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SEEKING RELIEF

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Staff at Kent CC have been working round the clock to manage the flood of refugees, and the pressure on resources i...
Staff at Kent CC have been working round the clock to manage the flood of refugees, and the pressure on resources is greater than ever, says chief executive Mike Pitt.

One October evening in 1997, 113 asylum seekers came through the port of Dover into the care of Kent CC's social services department.

It was my first week in Kent as chief executive, and the start of rounds of ministerial meetings, national media coverage, the delivery of new services and hard financial pressures. Kent had been seeing increasing numbers of asylum seekers for some months but this was the first time a single group of such size had arrived all at once.

Two years on, 113 doesn't seem exceptional. At the beginning of 2000, about 1,000 new arrivals a month is typical. We estimate that there are currently around 7,000 asylum seekers in the county, including those from other councils, while our social services department is supporting more than 5,400, both in and out of Kent.

Meanwhile, as the public debate goes on, behind the scenes hundreds of Kent staff have volunteered to care for people who are tired, hungry and a long way from home. With a day job as well, they've been on call at weekends, bank holidays and late at night since October 1997 ready to respond to calls for help from the police or immigration services.

Since August 1999, our efforts to manage the situation have centred on a 150-bed emergency centre with staff working shifts round the clock. The centre provides only basic emergency accommodation and most people will stay for only a few days before moving to more permanent accommodation elsewhere.

Those first few days can be fairly chaotic. Rooms are allocated to new arrivals, then towels, soap and shampoo are handed out and meals and showers organised. Medical care may have to be arranged, interpreters brought in when necessary. There are language difficulties but 'pick and point' is surprisingly effective.

We know abusers of the system make the news, but at the centre, social services staff see the true human angle. Some of those they care for come from a background of terror, with people separated from their families. Others, labelled 'economic migrants', have experienced poverty to a degree most of us cannot comprehend.

After that first major influx of asylum seekers in October 1997, social services staff responded quite magnificently to what was then regarded as a crisis situation. Two years and several thousand asylum seekers later, the crisis is still with us and staff keep on volunteering.

Team spirit is strong. After one large arrival recently, extra volunteers simply turned up, asking what they could do to help. Without that sort of dedication, our job in Kent would be impossible.

The size, cost and complexities of the asylum seeker situation in which we now find ourselves has shown local government at its strongest, most diverse and flexible.

Nevertheless, two years on we feel we are still in a continuous crisis. No strangers to difficult and sensitive issues, the pressure on social services' budget and staff is enormous. Never knowing from week to week the size of the problem is a constant drain for managers.

The immigration service is swamped and the knock-on effect on us is serious. We are supporting asylum seekers who have still not been given a date for their appeal two to three years after their arrival in Kent.

It is not only the under-resourcing but the system. Asylum seekers can be deported, come back into the country and are entitled to have their applications processed all over again. It is a legal nightmare with the only winners being the lawyers.

For a year now we have been working with other councils to lighten the burden on Kent and place asylum seekers outside the county. Some have been highly sympathetic and willing to take responsibility, but the response has been patchy.

The intervention by the Local Government Association has been welcome and is beginning to pay off. Then there are the racial tensions. The tabloid press with sensational 'scroungers in shell suits' coverage exacerbates the situation; there is unrest and, exceptionally, events like the Dover stabbings.

Through it all, we have kept the situation as calm as possible, ensuring people understand that social services departments have a statutory duty of care and persuading the press to keep the profile of the story low during periods of tension, such as National Front marches in Dover.

On the education front, we are struggling to fulfil our statutory responsibilities to around 1,000 asylum seeker children; 400 more children of school age arrived in Kent during the last summer holiday period - two primary schools' worth.

But the problem is far wider than just finding enough school places or providing essentials such as language support for children speaking little or no English. While the social services department keeps the education department informed on the numbers of school-age children it supports, no one has responsibility for keeping us informed about the children of the other 4,000 asylum seekers in Kent - those inside the benefits system or placed in the county by other councils.

At the end of the summer term, every child on the database had been allocated a place. At the start of the autumn term, just 10% turned up in school. The rest had moved to be with friends or relatives in other areas, gone back home or in some cases just disappeared.

We estimate the cost to the LEA per child per year is about£4,000. We will get funding for just half that amount through the following year's standard spending assessment. Social services asylum seeker costs in 1996-97 were just£258,000. This year, we expect to top£24m.

Unaccompanied minors are now a major concern. About 50 arrive each month and the total in Kent could shortly reach 1,000. They are unaffected by the new Immigration and Asylum Bill, and the financial implications for local government are enormous. The government's special grant regime allows£400 per week for the under-15 age group.

With no places left among Kent's own registered foster carers, the alternative - private foster agencies - can cost up to£1,500 per week. We have now opened a special centre for this age group, maximum capacity 30, costing about£350,000.

The special grant for families -£220 per week - also falls far short of the real cost. The consequences for our social services budget are biting. A recent look at the figures showed a total estimated spend of£24.3m on asylum seekers this financial year, of which£19.8m is recoverable.

An all-party delegation from Kent recently met immigration minister Barbara Roche, and Whitehall officials to press for full government reimbursement for what is a national - not a county - issue.

It secured a Home Office commitment to meet£1m of the shortfall and support in pressing the Department of Health for the remaining£3.5m.

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