A letter from the Children’s Commissioner for England to the Home Secretary on the terms of the Illegal Migration Bill.
Dear Home Secretary
RE: Illegal Migration Bill
Thank you for your response to my previous letter, dated 24th February.
I am writing to request an urgent meeting to discuss Home Office plans for unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the Illegal Migration Bill. I am concerned that the Bill has been introduced without any pre-legislative scrutiny and without consulting my office. As Children’s Commissioner for England, I have a statutory duty to promote and protect the rights of all children in the UK. I have a particular duty towards those with a social worker or living away from home, which includes unaccompanied children seeking asylum. As I have outlined in my statement here, I am deeply concerned about the impact of the Bill on the lives of the vulnerable children arriving in the UK to seek safety and refuge. As drafted the Bill is opaque on what it means for children and their rights.
As you are aware, my team and I conduct regular visits to the hotel accommodation where unaccompanied children are housed to provide them with independent advice and assistance through my Help at Hand service. Across my team’s visits to the hotels, it is clear that these children are acutely vulnerable and are in need for care and protection.
Today, the day the Bill will receive its Second Reading, I wanted to write to you directly to outline some of the questions I have about what the provisions in the Bill will mean for children in practice.
Duty to remove
Under Clause 4, The Bill sets out that children who arrive in this country irregularly, whether alone or with their families, will essentially be denied the right to claim asylum in this country. Under Clauses 2 and 3 the Secretary of State will have a power to remove unaccompanied children which becomes a duty when the child reaches the age of 18. I would therefore like to clarify:
- In what circumstances would the power to remove unaccompanied asylum-seeking children be used, and what regulations will govern its use?
- How will children who have been trafficked to this country be identified and what will their rights to protection be?
Home Office run accommodation
The Bill is unclear on what the state of the accommodation will be for children while awaiting transfer to local authority care or removal from the country.
In regard to Clause 15, I am deeply worried about formalising the role of the Home Office as the provider of accommodation for these children. These are children, and they need care, not just accommodation while they await removal. I do not believe that the Home Office has been able to adequately care for children in the hotels it has been providing since 2021. As I have set out in my previous letters, these children should have looked after status from the moment they arrive and be in the care of local authorities.
- In what form of accommodation will children be housed in while awaiting transfer or removal?
- How will decisions be made about which children will be housed in Home Office run accommodation while awaiting transfer versus being directly transferred to local authority care?
My team’s conversation with your officials raised questions about the location of centres to house children awaiting transfer and removal. As drafted Clause 19 of the Bill signals intent to remove duties and powers on devolved nations to provide care to unaccompanied children and victims of trafficking.
- I would therefore like to clarify if all Home Office run accommodation that will be used to house children while awaiting transfer or removal will be in England only or also across the devolved nations including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
- What regulations will be in place for Home Office provided accommodation?
- If the is accommodation is regulated which body will inspect them?
Access to advice and assistance
It is vital that across every setting in which a child is housed (including temporary hotel accommodation, reception centres, newly devolved detention centres or longer-term local authority care) they have access to Independent Child Trafficking Guardian if they are identified as being a victim of trafficking or independent advocacy.
- How will you ensure that every child has access to these services if they want them?
Child’s Rights Impact Assessment
It is imperative that the government conduct a Child’s Rights Impact Assessment on any new legislation that relates to children.
- Have you conducted a Child’s Rights Impact Assessment, and if so, when will it be published?
Children currently missing from the hotels
In response to your letter dated 24th February 2023, I have some follow up questions about the safeguarding procedures in place to protect children across the hotels.
While its clear from your letter that you are ensuring that local authorities are aware of their role in safeguarding children, I would reiterate the need for the Home Office to play a central role in coordinating and overseeing the safeguarding of children and the response to missing incidents. Working Together to Safeguard Children 2018 provides you have an overarching responsibility to safeguard and protect the rights of children in relation to asylum and nationality issues, and it is essential for the Home Office to closely collaborate with safeguarding partners to fulfil this responsibility.
As outlined in your previous letter, 12 children who have been reported missing from Home Office run hotels have not been found. While I understand that locating missing children is extremely challenging given that these children have limited footprint in the UK, I believe that serious safeguarding incident notifications to the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel should be made in instances where children are reported missing and not found.
In your letter you outline that you haven’t seen any evidence of children being taken from the hotels against their will. Yet I am aware that there have been concerning investigations which suggest that children in the hotels are at an increased risks of being abducted and exploited by criminal gangs.
- Could you provide more detail on your evidence for suggesting that children are instead opting to leave the hotels of their own volition?
You have shared that the lead social worker for the hotel usually makes safeguarding referrals.
- Can you confirm how many such referrals have been made, and if they have been made for all children who have gone missing?
- If, as you state, the outcome of each of these referrals has been no further action with no child placed on either a Child in Need plan or a Child Protection plan, has any explanation been provided by local authorities as to why the referrals do not meet their thresholds?
- I also wanted to pick up on why the Home Office does not hold a central list of cases referred to the local authority Designated Officers (LADO)?
- How many cases of children going missing have been subject to Local Safeguarding Child Practice Reviews and how many have been referred to the National Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel.
As I mentioned earlier, I am interested in meeting with you and your officials as soon as possible to address the questions and concerns I have raised in this letter.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Dame Rachel de Souza, Children’s Commissioner for England