HOUSE OF COMMONS
Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
LOCAL GOVERNMENT (ENGLAND) SPECIAL GRANT REPORT (No. 21) (HOUSE OF COMMONS PAPER No. 431)
Wednesday 26 June 1996
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The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairman: Mr Donald Anderson
Ashby, Mr. David (North-West Leicestershire)
Barnes, Mr. Harry (North-East Derbyshire)
Bayley, Mr. Hugh (York)
Bowis, Mr. John (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Health)(Battersea)
Boyson, Sir Rhodes (Brent, North)
Coombs, Mr. Anthony(Wye Forest)
Corbett, Mr. Robin (Birmingham, Erdington)
Eagle, Ms Angela (Wallasey)
Evans, Mr. David (Welwyn Hatfield)
Faber, Mr. David (Westbury)
Gunnell, Mr. John (Morley and Leeds South)
Jackson, Mrs. Helen (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
Lord, Mr. Michael (Central Suffolk)
McLoughlin, Mr. Patrick (West Derbyshire)
Mellor, Mr. David (Putney)
Milburn, Mr. Alan (Darlington)
Miller, Mr. Andrew (Ellesmere Port and Neston)
Rendel, Mr. David (Newbury)
Sumberg, Mr. David (Bury, South)
Mr. D.W.N. Doig Committee Clerk2 3 Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation Wednesday 26 June 1996
[MR DONALD ANDERSON in the Chair]
The Chairman: Before calling the Minister, I wish to draw the Committee's attention to the fact that special grant report No. 19 has now been withdrawn by the Government. Hence, only special grant report No. 21 is before the Committee. The purpose of report No. 21 is described clearly in paragraph 4 of page 1 which is "to provide support to qualifying authorities in England towards expenditure incurred in the financial year 1996/97 in providing accommodation for persons from abroad under the age of eighteen who are claiming asylum in the UK, have been granted such asylum or, exceptional leave to remain in the UK, and on and since their arrival in the UK have not been accompanied by a parent or guardian." The scope of the order is narrow and, although some general remarks about asylum seekers would be appropriate if they provide the context, it would certainly not be in order to debate the issue of asylum seekers as a whole.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. John Bowls): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 21) (House of Commons Paper No. 431). The report sets out the arrangements for the grants for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. The grant will provide support to local authorities in respect of their existing statutory responsibilities. Under part III of the Children Act 1989, local authorities have a responsibility to provide services for children in their area who it is determined are in need. If an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child is considered to be in need, an authority has the same duty to provide services for that child as it does for any other child in its area. In practice, those responsibilities—and the costs associated with them—have fallen on a limited number of authorities. In recognition of the costs that those authorities bear, the Department of the Environment asked local authorities, as part of its consultation process on the 1996–97 local government finance settlement, if they wanted a special grant to be provided in 1996–97 from within existing resources for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. All those who responded were in favour of such a grant, so on 4 31 January 1996, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment announced in Parliament that a special grant of £3 million would be made available to local authorities for such children. Since then, the Government have consulted local authority associations on how the grant should operate. The grant aims to target resources to those local authorities who are most affected by the costs of providing services for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. A local authority will qualify for grant support in 1996–67 if its eligible expenditure on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children exceeds 5 per cent. of its 1996–97 standard spending assessment for children's personal social services. Local authorities will be able to claim grant support for costs incurred in accommodating unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who are looked after either in residential care or in foster placements. The £3 million will be allocated to authorities that qualify for grant support on a pro-rata basis—that is, a system of fair shares in proportion to the estimated eligible expenditure that they expect to incur above the qualifying threshold, so that the total grant to all authorities amounts to £3 million. Those are the main features of the grant and I commend them to the Committee.
Mr. Alan Milburn (Darlington): This is clearly a timely debate on asylum seekers in the light of the statement made to the House on Monday by the Secretary of State for Social Security. May I say in passing that I am sad to note that yet another Cabinet Minister is in trouble with the courts. He joins the Home Secretary in that hallowed tradition. As you said in your opening remarks, Mr. Anderson, the announcement on Monday has somewhat truncated our debate today, as we were due also to debate special grant report No. 19. I should like to ask the Minister a question that arises from the withdrawal of that report. It seems to leave a potential gap in the reimbursement of expenditure properly incurred by local authorities in providing services to destitute asylum seekers and their children between February and the date on which the statement was made; 21 June. What action is the Minister proposing?
Mr. Bowis: It may be helpful if I clarify that, so that we can return to the report under discussion. We stand by the commitment that we made with regard to children in such circumstances. Once the legislation has been passed, we will lay and bring back a report that is equivalent to the one that was laid and withdrawn and which is in accordance with the terms of the new legislation.
Mr. Milburn: I thank the Minister for that assurance, which will be particularly pleasing to the 5 local authorities that have incurred expenditure and were concerned about the implications of Monday's announcement. I welcome the fact that the Government have recognised that the statutory duty on local authorities to provide services to children under the Children Act 1989 extends to meeting the costs of caring for unaccompanied refugee children. As the Minister will be aware, over recent years the number of such children being cared for by local authorities has risen: there are an estimated 1,000 children in the care of London local authorities alone. I am told that in the Hammersmith and Fulham area, there are 36 such children, in Hillingdon about 172 and in Islington, well over 100. In the case of Islington, the costs are now running at between £800,000 and £1 million per annum. A wide range of services is offered to children in those special circumstances. I have a recent report from Islington social services and health policy committee. Various forms of care provision are made available—residential care, foster care, housing care and support in the community. Clearly, such children are particularly vulnerable, reliant and dependent. The local authority must grapple with a host of issues, including immigration status, parental contact, reunification, appropriate day-to-day care and educational needs. It could be argued that those are life-saving services for such children. A number of concerns have been expressed to me by London local authorities in particular about the terms of the special grant. The fact that we are debating it here today is welcome, but I should be grateful if the Minister would respond to five issues that cause concern. First, can he explain how the £3 million allocated in the special grant relates to the actual expenditure incurred by local authorities? Does he believe that it adequately reflects the costs borne by local councils in providing services which, we all agree, are vital? Secondly, can the Minister tell us how the threshold for qualification for grant was determined? Concern has been expressed that it seems to have been arrived at arbitrarily. Thirdly, can he explain how the terms of the grant, which exclude provision for young people when they reach the age of 18, square with the duty on social services departments to provide for their development as adults? Fourthly, will the grants continue in future years, or is this a one-off measure for 1996–97? Local authorities must plan their services and their finances in a coherent way, especially given the growing demands placed on them by this group of refuge children. Finally, will the Minister recognise the fact that many of the costs borne by local authorities, especially those in London, could be eased if Ministers in the Department of Health sought to persuade their 6 counterparts in the Home Office to reduce the length of time taken for the determination of cases? I understand that there is a backlog of about 68,500 cases awaiting decision, so it is not surprising that it can take up to seven years before a claim is processed. I should be grateful if the Minister would respond to those points.
Mr. Bowis: I shall respond to those points, which, in some ways, reflect the discussions that we have had with the local authority associations. The intention has been to introduce a fair system, under which it is acknowledged that there has been a particular financial burden on a comparatively small number of authorities which look after unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. We have sought to do that without imposing a great deal of bureaucracy for the management of such additional resources as we can produce. That is why the distribution has been calculated in the way that it has. By targeting resources effectively and given that we do not want much of the money that we have allocated to be spent on administration, we have produced a fair system. The hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) said that the figure was arbitrary. Well, of course, any figure is arbitrary, as is any system in the sense that a conclusion must be reached. Having consulted widely, we think that £3 million is a fair assessment, not necessarily of the total increased burden—we would not expect to pay the total amount—but it is a contribution to the cost, especially that of social services. The hon. Gentleman referred to spending on education, housing and so on. I do not dispute that such costs exist, but the main item is acknowledged to be social services, and £3 million seems to be a fair sum. The hon. Member for Darlington referred to post-18-year-olds. Of course, they are no longer children, so, by definition, they are outwith the scope of the measure. That is not to say that social services have no responsibility for seeing children into independent and adult life. Those responsibilities, which we have debated many times before, will continue. The grant is for this year, but we shall, of course, discuss what will happen in future years within the normal consultations on the funding of local government. We shall consider whether this year's grant will help to overcome the problem. We have an open mind about such matters, and we shall discuss them with the local authority associations. The hon. Member for Darlington asked about asylum processes. Of course, we want those processes to be speeded up, if possible. That is what the Home Office has sought to do in many of the measures that it has introduced. An inter-departmental group is trying to improve the speed of such processes. I remind the Committee that the measure is for children under 18- 7 years-old, who have not been accompanied by a parent or guardian since their arrival in this country and who are awaiting the outcome of an asylum application, or those who have been granted asylum or exceptional leave to remain in the United Kingdom. Whether or not the process is speeded up, the measure will help local authorities to look after children who are in need because of their arrival in this country. I hope that my 8 response is helpful and that it satisfies the hon. Member for Darlington.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved, That the Committee has considered the Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 21) (House of Commons Paper No. 431).
Committee rose at fifteen minutes to Five o'clock.
THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS ATTENDED THE COMMITTEE:
Anderson, Mr. Donald (Chairman)
Boyson, Sir Rhodes
Coombs, Mr. Anthony
Evans, Mr. David