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Age assessments proposal within Nationality and Borders Bill: BASW UK Statement

Age assessments should be led by social workers and draw on a multi-agency approach, where practitioners in health, care, education, and community may contribute

The Nationality and Borders Bill is currently in Committee Stage in the House of Commons. This Bill lays out a raft of legislative measures to change the processes for migrants and asylum seekers in the UK. The Government has laid proposals within the Bill on age assessments, including the National Age Assessment Board and ‘scientific methods’ used to assess age.

The British Association of Social Workers are opposed to the Nationality and Borders Bill, and do not believe that the proposals in the Bill do anything to create a welcoming or more effective asylum and immigration system. Instead, the Bill seeks to penalise people who have travelled to the UK seeking a better life than the one that they are fleeing.

We also believe that age assessments should be led by social workers and draw on a multi-agency approach, where practitioners in health, care, education, and community may contribute. At best, age assessments result in an estimate of age spanning across a period of several years with the range including years both over 18 and under 18.

New Clause 29 in the Bill as it stands says that an ‘age disputed person’ is a person who the Secretary of State, public authorities, and local authorities have insufficient evidence to be sure of their age. This puts the burden of proof on a child to prove that they are under 18. We believe that this should instead be changed to reflect that an age disputed person should be where an authority or the Secretary of State has significant doubt about the child’s age.

New Clauses 30 and 31 outline the powers and procedures of the National Age Assessment Board (NAAB). While we are supportive of the idea of a central resource of expertise led by social workers that is part of a multi-agency holistic approach, we cannot support the NAAB in its current form. The NAAB will also be able to overrule a local authority age assessment and carry out their own if required to by the Secretary of State or a designated person on their behalf. We are concerned that age assessments will be used as a political tool by the Government to order age assessments on persons who have attracted media attention. We are concerned at the lack of transparency and accountability of the NAAB. We also have great concern about the powers being used to override professional judgement.

New Clause 32 refers to ‘scientific methods’ to determine age. We are clear that there is no known scientific method that can precisely determine age, and that the preferred way is through a multi-agency approach. ‘Scientific methods’ are hugely controversial and can be very invasive and traumatic for the individual. We are opposed to the use of the term ‘scientific methods’ as a panacea for age assessments, and as a safeguard, we are calling for the requirement of the relevant professional body to approve the use of a ‘scientific method’ as a valid way to determine age assessment before it is used. We also do not agree that the Secretary of State should be able to determine appropriate ‘scientific methods’, and fear that this could result in methods around sexual maturity or other invasive, traumatic procedures.

Organisations such as the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health have stated that the use of radiological assessment is extremely imprecise and can only give an estimate of within two years in either direction. The British Society for Paediatric Endocrinology and Diabetes are clear that it is not possible to accurately assess a child’s age based on physical examination or bone age assessments.[1]

Another aspect of the Bill is that where a child does not consent to a ‘scientific method’ being undertaken to assess age, this can damage the child’s credibility. We thoroughly object to this measure, and refusing being subject to measures such as physical examinations should not have any bearing on a person’s credibility. Many people who come to the UK will have endured significant trauma including physical and sexual abuse and may have a deep distrust of medical professionals through their life experiences. Further subjecting them to invasive procedures is not an approach we can accept. 

In addition to consent. there are also questions as to whether a person is ‘Gillick Competent’ and can understand the nature, purpose, benefits, risks, and consequences of not proceeding with the examination. We are concerned that the consequence of credibility being damaged if a person does not agree to the examination is a form of coercion. Children who are affected by trauma may have their capacity to make decisions undermined.

We await further information from the Secretary of State about who can consent on behalf of a child where there are questions about competency and capacity.

Age assessment is not straight-forward, nor is it an exact science. Social workers and other professionals involved in the wellbeing of a person must work together to carry out multi-agency, holistic assessments. The measures in this Bill fail to recognise that it is impossible to determine age precisely and have instead ventured into the belief that it is a simple process either through ‘scientific’ methods or the sole view of a single social worker.

All children in our care, including those who are undergoing age assessments, deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.

Read more about the Nationality and Borders Bill