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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Urgent Question, Covid-19 (International Development Support), Scottish Attainment Challenge, Report of the Citizens Assembly of Scotland (Government Response), Committee Announcement (Made Affirmative Procedure Inquiry), Decision Time, Linking Food and Climate Change


Contents


Urgent Question


Children Refugees

Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports, following comments made by the Home Secretary in the House of Commons, that local authorities across the United Kingdom, including Scotland, will be obliged to accommodate the increasing number of unaccompanied children refugees crossing the English Channel.

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government (Shona Robison)

The issue is of major concern to the Scottish Government, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and local authorities. In July, the Home Secretary wrote to all local authorities 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 COSLA. The rota has been in operation since October and is working well. It is ensuring that Scotland meets the targets that have been set by the Home Office, and does so in a manner that prioritises the welfare of children, supports their needs and provides them with the best possible chance to integrate into our society.

The proposals that have been set out by the UK Government are a retrograde step that will create needless bureaucracy and will do little to support the welfare and wellbeing of those highly vulnerable children. In a short call with the minister, I made my views known to the UK Government, which I will follow up in writing later today.

I have spoken to COSLA, which is as concerned as I am about the way in which the matter has been badly handled by the UK Government.

Paul Sweeney

I thank the cabinet secretary for her response. I record my absolute disgust at the way in which those vulnerable people, many of whom are fleeing war and persecution, have been treated by the Conservative Government simply for seeking a safe place in which to live.

We are talking about unaccompanied children, so it important to be clear on the detail. Therefore, I have a number of questions that I would like the cabinet secretary to answer, if she can. Will she provide details of how many local authorities across Scotland meet the requirements that have been set out by the Home Office in today’s announcement? How many children are likely to be coming to Scotland, and how long does the Scottish Government envisage that they will be in Scotland?

What work is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that all local authorities have adequate provisions for the necessary safeguards for those children while they are in Scotland? What type of accommodation will they be living in? It surely cannot be the case that they will be put in hotels or unsupervised accommodation, so I would appreciate it if the cabinet secretary could at least explicitly rule that out.

Shona Robison

Paul Sweeney has raised a number of issues. One of the reasons for the rota was the recognition that some Scottish local authorities are very small and do not necessarily have the infrastructure to support unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, which would put at risk the support that such vulnerable children would have. Therefore, there are good reasons for having the rota, which was put together so that children arriving in Scotland go to the most appropriate place.

If the rota had been allowed to continue, 45 out of every 650 children arriving in the UK would have come to Scotland, which is one more than the UK Government is mandating Scotland to take. On my call yesterday, I was told that local authorities would be mandated to take 44 children. Therefore, we would already have been more than meeting the requirement, and doing so in a way that supports the children.

Since October, when participation by Scottish local authorities commenced, 19 placements have been made, which is in addition to the 22 children who arrived under the national transfer scheme between January and September. Furthermore, around 200 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are already cared for by Scottish local authorities.

The member asked about the type of accommodation that will be used, which is an important issue. The children will be here for a long time, so we want them to become settled and to be put in settled accommodation as quickly as possible. It is in no one’s interests for people to stay in hotels—we recognise the challenges of that. The Scottish rota is so important because it is the best way of ensuring that appropriate accommodation is made available for the children who arrive here.

Paul Sweeney

I thank the cabinet secretary for that response—in particular, for the detail on the Scottish rota. I would appreciate it if additional information about that could be provided in writing.

It is right that Scottish local authorities are providing accommodation for the children. I sincerely hope that the Scottish Government will do everything that it can to ensure that, during their time in Scotland, they are treated with the dignity, care and compassion that they so clearly need. After all, those children have seen unimaginable horror.

I want to ask about funding. Although it is right that all local authorities play their part through the rota system, they are cash strapped. To be frank, they do not have the money to top up the £143 that the UK Government is making available for each child per night. Will the cabinet secretary confirm that the Scottish Government will, regardless of the cost, provide any additional funding that local authorities require, on top of the specified £143? This is about making sure that the kids are safe, and we cannot put a price on that. I strongly urge the Scottish Government to show compassion and to make that commitment here and now, because it is certainly not something that we will see from the Conservatives.

Shona Robison

First of all, we share COSLA’s and local government’s concern that the national transfer scheme constitutes a new financial responsibility on local authorities, so the first call is on the UK Government to provide the additional funding that is required.

The higher daily rate of £143 for funding contributions to local authorities applies to children who are transferring through the national transfer scheme. That is a small step in acknowledging some of the costs. However, the money is available only once the child is in the care of a local authority, so it does not recognise the steps that a local authority requires to take in advance of providing a placement.

The Scottish Government has already provided half a million pounds to local authorities to help with care of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who are arriving in Scotland. We will continue to speak with local authorities and COSLA about that. However, as I said, the first call is on the UK Government to step up and meet the full costs.

I will take some supplementaries, the first of which will be from Miles Briggs.

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

Some 7,900 children in Scotland are in temporary accommodation, which is a 9 per cent increase from 2019. Seven councils are saying that they are likely to breach the Scottish Government’s unsuitable accommodation order. What support will the Government provide in that regard?

Also, I do not think that we heard an answer to Paul Sweeney’s question about whether hotels will be part of the accommodation that is used for unaccompanied children.

Shona Robison

There have been a number of pressures on temporary accommodation, not least of which has been Covid, which has seen temporary accommodation usage increase, for understandable reasons. We are working with local authorities to address the unsuitable accommodation order issues, as the member is aware.

We want children to be in accommodation that is suitable for children. Perhaps the member’s first port of call should be his colleagues in the UK Government, in order to tell them that we have in Scotland a system that is made for the needs of Scotland in receiving children who need to be supported because they are very vulnerable.

All that we are asking the Home Office is that it allow the Scottish rota to continue. We play our part, and we will take our share of those very vulnerable children, but I ask the Home Office, please, to let us do that in a managed and proper way, rather than in the way that it says it will do it, which in theory could mean children being passed from one local authority to another around Scotland. We do not want that to happen, so I hope that the member will support us in lobbying the Home Office to do the right thing.

Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

I was shocked to hear the comments of the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, that Scotland has not played its part in asylum dispersal, when this country has a proud record of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the Home Secretary must apologise for that misleading claim? Does the cabinet secretary also believe that asylum dispersal involving both children and adults must be done in a humane and dignified way and with the proper funding from the Home Office to provide the vital support that people need?

Shona Robison

Yes, I agree. I am struggling to understand the Home Secretary’s remarks yesterday, which are extremely disappointing. Over the years, we have constantly made that point to the UK Government, but it has fallen on deaf ears. Scotland has more than played its part. Of all authorities in the UK, Glasgow City Council takes the most asylum seekers as part of the dispersal programme. Therefore, the comments that the Home Secretary made are not correct and do a great disservice to local authorities and the efforts that they are making.

Most of all, the comments attempt to use asylum-seeking children, and asylum seekers more generally, as something of a political football, and to attack the Scottish Government. The issue is too important for that. We want to reach a sensible agreement with the UK Government and the Home Office. My plea to them is that they listen not just to what the Scottish Government is saying but to what local authorities are saying. We want to give asylum-seeking children in particular the best support. I ask the UK Government to allow us, please, to provide support in a way that we know will work best for those children.

Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

I thank Paul Sweeney for raising this important issue, and for highlighting the human rights that are at stake and the appalling approach that the UK Government has taken. What, if any, role will the Scottish guardianship service have in the process? What can we do to support local authorities to work with the third sector, which has been working in the area for many years? What, if anything, can we do with our limited powers to ensure that children are not separated from their families in the first place?

Shona Robison

I will write to Maggie Chapman on the specific point about the Scottish guardianship service. The third sector more generally has always been important for asylum seekers and refugees. It is through the third sector that they receive most of their support; we are keen to support the third sector in that. Yesterday, in response to the Home Secretary’s comments, some strong voices from the third sector portrayed the Home Secretary as not giving a proper account of the experience of asylum seekers who come to Scotland. The third sector is pretty clear in its views on the matter.

I will write to the member on the specifics of her question.