The following officers were in attendance for this item:
- Barbara Peacock, Executive Director (People Department)
- Ian Lewis, Director, Children and Family Early Intervention and Children's Social Care
- Wendy Tomlinson, Acting Head of Looked after Children Services
- Cynthia Winifred, Service Deliver Manager
Officers were questioned regarding age assessments. They explained that, while the duty social worker might take a view regarding the age of applicants, the assessments were carried out by the Home Office and resulting decisions were the responsibility of the Home Office.
It was highlighted that unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC) had to get a placement in two hours, while age checks could take up to 28 days. This can present a safeguarding issue in foster homes or school environments when the applicant is significantly older than he claims. Officers explained that such applicants should not be placed with young children to minimize the rise.
Officers added that while applicants in Europe undergo tests based on the size of their wrists and collarbones and the condition of their teeth, the age assessment in the UK is based on a discussion with the applicant. Lengthy and thorough assessments focus on their use of language, their communication styles, their daily routines and organizational skills, as well as information drawn from their Facebook pages. After 3-4 days, the applicants are presented with the outcome of the assessment in writing, in the presence of a Responsible Adult, and, where necessary, an interpreter speaking the applicant's language and dialect. Officers acknowledged that this was an expensive process, due to costly legal challenges.
Officers stated that most UASC presented at the age of 16-17 and were distributed around London. Those who present at the age of 15 or under are looked after by Croydon Council.
Members sought more information on the placement of unaccompanied asylum seeking care leavers in suitable accommodation. Officers explained that, under the Leaving Care Act, the council remained responsible for care leavers who had exhausted their right of appeal and identified placements for them in other parts of the country. It was observed that children who had lost their right of appeal were at greatest risk of being trafficked. In the year 2015-2016, Croydon had referred 54 young people to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) for identifying and recording victims of trafficking, which seeks to ensure that the victims receive the appropriate support.
Officers were questioned on Albanian UASC, of whom there are currently 214, as stated in table 2 of the report. Officers explained that most of these were at risk from blood feuds in Albania. Albania is in the Schengen area and the children travel through Italy and France unhindered to reach the UK. The Cabinet Member highlighted the fact that Albania had applied to become members of the EU and that there was no current conflict in Albania, as a consequence of which the vast majority of Croydon's Albanian UASC would not be granted asylum. If they wish to appeal, they need to do so from Albania.
Officers stated that many Albanian UASC had families in the UK. Members asked why they presented as UASC if that was the case. Officers explained that they did not reveal their family ties when they presented at the Home Office, claiming in many cases that their parents were dead. As many such applicants go missing after being registered, officers have to investigate their disappearance and, through this work and discussions on the return of the individual, find out that many of these applicants have family in the UK. Officers stated that there was a large Albanian community in London.
Members asked why the Home Office did not challenge Albanian applicants more robustly as they knew that most were not in danger and that there was no conflict in that country. Officers explained that before a full assessment was conducted, applicants were considered to be "children in need" and the council was obliged to provide accommodation and care until this had been completed. However, they added that work was being carried out with Albanian officials to develop systems and agree a memorandum of agreement to ensure that applicants were able to go back to a safe place in their own country. The objective is to complete assessments and secure a voluntary return to Albania within twelve weeks as applicants automatically qualify as UASC in their thirteenth week in the UK.
Officers were asked whether they anticipated a significant influx of Syrian UASC, of whom there are only 11 in the borough at present. They replied that the government would be looking for voluntary offers under the National Dispersal Scheme from councils around the country but that Croydon would not be putting any forward in view of the existing influx of UASC.
In answer to a Member's question, officers stated that they were not in a position to estimate the impact of "Brexit" on the future numbers of UASC coming to the UK.
Members noted that 36% of UASC were not in employment, education or training. Officers explained that these individuals were not eligible for employment, education or training and admitted that this adversely affected their performance figures.
Officers were questioned on the impact of the Children in Care Council (CICC) on the welfare of children in care. One example they cited was the impact of an audience with senior housing officers to discuss the accommodation of children in care. This led to a better understanding of the needs of care leavers and to a review of housing provision for them.
Members thanked officers were thanked for their fulsome responses to members' questions but asked for future reports on UASC to be more detailed.