A rather unpleasant row has blown up over comments made by Shropshire Council leader Peter Nutting on BBC Radio Shropshire earlier in the week. Speaking on why the council is struggling to balance its budget, he said that ten child refugees had been taken into care, claiming they have cost the council £1 million. He identified the nationality of the children. This was careless talk that could turn public attitudes against supporting vulnerable young people. It was also dangerous talk that could threaten the youngsters themselves.
I can’t talk about the specific details of this case. But we need to look at the context. Vietnam is not an unsafe country or, in developing country terms, particularly poor. It does not have the refuges crisis that now exists in so many countries, including nearby Myanmar.
So why are these children here? They are too young to be economic migrants in the conventional sense (officers and support workers are trained to assess age). That means they may have been trafficked. Some may have been destined for sex slavery, others for the drugs trade. Many trafficked children taken into local authority care subsequently go missing. Refugee support agencies fear that many may go back into slavery.
We should never identify the nationality of children in our care in the way that Peter Nutting did this week. That makes it easier for slave masters to locate them.
Although Councillor Nutting told BBC Radio Shropshire he wasn’t blaming the children for the council overspend, his emphasis was on the costs. The same prominence was given in subsequent radio interviews with the council portfolio holder for children, Nicholas Bardsley, and Shrewsbury MP, Daniel Kawczynski.
This is wrong. On the financial side, there is some doubt that this essential action to protect vulnerable children has cost Shropshire Council as much as £1 million.
Update. At the council meeting on 14 December, Peter Nutting apologised for using the £1 million figure saying it was the best information he had at the time.
There is a legitimate debate to be had between local government and Westminster on who picks up how much of the bill for refugees. But our main priority must be protecting vulnerable young people, wherever they come from and however they got here. They shouldn’t be pawns in debates over finances.
In the Times today, Mike Emberson of the Medaille Trust got it right when he said Peter Nutting’s comments were “heartless”. He continued: “It’s almost as if he’s talking about fly-tipping.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Councillor Nutting should apologise for using vulnerable children in this way.