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Kent council leaders in furious attack on Home Office for 'unsustainable' demands over asylum seekers as pressure grows on Suella Braverman

A scathing letter, signed by the leaders of all of Kent and Medway's local councils, says the county is "at breaking point" over asylum seekers.

Writing to under-fire Home Secretary Suella Braverman, it accuses the Home Office of a catalogue of failings, broken promises and poor communication.

Under fire Home Secretary Suella Braverman
Under fire Home Secretary Suella Braverman

It will heap further pressure on the shoulders of the re-appointed minister, who is already facing claims she has failed to prevent a huge log-jam of people at what should be a temporary immigration processing site at Manston.

The almost 2,000-word letter, written on behalf of all 14 local authorities in the county, says it is aware of concerns of "potential disorder" at Manston on the scale of that seen at Napier Barracks in Folkestone - where riots and a fire was started - "but on a site ten times larger".

And it slams the decision to procure a hotel in Ashford over recent days to house asylum seekers without consulting local support organisations.

In a missive full of barely disguised fury at the pressure the county is under - and the Home Office's apparent lack of understanding or appreciation of the numbers it is currently dealing with - it spells out how local people are feeling the strain.

It points to local children in Ashford and Canterbury which "currently have no Year 7 and Year 9 places for local children due to the unexpected and therefore unplanned for arrivals of refugee children disproportionately placed by the Home Office in these two local authority areas.

The pressures put on Kent by the surge in asylum seekers have been intense
The pressures put on Kent by the surge in asylum seekers have been intense

"Local children are having to travel to other towns to access their education, placing further financial burden on Kent County Council who have to fund their home to school transport as a result."

The letter adds: "Our public services including health social care and schools are already under extreme pressure from surging local demand and the cost-of-living crisis.

"We have approaching 20,000 households on the waiting list for social housing, soaring costs and limited availability of private-rented sector and temporary accommodation, all fuelled by being in the expensive South East London periphery whilst having pockets of severe deprivation and low average earnings.

"Maidstone alone has seen Housing Register applications increase by 37% in one year and those seeking help from homeless service rising to 2,230 during 2021/22. Data so far for 2022/23 indicates a further inexorable increase.

"Maidstone’s ability to access the private rented sector has been further severely curtailed by an increase in the number of placements from other local authority areas, and various services commissioned by Probation and the Home Office to provide housing for asylum seekers and ex-offenders from out of area.

Roger Gough - leader of KCC and one of the letter's signatories
Roger Gough - leader of KCC and one of the letter's signatories

"Maidstone has over 400 Ukrainian households many of which will need rehousing soon. [Its] experience is not unusual, it is mirrored 13 times across Kent and Medway’s housing authorities. Kent’s housing sector cannot absorb further asylum placements on top of these existing burdens over and above local demand."

And it doesn't hold back in its criticism of a recent move to procure a Holiday Inn in Ashford to house asylum seekers - along with other locations.

It adds: "The strategic sites being procured are equally problematic, the unsuitability in many cases not only detrimental for the county, but also for the vulnerable children and adults resident here.

"There has been no consultation before sites are established. The Home Office have failed at every turn to seek the expert insight of statutory partners around safeguarding, public health, Prevent [which safeguards against radicalisation], fire safety, NHS capacity, school places, appropriateness of the facility or its location (eg issues relating to deprivation, crime profile, rural isolation, risk of trafficking) before residents are in place and, if at all, then only after a crisis occurs requiring local intervention.

"Every time we are then promised lessons are learnt, only for the same to happen again, most recently with the procurement [a Holiday Inn in Ashford] this week.

This is an abject failure of duty, a complete disregard for partners’ statutory duties

"On this occasion statutory partners were only notified after use of the hotel was secured.

"Our officers raised significant concerns around the appropriateness of the site and advised that service users should not be moved in until outbreak control plans, Prevent and safeguarding assessments were in place as well as arrangements for health provision, and access to schools. Despite officers being promised they would be notified before residents would be moved in, our officers had to learn from social media that service users had been decanted from another facility in London.

"This is an abject failure of duty, a complete disregard for partners’ statutory duties. The associated risks to service users, staff on site, local community and public services is inexcusable. This culture of dismissing local partners is endemic within parts of the Home Office. It is only a matter of time before we have to manage another serious incident."

The letter is signed by the leaders of Kent, Medway, Ashford, Dartford, Dover, Swale, Thanet, Canterbury, Tunbridge Wells, Tonbridge, Sevenoaks, Maidstone, Gravesham and Folkestone & Hythe councils.

It says its aim is to "to formally set out our significant concerns regarding the current situation within Home Office’s strategic sites in the county and the department’s plans to secure further adult asylum dispersal accommodation".

The Holiday Inn, Ashford Central in Kennington has been booked out by the Home Office for asylum seekers
The Holiday Inn, Ashford Central in Kennington has been booked out by the Home Office for asylum seekers

The angry demand for pressure to be eased on the county comes after it emerged the Home Office wants to allocate an additional 1,300 adults to accommodate in the county by December 2023 - despite the county historically taking the strain of asylum seeking adults and children due to it being the primary entry point to the country.

It reads: "As you know, Kent has taken a strategic role in working collaboratively with government for some considerable time, most notably in looking after Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children (UASC) and care leavers. Since 2015, Kent has borne the brunt of UASC arrivals, on two occasions having to cease admissions completely to prevent our local services becoming dangerously overstretched.

"Our role has been acknowledged by successive secretaries of state and yet despite the National Transfer Scheme [which should see other areas around the country sharing the pressure] being mandated since December 2021, Kent remains the local authority with the greatest number of new arrivals coming into our care.

"As of today, we have 495 UASC under-18 in our care, of whom 346 will be permanently remaining with us...and a further 120 who are awaiting transfer in our reception and safe care service or are missing.

"In addition, we are supporting 1,061 UASC care leavers, which make up more than half of all care leavers in Kent.

The pressures put on Kent by the surge in asylum seekers have been intense
The pressures put on Kent by the surge in asylum seekers have been intense

"In November 2019, Home Office colleagues assured Kent’s leaders that they recognised the exceptional pressures we are facing and would exempt Kent from accommodating adults. Only 10 months later we were notified without consultation that Napier Barracks in Folkestone had been temporarily leased ‘for only a year’ to provide emergency capacity in the adult asylum system, but that this would have ‘minimal impact’ on local services.

"The site accommodates 308 single males and is now leased until at least 2026 and has been a significant draw on local resource including the management of large Covid outbreaks, safeguarding, health services, public disorder, a riot and a fire.

"In any other county, the burden of Napier would have been difficult enough. However, there are a further two hotels in the district of Folkestone & Hythe alone accommodating 139 UASC, and across Kent we are supporting thousands of service users over multiple sites.

"We have been an enthusiastic partner in the Syrian and Afghan resettlement schemes, Homes for Ukraine, we have cooperated around our three large Afghan bridging hotels, the Home Office’s two directly run UASC

hotels, a large strategic site at Manston intended for processing only but now accommodating service users, and as of this week, another adult asylum hotel in Ashford.

"We were therefore astounded to learn that, through the forum of the collaborative South East Strategic Partnership for Migration, Home Office colleagues feel Kent should be doing more.

The Manston immigration short-term holding facility. Picture: PA
The Manston immigration short-term holding facility. Picture: PA

"In ‘allocating’ Kent & Medway an additional 1,300 adults to accommodate by December 2023, the rationale being that Kent currently only has 326 adults in asylum dispersal accommodation and lower than regional and national averages per head of the population, the Home Office have entirely disregarded the wider part we have played and additional burdens we face unique to Kent.

"Kent and Medway’s leaders are clear. We reject that calculation in the strongest possible terms. We can only conclude that officers are either working in silos and unaware of the high profile and supportive role Kent has played over many years and the cumulative burden and impact on local services and residents this has had, or worse have misinterpreted the datasets to come to a predetermined conclusion.

"Put simply, Kent is at breaking point."

On the Manston issue, the letter says the situation there is now "critical" with "approaching 4,000 service users contained within segregated marquees as we approach the coldest months of the year, some having been on roll mats for over a month".

It adds: "We have reports of tensions growing and concern about the potential for disorder similar to Napier Barracks, but on a site with a capacity ten times larger. We have had outbreaks of shigella, Coronavirus, diphtheria, scabies and hepatitis, some only detected after service users have been moved on, raising questions about screening and outbreak management.

The current situation is entirely unsustainable and unacceptable.

"We have hundreds of mostly Albanian service users not claiming asylum and being bailed and dropped at mid-Kent train stations with no follow up where they go or if they leave Kent. This again on a site that we were assured would be a rapid processing centre with a capacity of 1,500, that would never accommodate service users for more than 48 hours, where no-one would be able to leave, in a rural village location with few amenities, and service users being easily identifiable.

"The growing number of children being housed with their families alongside single adult men at Manston increases the likelihood of safeguarding concerns arising which will need to be investigated and responded to by local Kent County Council and Kent police services."

It concludes by calling for meeting with senior Home Office officials and for Kent's shouldering of the problem for so many years to be recognised.

It reads: "Kent and Medway makes up just 3% of our country’s geographic space, and yet we are a victim of our geographic position. We are continually called upon to meet national challenges and we do so willingly. It is time to utilise the remaining 97% of the country to relieve the burden on Kent.

Over crowding and conditions at Napier Barracks sparked trouble. Picture: Care4Calais
Over crowding and conditions at Napier Barracks sparked trouble. Picture: Care4Calais

"We implore government colleagues to look at the burdens we are facing holistically and not consider service by service, silo by silo. Adult dispersal figures cannot be viewed in isolation. Government’s actions and decisions are materially and detrimentally impacting Kent’s residents, communities and taxpayers.

"The current situation is entirely unsustainable and unacceptable.

"[We] demand the Home Office and associated government departments stop using the county as an easy fix for what is a national, strategic issue. We urge the Home Office recognises the enormous contribution that Kent and Medway has made and refrain from continuing to allocate further adult asylum quotas to the county and cease procurement of further hotel accommodation."

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