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UNISON Scotland's Response to the Home Office Immigration and Nationality Directorate consultation Paper ‘Planning Better Outcomes and Support for Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children

May 2007

Executive Summary

  • UNISON is Scotland's largest trade union representing over 160,000 members working in the public sector, including over 25,000 workers from social services throughout Scotland, many of whom work with asylum-seeking families, including unaccompanied children.

  • UNISON Scotland welcomes the opportunity to respond to this consultation and welcomes the stated intention to provide more appropriate and better support to this very vulnerable group of children.

  • Chapters 1 and 2 lay down welcome principles which would appear to treat children as children first and asylum seekers second. However later chapters focus much more on immigration status as the primary consideration, thereby treating children as asylum seekers first and children second.

  • The emphasis on preparing children for removal (rather on the individual's successful development to a fulfilling adulthood) suggests that the better outcomes envisaged for children are not based on the best interests of the individual child but are viewed primarily in their immigration context.

  • UNISON Scotland is concerned that the paper does not take into account the fact that most of these children will have fully assimilated into UK society and will have often lost contact with their own culture and language.

  • UNISON Scotland has been consistent in making it clear to its members in social work that they will be supported in practising within the agreed framework when working with asylum seeker children. We would not expect our members to fudge their role in working with affected children, collude with the deportation of children and families, or to put a humane face on inhumane practices.

  • UNISON Scotland is therefore very concerned at the role the paper proposes for social workers.

  • Helping children and young people to deal with such issues as loss, bereavement, etc., requires trust and stability.

  • UNISON Scotland opposes the reduction from age 18 to 17 ˝ in terms of the asylum process.

  • UNISON Scotland is concerned at the proposals for returning 16 and 17 year olds to their country of origin as they are still vulnerable young people.

  • UNISON Scotland supports the need to properly and fully assess the circumstances to which a child will be returning in their country of origin.

  • UNISON Scotland believes there needs to be a recognition that services should focus on the needs of the child irrespective of their status.

  • UNISON Scotland is opposed to any medical intervention with any child that is not specifically based on informed consent or the need for medical treatment.

  • UNISON Scotland believes that, if the interests of children were fully taken into account, asylum claims would rarely fail.

  • UNISON Scotland does not believe it would be in the interests of a child to be returned on an enforced basis.

Introduction

UNISON is Scotland's largest trade union representing over 160,000 members working in the public sector. UNISON Scotland represents over 25,000 workers from social services throughout Scotland, with members employed as social workers, home care workers, residential care workers, welfare rights workers, early years staff and others administrating and supporting the social work team. Whilst most of our social services workers are employed by Local Authorities, we also represent a substantial number who work in the private and voluntary sector.


In conjunction with the British Association of Social Workers, UNISON Scotland has recently produced a guide for members - Asylum in Scotland - child's welfare paramount? - which informs many of our comments below.

UNISON Scotland welcomes the opportunity to respond to this consultation and welcomes the stated intention to provide more appropriate and better support to this very vulnerable group of children. In particular we welcome the statement in Chapter 1 that asylum seeking children matter every bit as much as other young people in the context of meeting the five outcomes of the Every Child Matters framework.

Chapters 1 and 2 lay down welcome principles which would appear to treat children as children first and asylum seekers second. However UNISON Scotland is concerned that later chapters focus much more on immigration status as the primary consideration, thereby treating children as asylum seekers first and children second.

The primary focus of legislation affecting children in Scotland is that the welfare of the child is paramount, irrespective of the status of that child. We are therefore concerned by the suggestion that a child's immigration status should be the defining factor in how their needs are identified and assessed and how services are provided. UNISON Scotland believes that the needs of each child as an individual should be the defining factor in assessment and service provision.

The emphasis on preparing children for removal (rather on the individual's successful development to a fulfilling adulthood) suggests that the better outcomes envisaged for children are not based on the best interests of the individual child but are viewed primarily in their immigration context.

UNISON Scotland is concerned that the policy will be put into operation in the context of the UK's continued derogation from Article 22 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). UNISON Scotland believes that this derogation should be rescinded so that the government's commitment to Every Child Matters and, in Scotland, It's Everyone's Job to Make Sure I'm Alright and Getting it Right for Every Child, can fully deliver on their objectives.

UNISON Scotland is also concerned at the possibility of confusion for affected children in terms of the roles of social work staff and immigration staff. We believe that there would need to be very clear protocols covering information sharing and the roles of the professionals concerned to ensure that social work staff can act within their professional code of ethics and within the codes of practice laid down by the Scottish Social Service Council.

UNISON Scotland is concerned that the paper does not take into account the fact that most of these children will have fully assimilated into UK society and will have often lost contact with their own culture and language. Anecdotally our members advise that these children are committed to education and to co-operating with care plans. They are able to contribute significantly to our society.

UNISON Scotland is opposed to any medical intervention with any child that is not specifically based on informed consent or the need for medical treatment. It is therefore opposed to the dental x-ray plan for age assessment.

General Comments

Chapter 1: Scope of the Paper

UNISON Scotland welcomes the commitment that asylum seeker children matter every bit as much as other young people in the context of meeting the five outcomes of the "Every Child Matters" framework. These are:

    • Be healthy
    • Stay safe
    • Enjoy and achieve
    • Make a positive contribution
    • Achieve economic well-being

The framework states "The five outcomes are universal ambitions for every child and young person, whatever their background or circumstances."

This implies a commitment to see unaccompanied asylum seeking children as children first and asylum seekers second, and is consistent with UNISON Scotland's view of how such children should be supported. However, these principles are undermined by the specific plans laid out in Chapter 3.

Chapter 2: Why Improvements Need To Be Made

UNISON Scotland welcomes the commitment to basing service provision to such young people on an assessment of individual needs. However no consideration is given to where in the UK a child, or indeed those assessing the child's needs, may consider is the best place for those needs to be met.

The current geographical placement of children (and the planned future as outlined in the document) is a function of immigration agency practice rather than any assessment of a child's individual needs. The importance of listening to children and young people and taking their views into account in both English and Scottish legislation is given no consideration in these plans.

The document states that "it is important that we achieve an acceptable level of consistency in the standards and delivery of services in all areas."

This consistency for all children is achieved through practice and services covered by existing legislation and guidance, for example the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 and Getting it right for every child. UNISON Scotland believes that consistency of practice for unaccompanied asylum seeking children will only be achieved by acknowledging their rights under this legislation and guidance.

 

Chapter 3: The Journey through the Asylum and Support System

The social work role

UNISON Scotland is concerned that Chapter 3 sees a change in emphasis in the paper from a focus on the welfare and protection of the children to the "safeguarding of the asylum system." It becomes clear that the primary focus is on supporting the removal of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children whose applications have failed.

The role of the social worker in providing support to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children is referred to throughout. It is important to be clear that social work staff work within clear legislative frameworks which place the welfare of the child as paramount and within clear codes of professional practice. This informs ethical social work practice with all client groups, including vulnerable children and young people.

UNISON Scotland has been consistent in making it clear to its members in social work that they will be supported in practising within this framework when working with asylum seeker children. We would not expect our members to fudge their role in working with affected children, collude with the deportation of children and families, or to put a humane face on inhumane practices.

UNISON Scotland is therefore very concerned at the role the paper proposes for social workers. We are concerned that care planning appears to align itself with immigration considerations, rather than immigration considerations being informed by care planning. Therefore the assessed welfare needs of the child are seen as taking second place to immigration decisions which have only a very basic welfare focus.


There is no attempt in the paper to consider why such a very small number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are granted asylum. UNISON Scotland believes that most children would not be sent away, unaccompanied, from their homes and families, to travel to a strange country, where often they know no-one, without there being some compelling reason. Yet there seems to be no focus on this at all.

The paper refers to the New Asylum Model proposal to have an immigration official appointed as "case owner" in respect of each asylum claim. UNISON welcomes this if, as is hoped, it provides greater consistency for individuals and families in line with the principles of Getting It Right for Every Child.

While welcoming better communication to act in the best interests of a child, UNISON Scotland has some concerns about how this will be managed.

Firstly, there is a need for a clear protocol on information sharing which must recognise the rights of these children and young people to the same level of confidentiality as any other young person. Information should not be shared without consent unless there are child protection concerns for the young person or some other vulnerable individual.

Many of these children, as is recognised in the paper to some extent, will be dealing with the after effects of traumatic experiences, and social work involvement may include individual support and counselling on such matters. Without an assurance of confidentiality, these young people may well be unable to make use of this support and this may compromise their right to be healthy and stay safe.

Secondly, there would be a need for clear training and guidance on the roles and responsibilities of immigration personnel and social workers, to ensure that each had an understanding of each other's roles and duties, and to clarify when they could work together and when their roles would potentially conflict.

It is especially important that children are not confused by these respective roles.

Assessment and planning

Joint guidance from UNISON Scotland and the British Association of Social Workers, Asylum in Scotland - child's welfare paramount? - a guide for members from BASW and UNISON Scotland, states:

"Children and families may have experienced loss, bereavement and separation, along with problems related to asylum itself and the arrival in a new country. Fears of being sent back, detention and the stresses of poverty, culture shock, obstacles to integration, racism, unemployment and boredom are common issues."

Helping children and young people to deal with these issues requires trust and stability. The guide continues:

"Especially in the case of unaccompanied children, they may be extremely anxious about the security of personal information and trust-building will be a key issue. If children are removed, detained or displaced by immigration authorities, it must be acknowledged that this can compromise a child's recovery from often significant trauma".

It will be difficult to fully take these issues into account in a context of children being dispersed without consulting them fully. Stability is widely recognised as the key element in planning for children and this cannot be delivered in a climate of being under threat of being removed as soon as possible.

Current planning for children in Scotland recognises that it is not appropriate to force them to leave care supports behind at 18 and much emphasis is placed on the importance of throughcare. Most young people do not leave their family supports behind at that age.

UNISON Scotland welcomes the emphasis on provision of foster care for these children but would expect the recruitment, training and support of foster carers to meet the same standards are currently in place for all other children. This would also have to take into account cultural and identity issues and there may be a need for specific training in understanding the experiences of unaccompanied asylum seeking children.

The whole process of education is geared towards forms of further education be that general or vocational. It is not reasonable to expect that those working with children should compromise their efforts to assist them to achieve their potential because they are likely to be deported.

 

The Asylum Application

Compromises on these issues sit uneasily with the five desired outcomes in Chapter 1. UNISON Scotland therefore opposes the reduction from age 18 to 17 ˝ in terms of the asylum process.

Return to Country of Origin

UNISON Scotland is concerned at the proposals for returning 16 and 17 year olds because they do not present a clear picture of how they might work in practice and how the welfare of the child can be assured if they are returned to their country of origin.

The paper seems not to recognise that 16-18 year olds, although approaching adulthood, are still potentially vulnerable.

Clearly one of the major concerns would be that children end up being returned to unsatisfactory situations, not least in cases where de facto trafficking may have been the reason the child arrived in the UK in the first place, as the consultation itself recognises.

UNISON Scotland accepts that, in terms of the right to family life, there may be situations where a child may be able to be reunited with his/her family in a positive and constructive way.

However, the yardstick in these situations should not be the child's immigration status but should be the principle quoted in the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 s22, which states:

(1) A local authority shall -

(a) safeguard and promote the welfare of children in their area who are in need; and

(b) so far as is consistent with that duty, promote the upbringing of such children by their families,"

UNISON Scotland supports the need to properly and fully assess the circumstances to which a child will be returning in their country of origin, to ensure that services are in place to meet the child's welfare and safety needs. We welcome the undertaking to enhance and tailor such support packages to meet the specific needs of the young person, provided it has been assessed that it is indeed in their best interests to return to their country of origin and their views have been taken into account.

However, the paper is not clear how these support packages will be put in place. It is short on detail about where the "specialists with knowledge of the country of origin" will be found. This makes it difficult to comment fully except to say that there will be a need to ensure that those entrusted with such a role must be subject to the required checks to ensure that they are suitable to work with vulnerable young people.

UNISON Scotland is concerned there is no mention of the rights of the child in this section of the paper. Those rights would entitle them to a proper assessment, governed by UK legal and professional expectations, of the appropriateness of any placement with family members.

Responses to specific questions

1. How might a system of placing young people with a limited number of authorities help to ensure consistency of service provision and aid specialist services?

Consistency for all children is achieved through practice and services covered by existing legislation and guidance, for example the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 and Getting It Right For Every Child. UNISON Scotland believes that consistency of practice for unaccompanied asylum seeking children will only be achieved by acknowledging their rights under this legislation and guidance.

Consistency is best achieved by ensuring authorities are adequately funded to meet their responsibilities to these children. UNISON Scotland believes all Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children are children in need as defined by the Children (Scotland) Act 1995.

Resources to meet their needs should be available universally, although we recognise that there may be some role for consultancy and support for practitioners from specialist staff.

 

2. What other factors need to be put in place to achieve improved delivery of services for unaccompanied asylum seeking children?

UNISON Scotland believes there needs to be a recognition that services should focus on the needs of the child irrespective of their status. Those services need to be responsive and subject to the same regulatory governance as any other services for children. That requires adequate, reliable and accessible funding.

Interpreting and translating services, sympathetic to cultural issues, age and stage of development of the child and properly vetted, are essential and this requires a considerable funding and training commitment.

As the consultation recognises, many of these children will have had traumatic experiences and will need ready access to specialist services that understand these issues and can offer the required support.

 

3. When a local authority decides to conduct an age assessment, should this take place before or after arranging the transfer to a specialist authority?

UNISON Scotland believes that if transfers have to take place, the age assessment has to happen first. We accept that age assessment is important in terms of ensuring that children are not placed inappropriately or adults are not inappropriately placed with children.

However, it believes that the vast majority of age assessments will pose no particular problem in terms of assessing age and stage of development.

UNISON Scotland is opposed to any medical intervention with any child that is not specifically based on informed consent or the need for medical treatment. It is therefore opposed to the dental x-ray plan for age assessment for this reason and also because the margin of error could wrongly assess a 16 year old child as an adult.

 

4. What might be a valid reason for refusal to undergo a dental x-ray or other medical examination to improve age assessment?

We would refer to our answer to Question 3. Informed consent is a major issue and it would be entirely wrong to interpret a child's refusal to medical intervention to mean they were being dishonest about their age. The issue of medical consent for these children should be no different than for any other child in the UK.

 

5. When should the assessment of longer term care needs take place (either before or after transfer)?

Assessment is a continuous process and cannot be separated from the influences of interventions like the asylum process itself, the effect of transfer and the response to interventions to alleviate trauma and stress. It is hard to see how long term assessments could be made at an early point.

 

6. Should we generally encourage the move of those who have been fostered to other forms of support - in particular after they reach 16?

The concept of throughcare is stressed strongly in all of the guidance related to ‘looked after' children. Current planning for children seeks to ensure they can stay with families until at least 18 and elements of legislation allow for care and support for even longer.

Much of this guidance is based on the understanding that few young people at 16, especially with a traumatic background, are ready to move on to independence. It also reflects the evidence that most young people in society do not sever ties with their family at age 16 and many continue to live with them well into their 20s.

It is widely accepted that family care is the ideal care setting for most children. Where this is working it should not be severed for structural reasons.

The best interests of the child, the appropriateness of the placement in terms of that and the views and wishes of the child should be the only criteria for assessing whether a family placement should continue. There should be no pressure or compulsion on the child.

UNISON Scotland welcomes the statement in Chapter 1 that these children "matter every bit as much as other young people in the context of meeting each and every one of the five outcomes of the ‘Every Child Matters' framework." We are therefore disappointed that this question and Question 9 below contradict this principle.

 

7. In what other ways can care planning be better aligned to immigration considerations?

The concept of serving a child's best interests and the child's welfare being paramount should override all other considerations. This principle underpins all domestic legislation in respect of all children and especially those children deemed to be "in need," and is consistent with the stated commitment in Chapter 1.

 

8. What further guidance is needed on managing the needs and expectations of unaccompanied asylum seeking children whose asylum claims fail?

UNISON Scotland believes that, if the interests of children were fully taken into account, asylum claims would rarely fail. Recognising that within the current system it is likely that many will, it is essential that children have access to support and advocacy which they can reasonably be expected to understand and engage with and which is geared to serving their best interests.

 

9. Should we develop new voluntary return packages for 16 and 17 year olds? If so, how could these be structured?

 

As mentioned above, UNISON Scotland accepts that, in terms of the right to family life, there may be situations where a child may be able to be reunited with his/her family in a positive and constructive way.

However, the yardstick in these situations should not be the child's immigration status but should be the principle quoted in the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 s22 which puts the duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of the child first.

That would require robust, transparent and reliable assessments in countries of origin and would have to be underpinned by the child's informed consent.

We have to bear in mind that children may have been trafficked, manipulated or abused by adults to an extent that ‘informed consent' may be a difficult concept to evaluate.

In any case such consent could not be given if the child did not have a realistic and safe alternative of being able to remain and be supported with a level of stability in the UK.

 

10. Might an enhanced, but reducing, package encourage take up of voluntary return? If so, at what points should the package be reduced?

In no other area of child care would a ‘reward' or inducement package be used as part of a child care plan. Any such package would be solely based on immigration imperatives and not on the best interests of the child.

 

11. What safeguards need to be put in place before children can be returned to their country of origin on an enforced basis?

UNISON Scotland does not believe it would be in the interests of a child to be returned on an enforced basis.

 

12. Who is best placed to work with the young person on the plan of return?

The process of rehabilitating children with their parents is a process in which social workers have considerable knowledge and experience. However they would only approach this on the basis of a sound assessment of the best interests of the child.

 

13. Should the service be procured from specialists and, if so, who?

See responses to Questions 11 and 12.

 

14. What are the challenges for integrating this voluntary return package within the care planning process for children whose asylum applications have been unsuccessful?

Any care planning process must have the best interests of the child at its heart. It is hard to see how this could be the case in an enforced removal.

 

15. Are these the right factors that need to be addressed in identifying specialist authorities and are there any others?

UNISON Scotland welcomes the recognition that there is a need for specialist services, including interpreters, to meet the needs of these children. However we are concerned that the criteria for "specialist authorities" do not take account of the emotional needs of these children, such as their need for emotional support and counselling.

All services need to be based on realistic funding to deliver the desired outcomes. Experience has shown that this cannot be delivered by short term and unnecessarily ring-fenced funding packages.

There are existing measures for ensuring ‘value for money' in terms of local authority services and service level agreements with the voluntary sector.

 

16. Is 50-60 the right number of specialist authorities to begin with? Does this strike the right balance, if not, please state why not.

As stated above, the placement of a child should be based on their best interests and should take their views into account. The availability of services may be a factor to be taken into account but UNISON Scotland does not believe that a limited number of ‘specialist' authorities is the best way to deliver this. See also our response to Question 1.

 

17. Should the Home Office facilitate the procurement of services in partnership with Local Authorities?

UNISON Scotland is not opposed to guidance for local authorities but they need to be able to approach procurement on the basis of local need and on the basis of what best serves the interests of children in that particular area.

 

18. Should the Home Office leave the procurement of services to Local Authorities but provide a model service specification and benchmark costs at a regional level?

See response above. UNISON Scotland would be concerned about general benchmark costs that may not reflect local circumstances or the real cost of providing some services.

 

19. Would Local Government Associations have any role to play in the procurement of services?

 

We are not clear about the thrust of this question. UNISON Scotland believes that the fundamental issue is that local authorities should have adequate funding to be able to provide services to meet the needs of all the children in their area. This would not preclude sharing arrangements (for example, the current arrangements for specialist care or secure accommodation).

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For Further Information Please Contact:

Matt Smith, Scottish Secretary
UNISONScotland
UNISON House
14, West Campbell Street,
Glasgow G2 6RX

Tel 0845 355 0845 Fax 0141 342 2835

e-mail matt.smith@unison.co.uk

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