Rishi Sunak criticises Welsh Government's plan to help asylum seeker children leaving care

PM Rishi Sunak has made 'stopping the boats' a priority for his party ahead of the next election. Credit: PA

UK Government ministers including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak have criticised a Welsh Government plan to offer financial help to child asylum seekers leaving the care system.

A number of Conservative politicians used question sessions in the Commons to call the proposal “extraordinary” and “not the priorities of the Welsh people.”

But the Welsh Government said it was “disappointing that inaccurate and misleading claims are being used to trivialise these sensitive issues.”

The Welsh Government is running a pilot scheme offering a basic income of £1,600 a month to 18 year olds leaving care.

It requested rule changes to the legal aid system to ensure that child asylum seekers who have been looked after by care services  are able to remain part of the pilot scheme as they were previously. 

That request has been refused by the UK Government.

Last year, a record 45,755 migrants succeeded in crossing the English Channel. Credit: PA

Welsh Government sources say that a very small number of Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children (UASC) are already included in the children in care who qualify to take part in the pilot scheme. 

Officials say that Welsh ministers wrote to the UK Government’s Justice Minister Lord Bellamy, to seek clarity over the eligibility of those unaccompanied children when it comes to legal aid. 

It’s understood that young people taking part in the basic income pilot would probably not qualify for legal aid because of the level of income they receive. 

Welsh ministers wanted agreement from the UK Government that they could qualify for legal aid, particularly if they were unaccompanied asylum seekers. 

The UK Government minister who refused the request, Lord Bellamy, has written to his Welsh counterparts saying that “the fundamental principle of legal aid is that it is targeted at those who need it the most, and where people are able to afford to contribute to legal aid, they do so.”

In his letter, he goes on to say: “As the purpose of your pilot is to provide its members with basic income for the general purpose of living costs rather than a specified one, we would consider this to be financial resource available for use on legal services.”

“We are therefore not in a position to be able to exclude members of the Basic Income for Care Leavers in Wales pilot from the means assessments for legal aid.”

Wales Secretary David TC Davies told the Commons it was “extraordinary” to offer universal basic income to asylum seekers.

He said it showed Welsh ministers were "squandering" taxpayers money while Rishi Sunak told MPs that while his government was "stopping the boats, Labour is paying for them."

Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire), chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee said: "What is not fair to the taxpayer is giving people free cash, including young asylum seekers, no strings attached, through a poorly targeted universal basic income. Isn’t that not what responsible welfare is all about?"

Mr Davies said: "(Mr Crabb) is absolutely correct. And it really is extraordinary that the Welsh Labour Party want to spend millions on handing out a universal basic income to people including asylum seekers, and then not only that, but to then exempt them from having to pay the same legal bills that the rest of us would be subject to."

Later, at Prime Minister’s Questions, Rishi Sunak said, “I know Lord Bellamy and the Secretary of State for Wales  wrote to the Welsh Government yesterday confirming that we would not be undertaking their request.”

He then linked the controversy with the UK Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, saying that “I note that the Labour leader has said that the Welsh Labour Government is his blueprint, and unbelievably [that] Labour in Wales are trying to pay illegal migrants £1,600.

“We are stopping the boats, Labour is paying for them.”

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: "The Basic Income Pilot scheme is about giving the most vulnerable people in our society a start in life.

“It is disappointing that inaccurate and misleading claims are being used to trivialise these sensitive issues.

"We believe that care leavers have a right to be properly supported as they develop into independent young adults. Too many young people leaving care continue to face significant barriers to achieving a successful transition into adulthood than many of their peers.

"In line with our Nation of Sanctuary approach, we want to ensure that Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children are supported to rebuild their lives and are not prevented from accessing appropriate Welsh Government schemes and benefits to support their integration."

Today’s criticism came amid some of the most intense back-and-forth criticism for some time: a clear sign of the dividing lines being drawn ahead of the next UK General Election which is expected sometime next year. 

Despite Conservatives claims and some of the headlines around this story, their party and the UK Government have not “blocked” the Welsh Labour scheme which continues regardless and which has always included legal asylum-seeking teenagers in the care system. 

Those who have made it to that stage are considered to have a legitimate claim and not to be illegal migrants. 

The outcome of this particular row is that it has now been made clear that asylum-seeking young people who take up the basic income offer won’t be able to access legal aid although the UK Government already provides it for other asylum seekers including young people.