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Government pledges to help Kent County Council with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children crisis

Additional reporting by Ciaran Duggan

The government has pledged to increase financial support for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children after Kent County Council (KCC) revealed its resources were "breaking at the seams".

Nearly 200 young migrants have travelled into Kent from overseas countries this year, and last month, the council received the highest number of asylum-seeking children for five years - with 65 new arrivals.

Oakwood House in Maidstone has become a temporary home for asylum seekers
Oakwood House in Maidstone has become a temporary home for asylum seekers

At present, the council is looking after 482 under 18s and 936 care leavers up to the age of 25.

The total cost of supporting these young people is £2.4 million per month, but the authority only gets £2.2 million in government grants, leaving £200,000 for tax-payers to cover.

Amid the coronavirus crisis, council leader Roger Gough (Con) wrote to the Home Office, asking for “immediate help” to provide much-needed cash as the county council faces a £50m financial “black hole” over the next 12 months.

Yesterday, deputy leader, Cllr Peter Oakford (Con), said: "I can assure you that there is a huge amount of work going on on a daily basis on this topic because I was the cabinet member for children’s in 2015 when we had over 1,000 UASC that we had to deal with.

“I honestly believe this year is going to be worse and from what we are seeing, the numbers will go above the 2015 level."

Cllr Peter Oakford
Cllr Peter Oakford

There are currently three reception centres in Ashford, Maidstone and Cranbrook and Cllr Oakford said: "With the quarantine laws that have been put into place at the moment we are breaking at the seams and don’t quite know what to do next.”

His comments came during KCC’s virtual scrutiny committee meeting where county councillors discussed the damage of Covid-19 on the budgets of Kent’s 14 councils, who together face a £245m shortfall.

However, Home Secretary Priti Patel also met with KCC’s leader one-to-one yesterday to discuss the key issues, and following this, the council received government commitment to increase funding and support for asylum seekers.

Parliamentary under-secretary for immigration compliance, Chris Philp, has made a personal commitment to increase financial support and assist in finding placements for young people outside of Kent.

In a letter, the minister thanked Kent County Council for the vital work undertaken to support unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) and stated that KCC had played a “pivotal role” in the government’s commitment to safeguard the country’s most vulnerable children.

Cllr Gough said: "As a result of our appeals the increased government support, in particular for care leavers, will reduce current costs to Kent considerably. The county presently cares for the highest number of UASC nationally and the enhanced funding will amount to in excess of £5 million for Kent this year, significantly easing the financial burden on the county’s residents.

Council leader, Roger Gough
Council leader, Roger Gough

“Government has listened to the case that we made and that is good news for Kent."

As part of central government’s commitment, the council will now work with the Home Office and strategic migration partnerships to generate maximum support from other local authorities under the National Transfer Scheme.

But the council remains concerned more will need to be done to put the scheme on a sustainable longer-term footing.

According to the scheme, Kent’s maximum annual intake should not exceed 231, but in the year up to April, the council took in 450, compared to 257 in the previous year.

The last time a young asylum seeker was transferred from the county to another local authority was April 2018.

Home Secretary, Priti Patel. Picture: Home Office
Home Secretary, Priti Patel. Picture: Home Office

Since then, KCC has been responsible for all new arrivals on the county’s shores.

Cllr Gough said: "Concerted efforts to place asylum seeking young people with other local authorities will, if successful, ease some of the pressures that Kent has been experiencing. However, our position remains on a knife edge.

“Even with these measures in place, if we see additional large scale UASC arrivals over the summer, our capacity will soon come under pressure again.

“This new set of measures will provide much-needed assistance to alleviate the pressure on Kent in the short term. KCC looks forward to engaging with central government further to refresh and incentivise the National Transfer Scheme to provide a sustainable, longer-term solution to achieving the equitable care of UASC nationally.”

A full report will be presented to KCC’s cabinet on the financial situation in less than two weeks’ time on Monday, June 22.

Read more: All the latest news from Kent

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