Cross-party MPs: We must protect the rights of looked-after children after Brexit
Five thousand looked-after children will need to apply for settled status after Brexit – the government must act to ensure they don’t fall victim to another Windrush scandal, write Steve McCabe, Tim Loughton and Stuart C. McDonald
We know that leaving the EU, with or without a deal, will mean registration requirements for EU citizens living here and that vulnerable people are most at risk of falling foul of the system. Children and young people in care are one of the most vulnerable groups.
Estimates suggest that as many as 5,000 looked-after children will need to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme to regularise their immigration status. The exact number is not known and the 5,000 figure doesn’t include care leavers or children classified as ‘in need’ who will be receiving significant care and support from Children’s Services.
The EU Settlement Scheme is the largest registration programme ever planned in the UK. There is a real but avoidable risk that many of these children and young people will be overlooked and find themselves undocumented and with no legal status after the June 2020 deadline.
Current guidance to local authorities says they can make applications on behalf of children where they have parental responsibility. However, there are many children in our care system where the state doesn’t assume parental responsibility in a legal sense. They may be youngsters who’ve been abandoned or lost or where the parent is not able to care for them because of health issues or other problems.
In our overstretched Children’s Departments, it is highly unlikely that social workers will have the time or legal expertise to enable them to manage complex registration arrangements which will require a significant knowledge of immigration law.
Recent pilot exercises suggest there could be significant difficulties in producing crucial documentation, such as birth certificates, needed to evidence nationality and length of residence in the UK. We are concerned that many children and young people will have no access to these documents and as a result they will be wrongly refused or have pre-settled status conferred when they are rightly entitled to full settled status.
The previous immigration minister had indicated that where individuals are not able to provide passports or identity cards alternative evidence would be accepted, although it’s not entirely clear what alternative evidence she had in mind. The simpler the scheme, the greater the chance that local authorities will be able to comply. The more grey areas, the greater the risk that local authorities lacking the legal expertise to address complex cases will fail to meet their obligations. We anticipate complexity will be the norm rather than the exception in most applications for looked after children.
Many of these children and care leavers will have automatic rights to British citizenship but again, it is down to local authorities to apply on behalf of these children. It isn’t clear who should be responsible for assisting with applications and advice for young people who have recently left the care system. For both groups, unless the fees of £1,012 per person are waived it seems very likely that these costs will serve as a financial disincentive for local authorities to act.
The obvious danger here is that the Government could be sleepwalking into another Windrush scandal, one that is wholly avoidable. During our debate on 3 September we will be making two simple requests that could be implemented immediately: consider granting automatic settled status to all looked-after children and care leavers; and waive the fees for citizenship applications for looked-after children and care leavers.
If the prime minister is absolutely intent on leaving the EU on 31 October, with or without a deal, we need to remind him of his duty to these vulnerable children and young people. In all cases the state is effectively now their parent and we should treat them with the same care and consideration we’d expect and demand for our own children.
Steve McCabe is Labour MP for Birmingham Selly Oak and Chair of the APPG for Looked-after Children and Care Leavers, Tim Loughton is Conservative MP for East Worthing and Shoreham and Vice Chair of the APPG for Looked After Children and Care Leavers, and Stuart C. McDonald is SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East and spokesperson for Immigration, Asylum and Border Control. Their Westminster Hall debate is on Tuesdsay 3 September.