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by Andrew Learmonth
23 November 2021
Scottish Government express 'major concerns' over Home Office unaccompanied child announcement

Scottish Government express 'major concerns' over Home Office unaccompanied child announcement

Home Secretary Priti Patel has been criticised in Holyrood after claiming Scotland’s local authorities were not doing enough to accommodate young asylum seekers, while at the same time introducing a new scheme which led to fewer children coming to Scotland.

The Conservative minister is under increasing pressure from her own colleagues over record numbers of Channel crossings. The number of people making the perilous trip has tripled since 2020, with more than 25,000 people having made the journey this year. 

Councils in the south of England say they are being overwhelmed by the need to provide care for a growing number of unaccompanied children entering the country.

The Home Office has told councils across the UK they will now need to take some of those children, unless they can, in the next two weeks, justify why they should not. 

Previously the national transfer scheme for children had been voluntary. 

Answering an urgent question on the scheme in Holyrood, social justice minister Shona Robison said the Scottish Government had “major concerns” about the Home Office plans. The minister said it would mean the end of a rota system already agreed by the 32 local authorities in Scotland. 

She told MSPs: “The Home Secretary wrote to all local authorities in July asking for more placements to be made available and Scotland answered that call by creating a Scottish rota which is supported by the vast majority of councils and COLSA. 

“This rota has been in operation since October and is working well. It's ensuring that Scotland meets the targets set by the Home Office but it does this in a manner which prioritises the welfare of children, supports their needs and provides them with the best possible chance to integrate into our society. 

“The proposal set out by the UK Government are a retrograde step which will create needless bureaucracy and do little to support the welfare and wellbeing of these highly vulnerable children.”

Labour MSP Paul Sweeney, who asked the question, said he was disgusted by the way “these vulnerable people, many fleeing war and persecution, have been treated by the Conservative government simply for seeking a safe place to live.” 

He asked the minister for more information, including on how many children are likely to be coming to Scotland. He also asked for the minister to rule out putting the children in hotels or unsupervised accommodation.

Robison said the reason for the rota was that some Scottish local authorities are very small and didn’t have the infrastructure to support unaccompanied children seeking asylum. It was about making sure children arriving in Scotland can go to the most appropriate place, she said.

Had the rota been allowed to continue, 45 out of every 650 children arriving in the UK would come to Scotland, but under the new Home Office scheme, councils north of the border would be “mandated to take 44 children.”

“We would actually be more than meeting the requirements but doing that in a way that supports the children. I can tell the member that since October, when participation commenced by the Scottish local authorities, 19 placements have been made. And that's in addition to the 22 children who arrived under the NTS scheme from January to September, and that’s in addition to the around 200 unaccompanied asylum seeking children already cared for by Scottish local authorities”. 

She added: “In terms of the type of accommodation, again that's an important point. Children are going to be here obviously for a long time, so we want them to become settled in accommodation as quickly as possible. It's in no one's interest for people to be staying in hotels and we recognise the challenges of that, which is why the Scottish rota is so important because it is the best way of making sure that appropriate accommodation is made available for the children arriving.”

Patel caused outrage on Monday during Home Office questions when she ridiculed SNP MP Stuart McDonald for asking why the government continued to house asylum seekers in inappropriate hotels rather than opt for community dispersal - longer-term temporary accommodation managed by accommodation providers on behalf of the Home Office.

The Home Secretary said: “Because local authorities around the country, and particularly in Scotland, have not played their part in helping with dispersal accommodation.”

She added: “The honourable gentleman should be ashamed of himself for coming to the House and making that point when the Scottish Government have done absolutely nothing to lift a finger in supporting the policy of dispersal accommodation.”

Later she claimed 31 local authorities out of 32 in Scotland have refused to participate in the dispersal scheme.

While Glasgow is the only local authority in the scheme, all have helped to accommodate asylum seekers, including those from Syria and Afghanistan. 

However, after a mass stabbing attack took place in the Park Inn Hotel, in Glasgow, last June, Scottish councils suspended their participation in the Home Office hotel scheme.

COSLA, the umbrella organisation for Scottish local government, has demanded urgent dialogue with Patel. 

Councillor Kelly Parry, speaking on behalf of COSLA, said: “Scottish local government has been clear in its opposition to the current approach around asylum dispersal in general and the use of hotels specifically.

“There is no funding in place for local statutory services to support people seeking asylum and, unfortunately, the current scale of hotel use across the UK is a direct consequence of the approach that the UK Government has chosen to take.”

Parry said COSLA has written to the Home Secretary seeking “urgent dialogue on the role that Scottish councils can play in ensuring that asylum seekers are appropriately accommodated and supported”.

She added: “Scottish local government is of the opinion that there is a workable solution to be found here and we would urge the UK Government to engage in discussions with us as a matter of priority.”

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