Councils are to be forced to look after young asylum children to ease the pressure on Kent.
Could it mark a turning point in a wrangle that has spanned two decades? Political editor Paul Francis reports.
Images of bewildered young children emerging from dinghies and small boats arriving on Kent’s shores have become an all-too-familiar and heart-rending sight this year.
And the moment they step into Kent, by law they become the responsibility of the county council’s social services.
It has left successive council leaders with a major headache, one that has, until now, not been resolved.
Despite repeated demands for help that date back to 2001, the council has until now been unable to persuade the government of the need to relocate children elsewhere on a compulsory - though not permanent - basis.
Ministers, after years of resistance, have finally buckled. The government has announced its current arrangements for dispersal - under the title of the existing National Transfer Scheme - will within weeks be compulsory.
KCC leader Roger Gough
It marks a crucial development. Moving to a compulsory rather than voluntary scheme is precisely what the county council wanted.
The Conservative county council leader Roger Gough said: “It has always been our belief that a mandatory NTS is the only fair way to ensure a sustainable national solution to the equitable distribution of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children across the country and an end to the unfair burden on Kent’s residents and services solely due to our geographical position.”
The tragic deaths of 27 would-be asylum seekers including three children, has brought into sharp focus the failures of both the French and UK governments to work together to resolve the crisis.
For the county council, the need for a national solution is driven not by some kind of political zeal but by practicalities.
The huge pressure on Kent and warnings that its capacity was being stretched to breaking point by the steadily growing stream of young children arriving on their own came to a head in June, with the council threatening to sue Priti Patel's Home Office.
KCC was looking after 430 asylum seeking children, double the safe amount recommended by the government based on its population.
The minister in charge, Kevin Foster, said the government initiative would ease the pressure on Kent.
“It’s right we do all we can to protect unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, many of whom have gone through dangerous journeys and been exploited by despicable people smugglers,” he said.
“This decision has not been taken lightly but it is in the best interests of these children to make sure they receive the support they need.”
Of particular concern to the government has been the use of hotels to accommodate some of these children, with charities highlighting the lack of support and welfare.
The government has told councils the practise must be stopped within days and alternative provision found.
But while KCC has understandably welcomed the news, some have questioned whether the government is being heavy-handed.
Among them are the Conservative leader of Medway council, Alan Jarrett.
He says the scheme might be undermined by ‘get out’ clauses - which include taking into account the number of looked after children that councils already have on their books.
“I think the government is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut because what I've been saying throughout this is that all local authorities should be stepping up to the plate on this,” he said.
The council already had looked after children with high needs placed in Medway costing £14m a year to support.
Under the arrangements, the transfer of unaccompanied children away from local authorities can take place if the number being looked after represents more than 0.07% of their total child population.
The Children’s Society has warned that may lead to children being moved to councils that lack the support structure needed.
It says not all councils had the right expertise, experience, and services in place and it was crucial the government provided the funding they needed to provide support.
The government has also stressed that the compulsory scheme may be temporary - effectively giving it the right to end it when it chooses.
Bridget Chapman of the Kent Refugee Action Network echoed concerns about councils who did not have resources in place: “There are many councils who have said for a long time that they are really keen but wanted it to be fully funded.
"The number of youngsters is not a lot for the country as a whole but it is a lot for KCC to manage. I am frustrated that it has taken so long and it could have been speeded up a long time ago.”
Despite these reservations, the introduction of a mandatory scheme does represent a significant acknowledgement by the government that Kent suffers disproportionately because of where it is.
The test now is whether it will work in practice.
A decades old problem
The challenges of dealing with child asylum seekers are ones which KCC has had to deal with for more than 20 years.
In 2000, Peter Gilroy, the county council's social services director, gave evidence to MPs about the impact of migration on the county:
“In 1996, Kent had just 50 asylum seekers; by 1999, social services looked after over 15,000 asylum seeker arrivals and during the latter period of that year, we were dealing with 1,000 per week,” he said.
"Many asylum seekers came to the UK as the favoured destination in Europe because they believed it was the country where the asylum processes gave them "the best chance of staying."
At the time, the government had agreed to a limited mandatory scheme under which asylum seeker families were relocated but no such scheme was in place for children.
Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, then leader of KCC, said: "We're talking about unaccompanied minors as it's called and that means children of 17 and under who arrive in this country completely on their own and there are now some 1,300 or so that the county council is now responsible for."
The issue was also beginning to get more scrutiny from the media.
Over time, there have been periodic warnings by social services chiefs that KCC’s capacity was being strained to breaking point.
But the escalating numbers of people crossing the channel this year brought matters to a head with an announcement in June that the county council was threatening legal action against the government.
It issued legal proceedings against the Home Secretary, warning its services for unaccompanied children were at breaking point for the second time in less than a year.
The authority warned it may no longer be able to accept new unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) within days, and served a formal letter before action.
The council issued a statement which criticised the government for not doing enough to stem the numbers, saying there was “insufficient incentive for other local authorities to transfer UASCs from Kent” under the voluntary dispersal scheme.
As a result, there was a “wholly disproportionate strain on Kent's children's services” which the government continued to overlook.
This seemed to have concentrated the government’s mind and its plans to make councils take in young children followed.
The question now is whether forced dispersal will work. Ministers say their plans will do what KCC has long argued for. Time will tell.