Dear Joanna Cherry KC MP,
RE: Follow-up from the oral evidence session on 18 January
Thank you for your letter and for inviting me to give evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR). I also want to say thank you to the wider committee members for maintaining a consistent focus on ensuring that children’s rights are protected and upheld across the UK.
I would value the opportunity to meet with you or other members of the committee on any of the issues raised during my evidence session and in your letter. Please do not hesitate to reach out to my team if you are interested in meeting.
Since I appeared in front of the committee on the 18th of January, my team and I have undertaken a few activities that I wanted to make the Committee aware of.
First, on the 7th of February I attended the 94th pre-session hosted by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva. The pre-session was an important opportunity to raise some of the most pertinent issues that are affecting children living across the UK today. During the session I highlighted issues that affect unaccompanied children seeking asylum, including the need for children to be swifty transferred to local authorities where they can receive the care, health and educational support they need.
Moreover, following reports about a potential shift towards the Home Secretary being given corporate parenting responsibility for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children housed in hotels. I have made my position clear, hotel accommodation run by the Home Office is not appropriate for children on a long-term basis. Instead, children should be receiving the care they are entitled to under the Children Act. They should be living in appropriate placements within local authorities that are legally responsible for their care. There should not be a two-tier system. I will continue to scrutinise any potential changes and engage with the Home Office directly about my concerns.
Thank you for the important questions you raised in your letter, which I have answered below.
You mentioned that you had spoken to asylum-seeking children at the Kent Intake Unit. What did you hear from them about their experiences of the age assessment process?
My team’s experience of visiting both the Intake Unit in Kent and the hotels where children are housed is that typically children are assessed in the Kent Intake Unit rather than the hotels. Across visits to both the Kent Intake Unit and the hotels my team have not met any child that reflected negatively on their age assessment process or believed that their age had been wrongly assessed
My team and I will continue to monitor all the sites where children are housed awaiting transfer and will raise concerns if there are instances where children reflect on negative experiences of the age assessment process, particularly as new methods for age assessment are introduced.
You also mentioned that you had spoken to asylum-seeking children living in hotel accommodation. What have you heard from children living in contingency hotel accommodation about their experiences of the age assessment process?
Please see answer to question above.
In our inquiry, Human rights of asylum seekers in the UK, we heard evidence that, in some cases, children are initially wrongly assessed as adults, and then subsequently assessed as children. The Government does not publish statistics on how often this happens.2 Do you have any information on the number of children who were initially assessed as adults, but then had that assessment changed?
At this point, I do not have any information on the number of children who have been wrongly assessed. However, I would reiterate that it is essential that vulnerable children arriving into the UK are treated as children first and foremost.
As I have previously stated, from my team’s experience of visiting the hotels and the Kent Intake Unit it is clear that the vast majority of children clearly present as vulnerable children. That’s why it is incredibly concerning that children are being wrongly assessed.
Have you had any contact with individuals who have gone through the age assessment process who felt that they had been wrongly identified as adults, and, if so, what did they have to say?
As mentioned above, my team have not come into contact with any child that feels as though they had been wrongly identified as adults, but we will continue to monitor this.
Are you doing anything to address the issue of children being wrongly assessed as adults?
I believe that a unique and crucial role that I can play as Children’s Commissioner with statutory powers under section 2E of the Children Act, is to visit the hotels and Kent Intake Unit where children are living temporarily to ensure that the appropriate safeguarding procures are in place and that children have not been wrongly age assessed.
As I said during my evidence session, I have been glad to see the practices around social worker age assessments improve since I have been visiting the hotels. As frontline professionals with knowledge of children’s development at different ages, its vital that value of holistic social worker assessments is recognised.
Over the next year I plan to conduct unannounced visits to the Kent Intake Unit and Home Office accommodation to monitor the practices in place around age assessments and safeguarding procedures more widely.
Living in hotel accommodation
You stated in your evidence that the “basic needs of children [in hotels] are being met”. What did you mean by basic needs, and can you clarify how these needs are being met for asylum-seeking children living in hotel accommodation?
I was referring to their basic physical needs – including basic necessities such as food and a bed to sleep in. But that does not mean that their needs overall are being met. As I set out in my submission to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and is outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the child, all children, regardless of their family background should have access to care and support across all domains of their life.
Unaccompanied children should receive the kind of loving, familial care that can help them form relationships and which will provide emotional support – either from foster carers or children’s home staff.
While in most cases children’s basic needs are met, it is clear from my team’s visits to hotels that children are not accessing adequate education provision. For example, during my team’s most recent visit they met children who had been housed in hotels for more than three months and were unable to communicate in basic English. These children were not receiving any education provision.
I am also concerned that children are not receiving the independent advocacy they are entitled to. For children who have experienced complex trauma it is vital that they have access to independent advice and advocacy that can amplify their voices.
Polly Glynn, Managing Partner at DPG, also told us that the financial support given to families in hotel accommodation “is just not enough, and it is a real source of incredible pressure on families”.4 The financial support is meant to cover all costs except food costs, as food is provided directly to asylum seekers by the hotel. Polly Glyn told us that families have to use financial support to pay for “things like nappies, milk, school trips, school uniforms, schoolbooks”. For asylum seekers in full-board accommodation, this allowance, which in April 2022, was set to £8.24 a week.  To what extent do you believe the financial support being given is adequate?
While my team primarily visits hotels where unaccompanied children seeking asylum are housed, the team have visited one hotel where families with children were living. My overall reflection is that any family with children that are fleeing conflict should have access to all the resources they need to ensure that the parents and children are healthy and supported to integrate into the local community.
We have heard in our inquiry, Human rights of asylum seekers in the UK, that in some cases children are not given access to adequate and nutritious food by their hotel accommodation. To what extent is the food provided to children living in hotel accommodation adequate?
My team have reflected that from visits to the hotel it’s clear that in some cases the food provided does not appear to be varied or well-liked by the children. During the visits children regularly complain about the variation in the food which appears to be exacerbated when children have to stay in the hotels for a long period. My team have raised these concerns with the Home Office and will continue to monitor the quality and variety of food on my upcoming visits.
This reflects the broader issue that these hotels are not designed or suitable to look after children on a long-term basis.
In response to a question from one of our Committee members about how children’s experiences in hotel accommodation can be improved, you stated that, “I see children who seem to be there for longer than last year, and there are more of them”. In your view, is hotel accommodation appropriate for children on a longterm basis?
In my most recent letter to the Home Secretary here and in a statement I gave in response to reports that the Home Secretary will be given corporate parenting responsibility for children housed in hotels, I have made my position clear. That is, hotel accommodation, run by the Home Office is not appropriate for children on a long-term basis. Children need to be transferred to local authorities where they can receive the full protections, they are entitled to under the Children Act. Vitally this should include access to a home environment, an education, independent advocacy – to be somewhere that they can feel stable and secure.
In October 2022, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration stated in a report that “there was no consistent requirement for hotel staff to be DBS checked” when living onsite where unaccompanied child asylum seekers were accommodated. Do you have any safeguarding concerns about asylum seeking children sharing living spaces with adult staff members of the hotel who have not been DBS checked? What are you doing to raise these with the Government?
Yes, I do have concerns about the safeguarding procedures that are being followed and the oversight that the Home Office and the Department for Education (DfE) have over these processes. I have highlighted many of my concerns in my recent letter to the Home Secretary here.
In regard to DBS checks, this is a minimum safeguard that should be in place for members of staff interacting with vulnerable unaccompanied children. As we discussed during my evidence session, these hotels are operating in a legal grey area which means they are not subjected to consistent regulation. Comparatively, if children these children were living in care (with foster carers or residential care) their care would have clear standards and regulation.
Who should be responsible in ensuring that staff at hotel accommodations are DBS checked?
Given that the Home Office is responsible for running the hotels, it should also be responsible for ensuring that all staff are DBS certified. However, there is also an important role for local safeguarding partners (including the relevant local authorities) and the DfE to play in ensuring that there is oversight of the safeguarding procedures in place and ultimately that no staff member working with children poses a risk to their safety and wellbeing.
We also asked you some questions about the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children going missing from hotel accommodation. Since you gave evidence to us, damaging reports have indicated the potential link between missing children and exploitation by criminal gangs. The Immigration Minister has told the House of Commons that there have been 440 “missing occurrences” involving children in hotels and that 200 children remained missing as of 24 January 2023, some of which under 13 years old. What is being done to locate these missing children and to prevent further “missing occurrences” involving asylum-seeking children in hotels?
Since appearing in front of the committee I have written to the Home Secretary asking for more clarity around what the Home Office and the DfE are doing with local safeguarding partners to protect children from exploitation and abduction.
Even though these children are not legally in care, the Home Office, the police and local authorities need to abide by Working Together to Safeguard children, and LAs and police should be following statutory guidance on children who go missing from home or care. That is why I have asked more about what statutory safeguarding steps have been taken to protect these highly vulnerable children. I am awaiting a response to this letter and am happy to share the response with the committee when I receive it.
It seems clear to me that many of these episodes may reach the threshold for a serious incident notification, and I would like to see local authorities carrying out local practice reviews, and the National Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel considering a national review.
This letter, sent on 23rd of January 2023 followed a previous letter I sent the Home Office on the 1st November 2022 in which I asked about the practices around finding missing children.
You have said that asylum-seeking children in hotels are in “a legal grey area”, and that this “needs to be resolved”. Who do you believe should be responsible for these children?
In the wake of recent reports of a potential shift towards the Home office becoming the corporate parent responsible for unaccompanied children seeking asylum, I have reiterated that these children should be receiving care from local authorities that are legally responsible for them. All unaccompanied children should be receiving appropriate health and social care support as well as accessing a high-quality education that can help them integrate.
This potential shift risks creating a two-tier system that is solely based on a child’s individual circumstances. In any proposed reforms I will be pushing to ensure that children’s fundamental rights, including under the Children Act, to care and advocacy are being upheld.
As I mentioned, I would be happy to meet with you or any of the other committee members about the issues raised in this letter. I look forward to hearing from you.
Dame Rachel de Souza
Children’s Commissioner for England