Published: 11:23, 10 September 2020
| Updated: 18:17, 10 September 2020
MPs leading an inquiry into channel crossings have quizzed the leader of Kent County Council (KCC) after his authority said it cannot safely care for any more child migrants.
Cllr Roger Gough (Con) told the Home Affairs committee it would be "unworkable" for Maidstone County Hall's social care team to look after more unaccompanied asylum-seekers amid the pandemic.
The Sevenoaks councillor said the county's four reception centres were full while adding it would be "profoundly undesirable" to have children double up in a room while social distancing and quarantine measures were in place.
Explaining the decision to stop taking in more children on August 17, he added that social workers had been overstretched as some employees dealt with caseloads of more than 30 youngsters compared to the target level of 15.
Cllr Gough said: "A big factor for us, looking at it longer term, was what does this mean for the nature of our whole children's service and our capacity to provide a good service to those arriving on our shores and local citizens."
His comments were made during a virtual public meeting of the House of Commons committee, which is made up of 13 MPs from all political parties.
The president of the association of directors of children's services, Jenny Coles, of Hertfordshire County Council, was joined by Cllr Gough and asked about migration and asylum-seeking routes through the European Union (EU).
Former shadow foreign secretary Yvette Cooper chaired the discussion as committee members pressed the duo on the current situation and what government should do in finding a solution on the growing national issue.
Cllr Gough called for the national transfer scheme - created to enable the safe transfer of unaccompanied children from one local authority to another - to be made "mandatory" with more funding needed to incentivize many councils.
Around 522 young migrants, aged under 18, are currently under KCC's care but this is more than twice the amount any single authority should be looking after, which is 0.07% of the total number of children living in their own area.
Cllr Gough said: "The national transfer scheme dried up from 2018 onwards."
Ms Coles called for reforms in order to make a more "sustainable" system. She told of experiences from local authorities she represents about "spontaneous arrivals" in lorries while some have turned up at London's St Pancras station.
In Kent, Cllr Gough said there had been a shift in unaccompanied children arriving in small boats rather than lorries amid lockdown, prompted by the "highly publicised" crossings, which were seen as an effective mode of travel.
He added that many of the migrants were coming to the Port of Dover from Africa rather than the Middle East in recent weeks, such as Chad, Sudan and Eritrea.
Sympathetic MPs, including former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott (Lab), suggested lobbying the government to revive the national transfer scheme.
Gravesham MP Adam Holloway (Con) paid tribute to KCC's social services team for their "valiant" effort while East Worthing MP Tim Loughton (Con) said that Kent had faced "remarkable challenges" while being on the front lines.
The committee was told that discussions with the Home Office continue around this issue, but KCC's leader said he was not aware of a timeline for executive decisions to be made.
KCC's 81 elected members will meet to discuss the latest developments during a virtual full council meeting today.