people crossing the channel, as no evidence supports that. We want a position based on deterrence, such as our proposed Rwanda scheme, which will come forward as soon as possible.
The former Prime Minister, Mrs May, raised concerns about safeguarding at the border, and the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration raised concerns about safeguarding in the hotels. Action has been taken but, frankly, it is insufficient to mitigate the risk to these children, who are being kidnapped to be used in crime—there is no doubt about that.
Local authorities do not have the resources or the social workers. My local authority is recruiting 20 social workers from South Africa, as it takes time to train social workers here. The police do not have the resources to give the necessary focus to this issue. It is important that we efficiently and effectively use the resources we have, and the only way to do that is to set up a taskforce that is accountable at local level. I do not doubt the Minister’s commitment to these people, but we are not using our resources efficiently or effectively.
I respect the hon. Lady’s long experience in local government. I appreciate the challenges faced by local councils, which is why we brought forward this enhanced financial package. We will learn from whether it is having the desired effect, and I am very happy to speak to her about the experience in her constituency.
The Minister did not answer Tim Loughton or the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend Dame Diana Johnson, so does he accept that the Home Office has the key responsibility around safeguarding, and that legally enforceable duties come with that responsibility?
The settled position is for a young person to move into local authority care, and for that local authority to accept responsibility for them in the usual way. While a young person is in a bridging hotel, the legal position is that the local authority has responsibility, but we appreciate that a great burden is being placed on a small number of local authorities. For that reason, the Home Office steps up and provides all the support required in and around the hotels.
Since the Minister has been on his feet responding to this urgent question, a BBC breaking news alert has highlighted BBC research on a children’s home in which children’s concerns were ignored. This urgent question is about asylum-seeking children, but children’s voices seem to be missing in all this. He said he will meet many of the adults involved when he goes to the Sussex hotel later this week, but will he commit to hearing directly from the asylum-seeking children about their experiences and concerns?
The hon. Lady makes an important point, and of course I will do that. The evidence from the ICIBI’s report of October 2022 is that the young people it spoke to said that their needs were being catered for and that they felt they were happy, safe and treated with respect. Of course, I will do everything I can to satisfy myself that the arrangements are appropriate.
In his answer to my hon. Friend Debbie Abrahams, the Minister basically said that local authorities have corporate parental responsibility for these children in hotels. If that is the case, I am afraid that the Home Office package for local government is woefully inadequate, as he will know from his days as Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. It is his current Department’s duty to protect these children as refugees, so will he tell the House today how many National Crime Agency officers are working on the serious issues of child trafficking and disappearance from hotels?
To clarify, I did not say that we expect the local authorities that host these hotels to provide such services. I said that while individuals are in bridging hotels, there may be a technical and legal position, but the Home Office appreciates the pressure on those local authorities due to having a hotel, which we do not want to be a permanent fixture. That is why we are putting in place all this support to meet the needs of individuals and the local authority’s associated costs.
I met the NCA only last week. This is now one of its most significant priorities, and a very large number of its personnel are engaged in tackling organised immigration crime, including people trafficking and modern slavery.
Positive Action in Housing has highlighted the case of a family with a four-month-old child near Glasgow who, as a result of trying to claim asylum through a safe and legal route, were evicted from their accommodation and left in the street for hours in sub-zero temperatures. Does that case and what is happening in Brighton not show that creating a hostile environment for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers is still the Government’s policy? Does it not also show that it does not work and needs to change?
Those are the hon. Gentleman’s words, not mine. We want to distinguish between people who come to this country fearing persecution or fleeing war or human rights abuses, and those who come here for economic purposes. Conservative Members are capable of making that important distinction. Where people are coming here on small boats with no genuine right to asylum and gaming the system, it is absolutely right that we take a robust line. It is also appropriate that we bear down on illegal employers, using a range of measures through our compliant environment, because those are the very people who are perpetuating this evil trade by giving work to these individuals in car washes and care homes and on construction sites.
In the Minister’s answers to various Members, there seems to have been a lot of verbal gymnastics about the legal status of either the Home Office or local authorities in respect of these children. Will he clarify it for the record: will the Home Office take legal responsibility for these children until they are properly placed in local authority care? Why will the Home Office not take on corporate parenting responsibilities? Regardless of where these children have come from, how they got here or what gender they are, these are vulnerable children who need our protection.
The hon. Lady may know the recent history of this issue, which is that previously young people were primarily placed in Kent and it took legal responsibility. The numbers arriving in Kent were sufficiently high that Kent chose to walk away from that responsibility, and we understand the reasons behind that. Since then, where children are not placed immediately within a local authority, we have had no choice but to stand up these hotels. As I said in answer to an earlier question, that means that the Home Office provides all the support services that are required. We are considering the proposal made by a number of organisations about acting as corporate legal guardians of the young people and we will make a decision on that in due course.
I thank the Minister for his answers. Obviously, he is trying hard to address the issue. Last Friday, I attended the launch of a new website for Bees Nees, a phenomenal early years centre in Newtownards, where the joy on the children’s faces was real. I was struck by the responsibility to ensure that asylum-seeking children are given the gift of learning and education. What has the Minister put in place, along with other Departments, to see to their educational needs, and to acknowledge that the asylum process can take over a year—time that cannot be undone in a child’s life?
Under-18s do receive access to education. Clearly, that is best provided when they are able to be in a local authority setting, which is why we want to get young people out of the hotels as quickly as possible. We work with local authorities and provide them with the support that is required so that they can provide education until these individuals’ cases are decided.