I know little to nothing about children’s services – mostly to my great relief, I wouldn’t sleep at night if I had a frontline job making life-changing decisions for vulnerable children and young people. I have been involved, once, on a project about the fate of vulnerable children when they become (generally similarly vulnerable) adults, and I have a certain amount of experience on the question of how schools relate to local authorities (which I imagine will be topical again in the near future) both on the staff side and for a little while as a school governor.
Therefore I speak only from a position of genuine inquiry when I ask the above question. The case of G vs. Southwark has been talked about a lot, mainly in the context of what it is going to cost to implement. In short it appears to say that if someone aged 16 or 17 presents as needing housing and can be defined as vulnerable, they must be housed by the local authority under the (more generous and comprehensive) terms of the Children’s Act 1989 and subsequent homelessness legislation, rather than the more restrictive and more discretionary general housing functions available to the local authority. I’ve probably got that horrendously wrong but that’s the principle.
We can see how this costs money, which apparently the Government is not making available – the general principle that the Government funds Councils for any new duties is not applied here since the Government argues that this is not a new duty, merely an existing duty the Councils were not discharging properly hitherto. It also means that if you think you are going to be thrown out by your family, or your family made homeless, or whatever, there is a real incentive for it to happen when you are 17 years and 364 days old, not 18 years and 1 day, since as well as the help provided on the basis of you being a child, a continuing responsibility will arise.
While the one key thing I learnt on the project mentioned above was that the local authority’s work should be determined by the situation and development of the individual rather than their precise chronological age, that’s an impossible thing to set down in legislation – it is always going to be subjective. It’s understandable therefore that the court has reached this decision in a hard case. So, what do to? In principle I would argue in favour of giving as much discretion as possible to frontline children’s services and housing staff to ‘do the right thing’. In practice I know how much budget pressure both those departments are in, how much worse it is going to get in the next few years, and that “discretion” in the future will necessarily be interpreted wherever possible to mean “do the least possible” or “make it someone else’s problem”. We have seen this in funding for old people’s care, which is probably a vote-winner, so in comparison “teenage asylum seekers” are unlikely to fare too much better.
A little side-issue of course is that in those areas of England which are served by both District and County Councils the ‘ping-pong’ is even more acute, since the housing function will be a cost on the District, which has the housing, but the Children’s Act legislation designates the County as the relevant authority. This comes up a lot when families claiming asylum have their claim rejected – they then have “no recourse to public funds” under the legislation, but the Children’s Act takes primacy over that legislation, so the County has to house them if they have ‘vulnerable children’.
Another story where Government and Parliament will the ends (or more specifically the media narrative) but fail to will the means. I’d welcome comments from someone who understands this better than I do, though.
Quick edit: People are getting here by searching for “Southwark Judgement”, so here’s a link to a proper briefing by the National Care Advisory Service – likely to be a great deal more useful than my ramblings.