The Home Office’s use of hotels to house unaccompanied child asylum seekers has been unlawful since December 2021, Mr Justice Chamberlain said.
The Home Office’s use of hotels to house lone child asylum seekers has been unlawful for more than 18 months, the High Court has ruled.
The charity Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT) brought legal action against the department over the practice of housing unaccompanied youngsters in Home Office-run hotels, claiming the arrangements are “not fit for purpose”.
In a ruling on Thursday, Mr Justice Chamberlain said the practice is unlawful, as the power to place the children in hotels “may be used on very short periods in true emergency situations”.
He told the court in London: “It cannot be used systematically or routinely in circumstances where it is intended, or functions in practice, as a substitute for local authority care.”
The judge continued: “From December 2021 at the latest, the practice of accommodating children in hotels, outside local authority care, was both systematic and routine and had become an established part of the procedure for dealing with unaccompanied asylum seeking children.
“From that point on, the Home Secretary’s provision of hotel accommodation for unaccompanied asylum seeking children exceeded the proper limits of her powers and was unlawful.”
The judge also found Kent County Council is acting unlawfully in failing to accommodate and look after lone children seeking asylum when notified by the Home Office.
Mr Justice Chamberlain said in his 55-page judgment: “In ceasing to accept responsibility for some newly-arriving unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, while continuing to accept other children into its care, Kent County Council chose to treat some unaccompanied asylum-seeking children differently from and less favourably than other children, because of their status as asylum seekers.”
He also said: “Ensuring the safety and welfare of children with no adult to look after them is among the most fundamental duties of any civilised state.”
During a hearing after the judgment was made public, Mr Justice Chamberlain said there was an “urgent” need for “negotiation” between the Home Office and Kent’s local authority.
He said: “At the forefront of my mind are the interests of the children in Kent’s care.”
Mr Justice Chamberlain said it would not be acceptable for this to be delayed due to a lack of people’s availability over the summer.
“If it means ministers have got to be interrupted on their holidays, then so be it,” he said.
The court previously heard that at the time of the hearing in the claims earlier this month, 154 children remained missing from the hotels, including a 12-year-old.
The judge said in his ruling: “These children have been lost and endangered here, in the United Kingdom.
“They are not children in care who have run away. They are children who, because of how they came to be here, never entered the care system in the first place and so were never ‘looked after’.”
The judgment was welcomed by the leader of Brighton and Hove City Council Bella Sankey.
She said: “As a result of this policy, a dozen classrooms of children, including some of the most traumatised and vulnerable children in the world, have gone missing and, sickeningly for us, 50 children are still missing from the hotel used in Brighton and Hove.”
Patricia Durr, chief executive of ECPAT, said following the ruling: “It remains a child protection scandal that so many of the most vulnerable children remain missing at risk of significant harm as a consequence of these unlawful actions by the Secretary of State and Kent County Council.”