Just as the US-backed government in Afghanistan collapsed under assault from the Taliban, with potentially tens of thousands of people urgently seeking refuge outside their homeland, so Croydon Council has announced that it will refuse to take any more unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.
The council is in dispute with the Home Office (which has a registration office at Lunar House in the town centre), and the government over their failure to refund the local authority in full for the costs of hosting children and young people who arrive in the UK in Croydon.
In the past decade Croydon has looked after more than 5,000 often vulnerable children. According to official figures, Croydon is currently host to 156 UASCs, as well as 477 older care leavers who arrived unaccompanied. Croydon’s government-agreed quota should see the borough looking after no more than 66 UASCs.
The council reckons that performing these duties has cost the borough as much as £63million over the past six years, something that one council cabinet member has described as “an unreasonable and unsustainable financial burden”.
The improvement and assurance panel, which was appointed by the government after Croydon’s financial collapse last year, says that there is a £2.3million funding gap for UASCs this year alone.
The costs of looking after UASC is supposed to be met by central government, with local authorities across the country stepping in to take their share of new arrivals under a national transfer scheme. But the scheme is voluntary, and most councils somehow manage to avoid this obligation.
Croydon is now warning that the overspend on UASCs is a real risk of seeing it have to make cuts to the rest of its children’s services department – which until early 2020 had been in special measures after failing an Ofsted inspection.
Kent County Council, which includes the port of Dover which also receives a disproportionately high number of asylum-seekers, has also recently threatened to accept no further UASCs unless the government can provide a fairer funding settlement.
Hamida Ali, the leader of the council, has called for an urgent meeting with the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, the local government ministry and the Department for Education.
“Despite months of constructive discussions with government, there is still no word from government on providing the financial support everyone has agreed must be found and the situation has now become urgent,” Ali said.
“Croydon has the highest proportion of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and young people of any council in the country. We are proud of our record in welcoming and caring for such vulnerable young people but it simply isn’t reasonable to expect the council to continue to do this alone.
“Government has agreed that we are providing crucial support which is currently unfunded – but that consensus isn’t enough. With every month that passes, this council shoulders both growing financial risk and potential risk to the safety of our support to all our young people.
“We won’t jeopardise our frontline children’s services or our improving financial performance but we need a positive response from ministers now.
“Without it we have no choice but to keep all options on the table, including having to confront stopping to support new unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and young people.
“In the longer term, the government must review its approach to the new national transfer scheme and make it mandatory.
“The fairest and most sustainable way forward is for all local authorities to share this important duty to some of the world’s most vulnerable children. Experience has already shown us that a voluntary system just doesn’t work.”
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