Vulnerable children are being “dumped by the Home Office”, Green MP Caroline Lucas said.
She was asking an urgent question in the House of Commons about reports that dozens of asylum-seeking children have been kidnapped by gangs from a hotel in Hove run by the department.
The MP for Brighton Pavilion said: “This is horrific. Vulnerable children are being dumped by the Home Office. Scores of them are going missing.”
She said there was “nothing specialist” about the hotels used, adding: “We are not asking him to detain children. We are asking the Home Office to apply some basic safeguarding so we can keep them safe.”
She asked how many have been “kidnapped, trafficked, put into forced labour”, where the children are and if they are in school?
And, she said, it was “not clear” whether the Home Office was “prepared to take legal as well as practical responsibility”, saying it left the children in “legal limbo”.
She added: “I was told before Christmas that government lawyers were deliberating over their ultimate legal responsibility. We need to know the outcome today. What is it?
“We need to know why successive home secretaries have played into the hands of criminal gangs.”
The Green MP accused the Home Office of “staggering complacency and incompetence”.
She said: “As (Labour MP Peter Kyle) has made clear on many occasions … it was entirely foreseeable that children were at risk of being snatched, abducted and coerced by criminals.”
To read what Mr Kyle said later in the debate, click here.
She added: “Where is the special operation to find the missing children? This feels like the plight of girls in Rotherham who were treated like they didn’t matter – and frankly it is sickening.”
She went on: “The staggering complacency and incompetence from the Home Office is shameful.
“We need immediate answers. We need an urgent investigation. We need to ask how many more children are going to go missing before we actually see some action?”
The Conservative Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick said that the Home Office “takes our safeguarding responsibilities extremely seriously”.
He said that the Home Office wanted to end the use of hotels but said: “We’ve had no alternative but to temporarily use specialist hotels to give some unaccompanied minors a roof over their heads whilst local authority accommodation is found.
“We take our safeguarding responsibilities extremely seriously and we have procedures in place to ensure all children are accommodated as safely as possible whilst in these hotels.”
The Home Office minister added: “We’ve no power to detain unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in these settings and we know some do go missing.”
He repeated figures that were provided by a minister yesterday (Monday 23 January), adding: “Of the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children still missing, 88 per cent are Albanian nationals. The remaining 12 per cent are from Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Vietnam, Pakistan and Turkey.”
He also told MPs: “When any child goes missing a multi-agency missing persons protocol is mobilised alongside the police and relevant local authority to establish their whereabouts and to ensure that they are safe. Many of those who have gone missing are subsequently traced and located.”
Caroline Lucas said: “The plight of vulnerable children being dumped in hotels by the Home Office, and scores of them going missing, is seriously alarming.
“The Home Office is currently leaving these children in legal limbo. I was told before Christmas that government lawyers were deliberating on the issue of ultimate legal responsibility, yet we still have no answers.
“Will the Home Office take legal as well as practical responsibility for these children? Where is the strategic approach that acknowledges the lack of local authority placements in foster homes, rather than dangerous hotels?
“Why isn’t Ofsted inspecting these hotels on a regular basis? And can the minister guarantee all staff have been DBS-checked?
“And crucially, when will the Home Office stop the use of these hotels once and for all? Yet more ministerial flannel is not acceptable when individual children’s lives are at stake.
“The staggering complacency and incompetence from the Home Office simply must stop. We need immediate answers and an urgent investigation – how many more children have to go missing before this is done?”
Labour has accused the government of “a total dereliction of duty” that is “putting children at risk”.
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper told the Commons: “There is a criminal network involved, and the government is completely failing to stop them.”
She added: “Last year there was only one, just one, conviction for child trafficking, even though it’s now believed to involve potentially thousands of British children as well as these children being targeted here.
“So where is the single co-ordinated unit involving the National Crime Agency, the Border Force, the South East Regional Organised Crime Unit, the local police forces to hit the gang networks which are operating around this hotel and across the Channel?”
She went on: “There is still no clarity about whether the Home Office or the council are legally responsible for these children.
“So will the Home Office now agree to immediately end the contract with this hotel and move the children out to safer accommodation?
“Will they set up a proper inquiry and team to pursue the link between organised crime trafficking and the children in these hotels?
“Because this is a total dereliction of duty that is putting children at risk. We need urgent and serious action to crack down on these gangs and to keep children and young people safe.”
Mr Jenrick said that cases of asylum-seeking children going missing from Home Office accommodation were treated in “exactly the same way as any young person who goes missing”.
He said: “On any given day, there will be a significant security presence at the hotel and those security guards are there to protect the staff and the minors and to raise any suspicious activity immediately with the local police.
“And I’ve been assured that that does happen in Sussex. There’s also a number of social workers on site 24/7 … so there is a significant specialist team provided in each of these hotels to ensure that the young people who are present are properly looked after.”
He said that a report from October last year “did find unanimously that the young people reported that they felt safe, happy and treated with respect”.
And, he said, the Home Office had offered a “very significant increase” in the amount of financial support available to local authorities in relation to the issue.
He added: “Now that doesn’t mean that we have any cause to be complacent because it’s extremely concerning if young people are leaving these accommodation settings and are not being found.
“I’ve been told that any young person leaving one of these hotels and not returning is treated in exactly the same way as any young person who goes missing of any nationality or immigration status anywhere else in the country.”
Responding to Labour, Mr Jenrick said: “With regard to the press reports that individuals have been abducted from outside the hotel, well, those are very serious allegations.
“And I’ve specifically asked the officials who run this hotel whether they’ve seen evidence of that and indeed I asked the senior leadership of Brighton and Hove City Council.
“I’ve not been presented with evidence that that has happened but I will continue to make inquiries. “And senior officials from my department are meeting with the Mitie security team in the coming days to ask them whether they have seen any occurrences and whether the individual who’s quoted in the press as a whistleblower raised issues with Mitie.
“If they did, why were those issues were not subsequently passed on to the Home Office?
“So she has my assurance that I’m not going to let the matter drop.”
Mr Jenrick said that Ms Cooper was “incorrect when she says that the NCA (National Crime Agency) is insufficiently financed”.
He added: “The Prime Minister announced at the end of last year that we would be stepping up the funding of the NCA – and in fact I visited the NCA just last week to be briefed on the work that they’re doing upstream throughout Europe into Turkey, Iraq and a number of other countries.
“There is very significant activity happening to tackle the evil people smuggling gangs.”
There would be a “national mobilisation” at the National Crime Agency (NCA) if dozens of children had been going missing from boarding schools, MPs were told.
The former Conservative cabinet minister Kit Malthouse told the Commons: “If dozens of children had been going missing, say, from boarding schools across the country, I have no doubt there would be a national mobilisation at the NCA and indeed the National Police Chiefs’ Council.
“So could he just enlighten us as to what that national response looks like at the moment in British policing and whether he feels more could be done to address the systemic problem, not least given the possible links to serious and organised crime?”
Mr Jenrick replied: “We should treat any child who goes missing with all the same focus and intensity of effort regardless of their background, their nationality and immigration status. And that is exactly what happens in this case.
“If a young person leaves the hotel, for example, the one we are discussing this afternoon, and does not return within four hours, then that is immediately recognised as a missing person.
“The local police, in this case Sussex, are contacted and it is treated with all the same effort as it would be any other individual.”
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