In late January 2023, the Brighton and Hove Children Safeguarding Partnership (BHSCP) commissioned Independent Scrutineer, Chris Robson, to examine the Partnership response to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) who had gone missing from a Home Office run hotel.
The review explored ten areas of inquiry including what steps are being taken locally and nationally to find missing children from Home Office run hotels, prevent further children going missing, and whether the Partnership is doing all it can to respond to the safety of the children. It involved reviewing all agencies’ involvement, including the city council, Sussex Police, NHS Sussex and the Home Office.
Since July 2021, over 1600 children have passed through the hotel pending transfer to the care of a Local Authority under the National Transfer Scheme. 137 UASC have been reported missing, with 73 children not yet found. The report found that episodes of children reported missing were higher in the summer of 2022 and that there was no evidence to support claims of kidnapping or direct evidence of coercion by criminal gangs.
There was a significant awareness on the part of all agencies that many of the children may have been trafficked into this country and as a result were vulnerable.
The report highlights the legal ambiguity surrounding the UASC in the hotel. The children are provided with care by the Home Office, but their legal status whilst awaiting transfer under the National Transfer Scheme to the care of Local Authorities is unclear.
The scrutiny paper recommends that the Home Office make an immediate decision on the continued use of the hotel to accommodate UASC. If the decision is to continue to use the hotel, then other recommendations should be followed including:
Commenting on his scrutiny paper Chris said: “The welfare and safety of these children and reviewing what support and plans are in place was at the forefront of my mind when completing this report. Any child who goes missing is a source of great concern.
“All the agencies involved in safeguarding were very helpful and active in responding to my questions and providing me with evidence to assist my review.
“Whilst the issue of children going missing was persistent over the summer of 2022, the response by safeguarding agencies in Brighton & Hove is thorough, appropriate, and multi-agency. The three main agencies charged with safeguarding children in the city all play an active role and work together well.
“Safeguarding is everybody’s responsibility; this extends to political leaders and media outlets. It is important that we hold each other to account and press, local government and political leaders play a pivotal part in this.
“Despite reports, I have been provided with no evidence that children are being ’snatched, abducted and coerced by criminals’. The use of such highly provocative language should be carefully considered and limited to instances where there is clear evidence that such offending is taking place and it is in the public interest to raise the issue.
“I have seen no evidence that any whistle blower has raised issues with any statutory agency. It is imperative that when information relating to safeguarding concerns is raised it should be shared with agencies so it can be thoroughly investigated, and steps taken to safeguard children.
“I have been provided with evidence of good practice and investigation by local agencies when children do go missing, I can see little more that could be done. I have been left in no doubt that there is a genuine will across all agencies to protect and safeguard unaccompanied children placed in the hotel.”