Lone child asylum-seekers, some as young as 13, are still being placed in hotels despite the routine practice previously being ruled unlawful, the High Court has been told.
But the evidence suggested that, at the moment, only hotels in Kent were being used – and not the one in Hove.
Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT) said that the proportion of unaccompanied youngsters aged under 16 being housed in hotels in Kent was “growing” with there being “no clear explanation as to why this is”.
The charity previously brought legal action against the Home Office over the practice of accommodating such young people in department-run hotels, claiming the arrangements were “not fit for purpose”.
In July, a High Court judge said that the practice had been unlawful for more than 18 months, as the power to place the children in hotels “may be used on very short periods in true emergency situations”.
Mr Justice Chamberlain said: “It cannot be used systematically or routinely in circumstances where it is intended, or functions in practice, as a substitute for local authority care.”
ECPAT also took legal action against Kent County Council, with the judge finding that the local authority was acting unlawfully in failing to accommodate and look after lone children seeking asylum when notified by the Home Office.
In a linked case, Kent County Council brought a High Court challenge against the Home Office, arguing that it faced an “impossible situation” over accepting more lone young people while ensuring children already under its care were safe.
Brighton and Hove City Council also sued the department, arguing that the practice of using hotels was unlawful.
After a hearing in August, Mr Justice Chamberlain ruled that the court should supervise efforts to address his findings, with Kent County Council and the Home Office required to “work together” in “remedying the unlawful situation”.
In written arguments prepared for a follow up hearing yesterday (Friday 15 September), Stephanie Harrison, for Brighton and Hove City Council, said: “The continued unlawful use of hotels which is, in respect of under-16s, also a criminal offence, must be promptly brought to an end.”
She added: “No further children should be placed in hotels.”
Martin Westgate, for ECPAT, said that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children “have continued to be accommodated in hotels in numbers that have barely changed since the last hearing”.
He added: “It is a cause for particular concern that a significant majority of them are under 16 and this appears to be a deterioration from the previous position.”
Mr Westgate said that Kent County Council was “still not fulfilling” its duty to all unaccompanied children, with there being a “significant inflow” of youngsters into Home Office-commissioned hotels.
The barrister said that one set of figures showed that since Thursday 27 July, Kent County Council had not accommodated 185 lone children, of whom 138 are aged under 16 and eight are 13.
He said that two children placed in hotels had gone missing since the judge’s ruling.
Hugh Southey, for Kent County Council, said in written arguments that it continued to take “all possible steps to ensure that it is able to accommodate and support all unaccompanied asylum seeking children”.
He said that “effective measures” had increased the council’s capacity, with some 777 lone children in its care as of Friday 8 September – up from 466 on Thursday 27 July.
As of Wednesday 6 September, the council had taken into its care almost 80 per cent of unaccompanied youngsters arriving in Kent since Thursday 27 July, he added.
The lawyer said that steps taken include placing three or four children in rooms at a reception centre, using the support of an independent fostering agency and working with “semi-independent bed providers”.
But Mr Southey said that the council “regrets” not being able take all children into its care, adding that there were “systemic problems” which could only be solved through government help.
He said that children the council had not being able to accommodate included 15 lone youngsters, 12 being over the age of 16, who require isolation due to suspected diphtheria.
The number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Kent was “constantly fluctuating”, the lawyer said.
Mr Southey said that problems included “the lack of a properly functioning” National Transfer Scheme (NTS), where children are moved from one local authority to another to help even out the distribution of care.
Deok Joo Rhee, for the Home Office, said in written arguments that it was “reasonably confident” that a new funding arrangement with Kent County Council could be put in place by the end of October and that it had “not underestimated” the challenges faced by the local authority.
She said that “an immediate cash injection” of £9.75 million would help the council increase capacity, with the government committed to bringing about “improvements to the speed of transfers” of children between areas which were a “necessary and important part of the solution”.
The lawyer said that the government was “alive to the need to ensure that the significant progress that has been made to date is not lost and that intensive efforts are maintained”.
She said that as of Wednesday morning (13 September) there were 121 children in two hotels in Kent, with no children accommodated in hotels outside the county.
Mr Justice Chamberlain said that he was still to give a ruling over Kent County Council’s legal challenge against the Home Office in relation to the NTS.
The judge said that he would consider whether to make an order or injunction banning the government from continuing to use hotels at a later date.
He said that Kent County Council and ministers should agree a plan to ensure that the local authority was meeting its obligations.