Participation in the National Transfer Scheme is to become temporarily mandatory for all councils with children's services, the Home Office has announced.
Under the change all local authorities have been given legal notice to accept transfers of children into their care, and provide placements to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC).
Announcing the decision, the Home Office said that mandating the scheme would ensure that UASC receive the care they need and would secure the end of hotel placements for the children.
The department added that, as a national issue, all local authorities should play their part. The change is an effort to "ensure immediate, fuller participation that is fair for all local authorities with children's services across all parts of the country," it said.
The Home Office will consider a number of factors when transferring children to a local authority including the existing child population, the number of supported asylum seekers and pressures on children's services, and the best interests of the child.
Local authorities will not need to accept unaccompanied asylum-seeking children where this cohort already makes up 0.07% or more of their general child population, according to the announcement.
In addition, local authorities will have a 14 day notice period where representations may be put forward regarding a transfer which will be given careful consideration, the Home Office stated.
The scheme will be kept under review, and the length of time for mandating will be determined by a range of factors, including intake levels and how long it takes to end the use of hotels.
The department plans to announce the start date for the mandatory transfers "as soon as possible following the initial notice period".
Kevin Foster, Minister for Safe and Legal Migration, said: "It's right we do all we can to protect unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, many of whom have gone through dangerous journeys and been exploited by despicable people smugglers.
"I am grateful for the continued, and invaluable, support of local authorities across the country who have provided crucial placements to vulnerable young asylum-seekers."
He added: "This decision has not been taken lightly but it is in the best interests of these children to make sure they receive the support they need."
Cllr Georgia Gould, Chair of London Councils, welcomed the change to the scheme.
Cllr Gould said: "Boroughs believe that a mandatory national transfer scheme is an important first step in a different and fairer approach to responding to this national challenge and we look forward to working with government on this."
Responding to the announcement, Cllr James Jamieson, Chairman of the Local Government Association, said the new arrangements must continue to take into account existing pressures in local areas.
Cllr Jamieson said: "Councils have a proud history of welcoming new arrivals in their communities and the majority of councils have stepped forward voluntarily to offer homes and support to asylum-seeking children. The LGA remains committed to working closely with central and local government to support the asylum system for children and adults, in both the short and the long term in a fair and transparent way."
He added: "Councils will want to continue to work closely with government to ensure the rights and needs of children are at the heart of these new arrangements. These need to enable local partners to give children the help they need, including mental and physical health support and appropriate education.
"Councils continue to face challenges in finding appropriate homes, with ongoing issues around centrally-led age assessment and delays in decision-making adding uncertainty for both councils and young people."
Cllr Jamieson continued: "These new arrangements must continue to swiftly take into account existing pressures in local areas, with greater join-up across government to improve engagement with councils on all the programmes that support new arrivals to start new lives in the UK."
Changes to the scheme had been made in June of this year, with the Home Office attempting to encourage greater participation in the scheme by increasing funding and updating its process to provide clarity on the numbers of children local authorities could expect.
In the same month, Kent County Council served a letter before action on the Home Office and called upon the Home Secretary to use her power to make participation in the National Transfer Scheme mandatory for all local authorities.
Responding to today’s announcement, Roger Gough, Leader of Kent County Council (KCC) and Sue Chandler, Cabinet Member for Integrated Children’s Services welcomed the news of the Home Office intention to mandate the National Transfer Scheme (NTS) across the UK.
They said: “It has always been our belief that a mandatory NTS is the only fair way to ensure a sustainable national solution to the equitable distribution of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) across the country and an end to the unfair burden on Kent’s residents and services solely due to our geographical position.
“As the council at the forefront of migrant arrivals in the UK, we have worked closely with ministers and officials at the Home Office and Department for Education for some time to find a reasonable solution to the UASC crisis in Kent which has sadly seen our Children’s Services become overwhelmed twice in the past 15 months."
Cllr Gough and Cllr Chandler said: "On resuming services on 10 September 2021, KCC was already caring for 309 under 18-year-old UASC. Since then, the council has accepted a further 247 UASC referrals and transferred 150 to placements volunteered by other Local Authorities. Our services have consistently remained under extreme pressure and as offers of transfers have continuously not kept pace with new arrivals, government have had to rely on accommodation in hotels which has furthered compelled the decision to mandate the NTS.
“We wholly recognise the challenges to all local authorities in caring for and supporting UASC and are extremely grateful to all those that have stepped up to voluntarily accept transfers in the past."
They added: “This is the right decision for an effective, stable and fair system, not just for Kent services and residents but also for those local authorities that have previously volunteered to accept UASC and will ensure that all these children get safe, appropriate care without delay."