In April 2016 an amendment to the Immigration bill was passed that allowed the safe passage of unaccompanied minors to the UK. Lord Dubs, a former child refugee and campaigner for the amendment, commented in September that despite the widespread public support for the amendment, as of 5 September not a single child had been received into the UK.
This month that finally changed. A number of children and young people have now been transported safely across the borders ahead of the planned closure of the Calais camp, home to 10,000 displaced people. Responses to the children in the UK press have been dominated by mistrust and suspicion, and allegations that the arrivals are somehow less deserving than we had been led to believe. A lot of attention has been given to the age of the arrivals. Former asylum seeker Gulwali Passerlay wrote a revealing piece for Guardian on the effects of the age determination tests on his treatment in the UK.
A persons age can not only affect their ability to cope with their own situation, but also the legal duties and opportunities that are available for that young person, from access to schooling to access to suitable and affordable accommodation. These distinctions become more important when a child or young person is unable to rely on their family for support or assistance.
Children services accommodation and support duties
As with the unaccompanied minors from Calais, children who are homeless or enter the state care system have often suffered some sort of trauma in their lives. Homeless children under 18 are, since the Supreme Court ruling of R(G) v Southwark in 2009, deemed to be in need and will therefore benefit from duties owed to them by social services. Upon turning 18, some will lose all ongoing support including housing if they have not been looked after for a minimum of 13 weeks from 16 to 18, making them a former “relevant child”. This can make an enormous difference for a 16 year old deemed instead to be 17, meaning that this time window is cut short and the availability of support restricted.
Those who have been in the care of social services for any time from age 16 to 18 will be deemed a priority for re-housing under homelessness legislation until they are 21. In practice, it is harder and harder for local authorities to find suitable accommodation for those who are homeless and young, particularly if they are dependant on housing benefit or in need of support.
In September 2016, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation published a report following an inspection of accommodation of homeless 16 and 17 year old children who are within the youth offending system.
The report found that ‘one in three 16 and 17 years olds in our inspection were housed in accommodation we considered unsuitable or unsafe’. This included ‘bed and breakfast’ accommodation with adults, many of whom were offenders themselves. The report concluded that the reason for this did not appear to be a lack of funding, but rather ‘poor or incomplete assessment, a lack of joined-up working and recognition of children’s wider needs, and a tendency to place children as though they were adults.’
In July this year Redbridge Foyer closed. Its residents were single young people between the ages of 16 and 22. Redbridge Council assured residents that they would be re-housed, but some former residents are reported to have been forced to move as far away as Canterbury in Kent, 60 miles away from their professional and social support networks.
Supported accommodation, another option for the young and vulnerable, received a reprieve in September when the government announced that housing benefit changes which would cause many homes and refuges to close would not be brought into force. However, it appears that the cuts will still be on the cards for the future.
Where a young person has been accommodated under the care of social services, they may often be assisted to rent privately to fulfill their housing needs. The current regulation on housing benefit determines that if a person has been a looked after child, they are entitled to claim a higher rate of housing benefit, as if they were 35 or over (for a self contained property rather than a room in a shared house).
However, this entitlement ends when a person turns 22, meaning that unless they have managed to find work sufficient to cover their rent, they will find themselves in a property that is unaffordable, just at the same time as the state declared they are no longer a priority for homeless re-housing and social services is no longer required to offer assistance. Where an age assessment has been misjudged, a much younger person would have to find their way through this impossible situation.
For those lucky enough to have been provided the security of social housing, the prospects do not seem much better, with plans still in place to restrict the housing benefit for the under 35’s to an amount likely lower than a social tenancy rent. These changes are currently timetabled for April 2018.
Young people do not tend to command high wages and without strong family support are often unable to escape this system. Nor do they typically garner the political support to change or improve the way that older teenagers are treated through to adulthood by the state. For anyone who has had the opportunity to witness this system in action, they will find that the definitions of who and who does not deserve assistance are both confusing and somewhat arbitrary.
Age assessments have been part of the protocol for social services and the Home office for many years, they are frequently challenged and hold a wide margin for error. The call for age assessment of the Calais children raised by MP’s and the press this week seems to ignore the significant effects that a changing birthdate will have on a child’s opportunities in the UK.