Amendment 64

Nationality and Borders Bill - Report (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 3:22 pm on 8th March 2022.

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Lord Green of Deddington:

Moved by Lord Green of Deddington

64: After Clause 56, insert the following new Clause—“Age assessments for age-disputed persons: initial assessments of undetermined age(1) An age-disputed person must be treated as an adult where their physical appearance and demeanour strongly suggest that they are over the age of 18.(2) Where the age-disputed person’s physical appearance and demeanour do not meet that threshold, and doubt remains as to their claim to be a child, the person must be treated as being of undetermined age until a further age assessment is carried out.(3) Those of undetermined age must not be placed alongside minors in schools or accommodation.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would place in primary legislation a rule for tighter initial age assessments for asylum seekers and would ensure that, where doubts about the person’s age are raised by initial assessors, applicants will not be placed alongside children in schools or accommodation.

Photo of Lord Green of Deddington Lord Green of Deddington Crossbench

My Lords, I have retabled my amendment in the light of the Minister’s reply in Committee. Judging by Hansard, there was a very good discussion, albeit at three in the morning. We need to be clear about what we are trying to achieve here. Surely it is, first, that adults should not easily claim to be children and get away with it, and, secondly, that where doubts about age remain, the claimants concerned should be kept separate from those who are clearly children.

One aspect which was not covered in Committee was the very considerable increase in claims from those who were falsely claiming to be children. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, said that, in 2019, those found to be adults amounted to less than half the cases. I have in my pocket the Home Office table showing the outcome of these claims since 2006. The year which the noble Lord chose, 2019, was the lowest percentage in the last 10 years. We now have the percentage for adults in the last two years, and they were 43% and 66%, respectively. I will not provide more statistics, except to say that what is really important is the number of cases to which these percentages refer. In 2019, there were only 304 age-disputed cases; in 2021, there were 1,500—I repeat: 1,500. The whole scale is much greater and justifies the tightening of the criteria for which I am calling.

As to the test applied, the Minister said that our current threshold is that a person claiming asylum is declared to be an adult when

“their physical appearance and demeanour very strongly suggest that they are significantly over 18”.—[Official Report, 8/2/22; col. 1568.]

That is a pretty tight restriction. My amendment would adjust that to when

“their physical appearance and demeanour strongly suggest that they are over the age of 18.”

The change is to “strongly suggest”. I believe that this falls well within the Supreme Court judgment to which the Minister referred in his speech: BF (Eritrea). That judgment found that claimants could be treated as adults if two Home Office officials considered that the person looked significantly over 18. My amendment tightens the criteria, but that is what we need to do in the face of the significant exploitation of the present scheme.

My last point concerns the important and related issue of safeguarding those who are found to be children. Surely it is common prudence that doubtful applicants should, until their cases are resolved, be kept separate from those known to be genuine children. I look forward to an assurance from the Minister that arrangements are now envisaged which will achieve this result. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Neuberger Baroness Neuberger Crossbench

My Lords, I declare my interests as chair of University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and of Whittington Health NHS Trust, and as chair of the Schwab & Westheimer Trust, charitable trusts set up to provide education for young asylum seekers.

I am speaking to Amendment 64A. When we last debated age assessments for young asylum seekers, in Committee, it was in the small hours of the morning, and the issues to which we should have given real attention did not get enough scrutiny. The issue had had precious little scrutiny in another place, because these provisions were brought in so late by the Government in the passage of the Bill. I am very grateful to the Government for the amount of information which they have provided recently, but there is still more to tease out. I hope, therefore, that noble Lords will understand why I and my colleagues—the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Hamwee, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham—are putting forward this detailed amendment at Report. I am grateful to the Refugee and Migrant Children’s Consortium, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the British Dental Association, the British Red Cross, the UNHCR, the ADSS, the British Association of Social Workers and many others for their briefings and help.

There is widespread concern about age assessments among all the various voluntary and statutory agencies concerned with young asylum seekers, and among many medical, dental and scientific bodies. Because of the small family charity which I chair, I spend time with asylum-seeking young people who are desperate to get their lives back on track by getting an education. Most of those I meet are older than the children and young people presently under discussion and whose age might be disputed, but by no means all. From what they tell us, I know how traumatised they can be, and have been, not only by their experiences in their home countries and on their incredibly difficult journeys but by the processes they have been forced to go through once they have arrived in the UK, and the way in which they are often not believed—almost as if there is an assumption that they will not be telling the truth.

The fact that they might be asked for consent before they undergo an age- assessment process is neither here nor there. Refusing consent would undoubtedly be a black mark against them in a system which they already perceive as doubting their word. Many of them will not have paper evidence of their date of birth, precisely because of what they have been through. The idea that the Home Office will control these procedures, and insist on them, fills many of us with distinct unease as it almost certainly means that already traumatised young people who have been through terrible experiences to reach the UK will be forced to endure yet more traumatising experiences, possibly including intimate examinations which are hard, if not impossible, to justify.

The way that Part 4 is framed means that there will be a considerable increase in the numbers of children who undergo traumatic age assessments. It will also undermine the role of local authority social workers as child protection experts, many of whom will already know these children and young people, and give the Government power to force children to undergo these so-called scientific processes that may be inaccurate or harmful, or both.

These amendments attempt to set out what an expert and fair age-assessment process would look like. The principles are clear: age assessments must be undertaken only if there is significant reason to doubt the age of the age-disputed person, unlike what is proposed in Amendment 64. The bar must be set high. It must not be used to intimidate and traumatise already-traumatised young people, and my colleagues will say more about that. Furthermore, the person conducting such age assessments under Clauses 49 or 50 must be a local authority social worker, following the guidance set out by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, and not someone appointed by the Home Office, who might seem frightening to the young person. All age assessments must follow that ADASS guidance, or its equivalent in the devolved jurisdictions.

When an age assessment is conducted, the process must allow for an impartial multiagency approach drawing on a range of expertise, including from health professionals, psychologists, teachers, foster parents, youth workers, advocates, guardians and social workers. These are the people who might reasonably be expected to have some knowledge of the young person and whom that young person will trust, or at least find less intimidating then a stranger appointed by the Home Office—to add to which, these people come from the right groups and professions. Independent professionalism in this area is essential, because only that independence and sense of reasonable trust will remove what young people feel is hostility and doubt towards them, an atmosphere hardly conducive to making them feel welcome in this country.

Most important of all, when making regulations under Clause 51, the Secretary of State must not specify the scientific methods unless she receives written approval from the relevant medical, dental and scientific professional bodies that the method is both ethical and accurate, beyond reasonable doubt, for assessing a person’s age. Clause 51 allows the Government to introduce regulations specifying the scientific methods to be used to assess age, including

“examining or measuring parts of a person’s body” and

“the analysis of saliva, cell or other samples” and the DNA within them. These so-called scientific methods to assess age have been the subject of debate for many years; professional medical bodies have been unequivocal in their rejection of the use of dental X-rays, bone age and genital examination, describing them as “extremely imprecise”. The British Dental Association has voiced its opposition to the use of dental X-rays, as they are inaccurate and unethical. Research has shown epigenetics to have the same inaccuracies.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health does not support its members taking part in such age assessments precisely because the methods are imprecise and can, at best, provide only an estimated range for age. To add to which, as the royal college states, present methods used for bone age X-ray assessments use X-rays taken from average Caucasian children, while many of these young asylum seekers will not be Caucasian in background and may differ considerably in size and development. We need to ensure that any methods used stand up scientifically and have some serious basis of support among the relevant professional bodies. The Council of Europe has highlighted that

“physical and medical age assessment methods are not backed up by empirically sound medical science and that they cannot be assumed to result in a reliable determination of chronological age … several methods have been evidenced to have a harmful impact on … physical and mental health”.

Almost everyone agrees that using radiation for non-clinical purposes is unethical. Indeed, the Care Quality Commission, which regulates everything that goes on in our NHS in this country, argues for justifying each exposure to ensure that the benefit outweighs the risks. I could go on—but we absolutely need to ensure that this is done properly, and we must see this safeguard in the Bill, so that it is clear in primary legislation that any new methods must be formally approved by the relevant professional medical body before being introduced.

We really should not be introducing methods that may add to the pressures on children and young people’s already often fragile mental and physical health. We already know that the age-assessment process could cause a lot of anxiety to vulnerable children and young people, and have a negative impact. It could prevent them from accessing school or college while the age is disputed, and it could isolate them from peers, preventing them from integrating and accessing educational opportunities.

The consequences of getting this wrong are severe. Recent media reports have highlighted hundreds of children being placed in hotels and forced to share rooms and even beds with adult men they do not know—and this is children we are talking about. Between July and September last year, the Refugee Council assisted more than 150 young people into local authority care who previously had been sent to adult accommodation following a decision by an immigration officer. This is a disgrace. We can do better than this, and we must do so, and this amendment attempts to do just that.

Photo of Baroness Lister of Burtersett Baroness Lister of Burtersett Labour 3:30 pm, 8th March 2022

My Lords, I speak in support of Amendment 64A, to which I have added my name. The noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, has made the case powerfully for the amendment, which aims to introduce protections designed to alleviate the main concerns raised by myriad organisations, as she said, as detailed in Committee.

I shall build on what the noble Baroness said by picking up some arguments that were not adequately addressed by the Minister in Committee. First, he repeatedly tried to justify the use of dental X-rays in age assessment on the ground that they are already

“used as a diagnostic tool in ordinary dentistry”.—[Official Report, 8/2/22; col. 1566.]

He completely ignored my response that age assessment is not about diagnosing something that is wrong with a child—that is, there is no clinical justification for its use in this context. That he did not appear to get the distinction was described as a “cause of great concern” by the British Dental Association, which, as has been said, is totally opposed to the use of dental X-rays for the purpose of determining age.

Secondly, there is the related argument, put forward by the BDA and others, including the British Medical Association, that to use such methods in a non-clinical context is unethical. When I pressed the Minister on this point, he said that he would be going on to deal with the point I raised—but he did not. Nowhere in his response did he address the fundamental question of the unethical nature of such methods in this context. I know it was nearly three in the morning, but nevertheless I would have expected this most important point to have been considered. I am afraid that the subsequent defence of such methods in the factsheet published a couple of weeks ago did not do much to reassure me—nor did its suggestion that

“the UK is one of very few European countries that does not currently employ scientific methods of age assessment—such as X rays”.

A survey by the BDA of European sister organisations found that two-fifths—a significant minority including Germany and the Netherlands—did not use any X-rays for age checks, and my understanding is that some of the others are looking to move away from this method.

Given this, and given the arguments from the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, about consent, can the Minister give us an assurance that refusal to undergo such scientific methods should not affect the credibility of a child seeking asylum? If not, according to the British Association of Social Workers, it will amount to what they describe as “grotesque coercion”. Can he assure us that only methods specified in regulations should be used in age assessments? I urge him once again to close the loophole offered by Clause 51(9), which allows methods deemed either unethical or inaccurate by scientific advice nevertheless to be used for age-assessment practices.

I was also disappointed by the Minister’s response to my request that the Age Estimation Science Advisory Committee should include all the relevant dental, medical and scientific national bodies. He simply said that the committee would include a broad range of experts, but he did not include in his list the bodies that oversee the ethical use of the kind of scientific methods that the Government say that they want to use.

One of the arguments used to justify this part of the Bill is the harm that will be done if adults are able to pass themselves off as children. However, according to the Refugee and Migrant Children’s Consortium, in light of the supervision provided in children’s placements, this creates a much lower risk than when children are incorrectly treated as adults. The latter might be placed in detention or alone in accommodation with adults, with no safeguarding measures and the risk of abuse. Indeed, BASW warns in opposition to Amendment 64 that by treating age-disputed persons as adults there is a large risk that we have endangered children.

I read a heart-breaking example of what can happen in such circumstances just recently in the Guardian. It was a piece about four young asylum seekers from Eritrea who killed themselves after fleeing to the UK. The inquest of one of them, Alex, concluded that he had been wrongly assessed as an adult and that, consequently, instead of being sent to live with a foster family, he was moved to accommodation for adults, where he was violently assaulted and began drinking heavily. Although the mistake was rectified, the inquest noted that it contributed to the “destructive spiral” that lead to his death.

Any reform of age assessment must make such a tragedy less, rather than more, likely. Ideally, I would like to delete this whole part of the Bill but that is not possible. Therefore, this amendment represents a crucial piece of damage limitation. I hope that the Minister will accept it or, failing that, it will receive the support of the House.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

My Lords, as the mover of the lead amendment in the middle of the night on 9 February, I will speak only briefly to support Amendment 64 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Green. I do not support Amendment 64A, however well intentioned, because I worry about its perverse effects and the huge costs involved.

The background to my concern is that I have been utterly appalled by the number of asylum seekers pretending to be children—1,100 migrants in the 12 months to September 2021, as reported in the Daily Mail. I do not apologise for the fact that it first drew my attention to this dreadful situation. The numbers are growing as the numbers crossing the channel in boats grow, allowing for seasonal variations, although the Home Office is trying to reduce the focus on this by scrapping regular figures. This is the subject of my later amendment.

The incentives to cheating on age are substantial in terms of treatment, housing and support. I am worried about the wider implications: mature boys put alongside vulnerable girls in school can wreck their progress and even lead to abuse. Mixed ages in social care are a recipe for disaster and it can be worse than that: remember the Parsons Green bomber pretending to be 16 when he was much older?

The Government are right, therefore, to introduce new processes for conducting age assessments and to set up a system in support in the Bill. There seems to be agreement on this but, as has been said, much is left for regulation.

I was very glad that my noble and learned friend Lord Stewart of Dirleton acknowledged on 9 February —in the middle of the night—that we had raised a valid safeguarding issue. I thank him for that. I was pleased to hear that the Government are planning to monitor and evaluate the impacts of the policy and to develop the evidence base further. Unfortunately, that does not solve the problem the House of Commons amendments sought to address. We will have missed the boat for clarifying the law and introducing the certainty that authorities need to run a fair and safe system.

I am clear that we must have an effective and rigorous system of age assessment, not one that gives the benefit of the doubt to those saying, without documentation, that they are minors and encouraging the traffickers. The noble Lord, Lord Green, has exposed the problems with the system proposed and I feel that we need a better response.

Photo of Baroness Butler-Sloss Baroness Butler-Sloss Chair, Ecclesiastical Committee (Joint Committee), Chair, Ecclesiastical Committee (Joint Committee) 3:45 pm, 8th March 2022

I recognise the concerns that adults should not be able to be treated as children—that is a serious matter. None the less, I support not Amendment 64 but Amendment 64A for the following reason, in addition to what the noble Baronesses, Lady Neuberger and Lady Lister, said.

Thanks to Safe Passage I had the opportunity to visit one of its children’s homes, where there were a number of young asylum seekers from Afghanistan. I talked to a group of half a dozen of them. All of them, aged 16, had moustaches, and several had incipient beards. To anyone who did not know that those from other countries are more advanced physically than those from this country, who are much less likely to have moustaches or beards at 16, they would automatically look like adults and would be treated as such. Safe Passage was absolutely certain that they were only 16 and it had a lot of evidence to support that. I am extremely concerned that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Green, together with the existing clause in the Bill, will in fact treat young people like those Afghan 16 year-olds as though they are adults.

Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop

My Lords, I support Amendment 64A, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, to which I have added my name. I declare my interests in relation to both RAMP and Reset as set out in the register. I am very grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Neuberger and Lady Lister, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, for outlining all the arguments for why this amendment is the right route to take. On Amendment 64, I hear the words about safeguarding but it is a dangerous route to take.

The needs of children have been starkly left unaddressed in so many areas of the Bill. The policies proposed to determine the age of the child are particularly concerning. The child and their best interests, rather than deterrence, must be the starting point in designing these policies. I support the amendment because it is imperative that such assessments are up to standard and based on scientific evidence. We should be seeing help for local authorities to improve their practice through multiagency working so that social workers conduct these assessments and that they are better supported with appropriate funding and training. Making the process stricter will lead to more children being treated as adults. This is extremely concerning given that they will then be placed alone in adult accommodation, with no support or safeguarding.

We have been assured that they will have the recourse of appeal at the tribunal. However, as we are hearing in other debates, the focus of the Home Office must be to get decisions right correctly at the first instance in a timely manner. We should not be introducing policies which will add to backlogs and lead to lengthy appeals. Our tribunal system does not need this, and neither do the children. I simply support this amendment, which sets out what an expert and fair age assessment should look like from the expertise of a coalition of more than 60 organisations, all of them professional, in this field.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated

My Lords, I veer between Amendments 64 and—unhelpfully—64A on age verification but what is important is that we have a trustworthy system. That is crucial; otherwise, we are in danger of fuelling cynicism and doubt about the whole system of refugee status.

We heard during Questions about the overwhelming generosity of UK citizens welcoming people from Ukraine. The broad public enthusiasm has been well noted, but I am afraid that the Home Office’s seeming ability to act speedily and with urgency is rather doubted. People are frustrated when they hear about things such as visa offices in Warsaw shutting up shop at 5 pm and closing over the weekend as though this is a kind of normal situation. There is a broad concern that, potentially, behind the scenes we do not trust the processes or the bureaucracy, and I think that includes age checks just as much as it includes allowing people to come to the UK, such as in the Ukraine situation.

One of the things that worries me is the sources of cynicism about the whole refugee process. The public feel that there is no control, and that if people declare themselves to be refugees when they arrive by boat, or declare that they are children, this will be accepted at face value and in good faith. The public do not want to feel that they are being taken for a mug. Age assessment is valid. Of course, doing so cruelly or insensitively is not welcome and would be terrible. If it is not the case that dentistry is the right scientific method, fine, but the principle surely is that we check the age of those who say that they are children. That is an important principle. Use whatever scientific method you want and be as kind as you want, but do not just say to the British public that anybody who challenges this is being cruel to children, because that is unfair. The unintended consequence of creating an impression that the process is not fair is a backlash whereby people start saying that they do not trust any of it. We know that the age issue is of some concern.

This is not a blame game, by the way. I realise that if I was a 21-year-old Syrian lad trying to get into the UK, I would say that I was 16. I do not blame anyone for that, and I understand it. Why wouldn’t you? I say good luck to them, in some ways, for trying. It is just that we as legislators are meant to be coming up with a system that the British public feel they can trust and that controls the borders. The inference that anyone who wants to tighten up the system does not care about children or does not care about people suffering in war zones is unfair and a misrepresentation.

Photo of Baroness Shackleton of Belgravia Baroness Shackleton of Belgravia Conservative

My Lords, I rise to speak in favour of Amendment 64A, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, in relation to the testing of children who may or may not be of the correct age. I think that everybody is united in believing that illegitimate people holding themselves up as children is wrong. However, how that gets assessed needs careful consideration. Can the Government think again as to whether the correct people for doing this investigation and the methods that they use, so movingly put, should be deployed by the Home Office, when local authorities have the equipment and the expertise to do this in a sensitive way which protects both parties? It is not okay for a minor to undergo treatment that adds to trauma, any more than it is right for an adult child to abuse a minor.

We ought to find a system that is fair and age-appropriate, and which gives people the benefit of the doubt until it is proved. Without the proper expertise, more harm can be done than problems solved.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

My Lords, I rise to support Amendment 64A. Any way that we can make our systems fairer is something we must aim for. The Home Secretary said yesterday in the other place that we have a “unique scheme” for accepting refugees. Yes, it is a unique scheme. It is uniquely complicated. It is mean spirited. It is slow compared with those of every other country in Europe. It is not something to brag about. Quite honestly, sometimes I hear things said in the other place and in this Chamber, and I am ashamed to be British.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Immigration), Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee

My Lords, my name, on behalf on these Benches, has been added to Amendment 64A. The House will be glad to have heard some very compassionate and rigorous speeches.

The noble Baroness, Lady Fox, talked about trust. Of course, that is hugely important. It may be the circles that I move in, but what young asylum seekers say—what many asylum seekers say—is not taken at face value; quite the contrary.

The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, talked of the young Afghanis whom she met. Amendment 64 refers to “demeanour”—I know that is not the term of the noble Lord, Lord Green, but it made me reflect on the fact that, as regards demeanour and appearance, we must be very careful how we regard people of a different culture from our own.

On Amendment 64A, so much of age assessment, as the Government present it, is about science. In Committee, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart, acknowledged that there is no silver bullet, but the Bill itself and the Government’s argument rely very heavily on scientific assessment, although the scientific methods specified in the Bill are only physical examination and measurement and analysis of saliva, cell, DNA and other samples. So, it is particularly worrying that the relevant professional bodies are so loudly and clearly opposed to these provisions on the basis of ethics and because of concerns about the accuracy of tests and measurements.

A lot of factors are—or should be—in play in assessing age, using a range of professional skills. The Home Office fact sheet also acknowledges that there is no single method, scientific or not, that can determine age with precision, but then makes a particular point of referring to the Home Office chief scientific adviser. I ask the Minister: what disciplines will be covered, and will it involve professionals in the psychiatry and psychology parts of the scientific/medical world with qualifications, expertise and experience in assessing and treating young people who have gone through the experiences that young asylum seekers have frequently gone through? They must also have experience in dealing with asylum seekers and others who have undergone traumatic experience, dealing with them in a trauma-informed way and avoiding retraumatising them. I refer noble Lords to my Amendment 84C, which will be the very last to be discussed in this debate, probably some time tomorrow morning.

Clause 51(7) provides that the decision-maker must

“take into account, as damaging the age-disputed person’s credibility … the decision not to consent to the use of the specified scientific method.”

Clause 52(1)(f) provides for regulations about

“the consequences of a lack of co-operation with the assessment by the age-disputed person, which may include damage to the person’s credibility.”

I leave it to noble Lords to assess for themselves where that is leading or where the Government would direct us. How all that works, with the standard proof being the balance of probabilities, I am really not expert enough to be sure, but, taken together, it all worries me. I commend the rounded approach of Amendment 64A.

Photo of Lord Carlile of Berriew Lord Carlile of Berriew Crossbench

My Lords, given that misrepresentation of age is a matter of concern, it is very important that the determination of age should be conducted in a way that is robust, certain in application, equitable and reliable. In my view, Amendment 64A, in the name of my noble friend Lady Neuberger, absolutely fulfils those criteria; indeed, it is a template for such criteria. I strongly support the amendment and adopt everything she said.

Age assessment techniques must be proportionate and fair. If any intrusive measures are to be taken—including dental X-rays, for example—that must be based on proven evidence of scientific reliability, not vague opinions that it might add something. It must be done in a service setting that is suitable for dealing with children, who are the vast majority of the customers under consideration in the cohort we are discussing. I commend proposed new subsection (5) to your Lordships, because it sets out the principles behind my noble friend’s amendment concisely and correctly, in a way that I am sure is the envy of some parliamentary draftsmen who have tried to draft something along similar lines before.

As to Amendment 64, I have a feeling that my noble friend Lord Green of Deddington is probably quite enthusiastic about that Latin proverb that appeared on my school’s gymnasium wall: mens sana in corpore sano. I must say that it had little effect on me for about 50 years after I had seen it on the gymnasium wall, but later I began to appreciate its importance.

I take up the theme that my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss took up, concerning Afghan young men or boys with beards and moustaches. My noble friend Lord Green of Deddington’s amendment would clearly affect unfairly the physically fit, the tall and the physically strong. For example, it would disadvantage a 16 year-old who had trained in the Dynamo Kyiv football academy or one of those many young Ukrainian men who become stars around the world in basketball, who have trained and become very fit at an early age. I understand what my noble friend is trying to do, but what he has produced is ill conceived and rather discriminatory. It should not trouble your Lordships’ House very much.

Photo of Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Crossbench 4:00 pm, 8th March 2022

I will add 60 seconds’ worth on Amendment 64. I am a trustee of the Refugee Council, which provides legal advice in a number of age assessment cases. The overwhelming majority of the cases we take on are won: the initial assessment has been wrong and the child is a child. The effect of this amendment, if carried, would be to put these children in harm’s way.

Photo of Lord Coaker Lord Coaker Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Opposition Whip (Lords)

My Lords, I am pleased to support Amendment 64A in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Neuberger and Lady Hamwee, my noble friend Lady Lister and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. I will not repeat all the concerns, but clearly there are safeguarding issues that a number of noble Lords have raised. I give one quote from the British Association of Social Workers, which warns that

“any age assessment proposals must recognise that although there is a risk when adults are wrongly assessed and treated as a child, there is a much greater risk when a child has been wrongly assessed and treated as an adult. It is predominately children who are wrongly sent and dispersed as adults, sometimes to unsafe accommodation and detention”.

As a last comment on Amendment 64A, it does not seem to me that there is any dispute about the need for age assessment, but the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, has set out that, if we are to have age assessment, which is clearly needed at times, let us do it on the basis of science and not of subjective judgments, whoever is making them.

I quickly mention the amendment I put down, Amendment 84D, which has not been mentioned yet. It would provide that the age assessment provisions apply to England only, and is clearly a probing amendment. The Minister will know that, while we would rather these provisions did not apply anywhere, this amendment is to reflect the concerns raised by the Welsh and Scottish Governments that clauses in Part 4 require legislative consent.

Welsh Ministers and three separate cross-party Senedd committees have advised that the age assessment provisions are within the legislative competence of the Senedd. When put to a vote, the Senedd voted to withhold consent from the UK Government’s intention to legislate on these matters. Its concerns were that the Bill creates a method of assessing age that is in “direct opposition” to existing practice in Wales; that the Bill

“does not recognise the devolved context of Wales” and provides the Secretary of State with powers to impose conditions on Welsh local authorities; and, finally, that all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are recognised as looked-after children in Wales. This will leave local authorities trying to navigate two “statutory but conflicting” approaches.

This is an important probing amendment about what engagement the Government have had with the devolved Administrations and the grounds on which they are disputing that legislative consent is necessary. What are the Government saying to the Welsh and Scottish Governments about this?

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

My Lords, I thank all contributors to this important debate. I acknowledge at the outset the feeling around the House as to the importance of these matters, so powerfully put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, just a moment ago.

The first amendment that your Lordships have had to consider is Amendment 64, so I will start with that. It is important to note that immigration officials already conduct initial age assessment on individuals whose age is doubted. This amendment seeks to lower the current threshold so that a more straightforward assessment of whether someone is under or over 18 is made, based on appearance. I will return to the matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, as to the different rates at which people age, depending on their ethnicity and the social factors to which they have been exposed. We must acknowledge the difficulty in assessing age through a visual assessment of physical appearance and demeanour. Clear safeguarding issues arise if a child is treated inadvertently as an adult, but equally if an adult is wrongly accepted as a child.

Our current threshold, specifically deeming an individual to be adult where their physical appearance and demeanour very strongly suggest that they are significantly over 18, strikes the right balance. It has been tested in the Supreme Court in the case of BF (Eritrea), to which the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, made reference, and has been found comprehensively to be lawful. Given that judgment, and the fact that immigration officials already execute this function under guidance, the value of legislating to bring this into primary legislation is unclear. That said, I acknowledge the value of the work that the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, has carried out, to which my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe referred, into the ingathering of data in such a way as to provide a basis on which our deliberations can proceed. However, in the light of what I said, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

I turn now to Amendment 64A. Again, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Neuberger, Lady Lister of Burtersett and Lady Hamwee, for their amendment. I make it clear to the House that there is no appetite to start conducting comprehensive age assessments of all, most or even many people who come before the system, because in most cases it will be possible to resolve doubts as to someone’s claimed age without any such investigation. Indeed, the courts have made it clear that they are against any judicialisation of the procedure, and have overturned judicial reviews based on the idea that age assessments were carried out wrongly in circumstances where two social workers conducting the Merton assessment—which these measures seek only to augment, not replace—considered persons patently above the age of 18 who claimed to have been younger. The courts have supported the social workers in those assessments. To provide that there should be wider use of scientific age assessments would serve no purpose and take away significant resource from the main task of seeking to establish the age of those individuals whose age is in doubt.

Subsections (2), (3) and (4) of Amendment 64A are unnecessary additions. Our intention is that the statutory national age assessment board will consist predominantly of qualified social workers, who will be expected to follow existing case law in carrying out these holistic age assessments. The matter of scientific age assessment has quite properly concerned your Lordships. Clause 51 already contains safeguards for those who are asked to undergo a scientific method of age assessment, and in answer to the specific point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, I say that where a good reason emerges for declining to participate in age assessment there will be no adverse impact on credibility.

I reiterate the point made at the earlier stage. It is not considered that any of these scientific methods should replace the tried and tested method of assessment by social workers, known as the Merton assessment. The intention is merely to broaden the availability of evidence that might assist to provide more data, on which these professionals can carry out these exceptionally important tasks.

Decisions on this issue also have broad implications for the exercise of immigration functions and the provision of children’s services to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Decision-making as to where and how such scientific methods should be used must, we say, remain within government, taking into account independent scientific advice. I reiterate that this measure does not provide that these scientific methods of age assessment will take place. It provides that the Government will be able to consult an expert board on what is suitable. The intention is not to undermine the role of social workers in carrying out these assessments, merely to provide additional data with which they might work.

We agree that the independent professionalism that such persons bring to bear is of the utmost importance. However, we question whether the amendment has value when it provides that scientific age assessments may take place only where their ethical approach and accuracy has been established beyond reasonable doubt: first, because that is to import the highest test of assessment of evidence from the criminal courts into an inappropriate category; and secondly, because we fully appreciate that these assessments are not of themselves accurate, as I sought to make clear at the earlier stage. They are intended not to replace but merely to augment, where thought desirable, the data available to social workers carrying out these assessments.

My attention and that of the House was drawn by the noble Baronesses, Lady Neuberger and Lady Lister of Burtersett, to the opposition of the professional bodies in relation to the carrying out or use of these techniques. Again, the document of the British Dental Association seemed to me, from the text, to have been prepared on the understanding that what was intended was a replacement of Merton-type assessments by a scientific method that—we accept—will not accurately determine, within a suitable margin, a person’s age in every case. That is why it is important to emphasise that we are not proposing some means by which data will be put into a system and an answer that we will assert to be correct will be provided. We accept that this is a holistic matter, for the interpretation of a broader range of data, much of which must necessarily be subjective, depending as it does on the assessment of social workers proceeding without documentary evidence against which to assess claims. Following the previous stage, we talked about the implications of using scientific techniques, which could include ionising radiation, if the committee were to recommend to the Government that this may be of value.

The Home Office has a statutory commitment in relation to safeguarding the welfare of children. These assessments are being introduced to help to better protect children from being treated as adults and to ensure that vulnerable children can swiftly access the support that they need. The United Kingdom is one of the few European countries that does not currently employ scientific methods of age assessment. Again, the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, drew to your Lordships’ attention the fact that two in five European countries do not use X-rays. I have been given some figures that I shall happily commit to writing to her with, but the team in the Box advised me to say that they do not recognise these figures—which means that we collectively, as HM Government, do not recognise these figures. According to the European Asylum Support Office, 19 countries in Europe use dental X-rays and 23 use carpal—wrist—X-rays, because it appears that there is something to be observed in the fusion of certain bones.

I hear what the noble Baronesses, Lady Neuberger, Lady Lister of Burtersett and Lady Hamwee, said at this stage and at previous stages about countries moving away from this form of testing; I am obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for nodding his head. We propose not to introduce this but to devolve the matter to a committee that can then advise the Government on the usefulness of its introduction. If there is a move away from these practices, as noble Lords and noble Baronesses have asserted, we can expect to be advised on that by the committee that is being established.

To the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who asked about the constituent professions of the body that was being set up, I regret to say that I do not have the full spectrum to hand. I think that I mentioned this fairly exhaustively in the last stage so it will be in Hansard but, if it is not, I am grateful that she will accept my writing on the topic, as I see from her nod.

Finally, I am also given to understand that the use of dental X-rays, techniques and observation is current in the Federal Republic of Germany

Photo of Lord Harris of Haringey Lord Harris of Haringey Labour 4:15 pm, 8th March 2022

My Lords, I refer to my interests in this matter in the register. In the event of the Government’s having advice that they proceed with this, whom do they envisage will carry out these dental X-rays? If they are doing so without the consent of the person concerned, will that be a breach of the ethical guidelines? If they are being carried out by non-qualified people, is that not also an offence for those carrying out those X-rays?

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

If I may, I will revert to the noble Lord’s point in the course of my submission; the specific questions that he raised will need some detail, which I do not have to hand but hope to be supplied with before I sit down.

I was talking about the use of ionising radiation in these matters. As I have said previously, the use of ionising radiation in the United Kingdom is highly regulated, and we will ensure that methods used comply with all regulatory requirements and standards. The Age Estimation Science Advisory Committee will have been asked to advise on the ethical considerations for the use of medical imaging techniques. As I have said, the Home Office is exploring a number of potential methods that do not involve ionising radiation, but these may require further research and development to support their technical and commercial viability in assessing the ages of age-disputed persons.

It is important to recognise that techniques develop. In the forensic context, for example, it has been the practice when considering child pornography to employ professional persons—paediatricians and others—to make an assessment of the appearance of the unfortunate people recorded in these images, and to assess from appearance alone what age they were, for forensic purposes, in order that the appropriate criminal charges might be brought.

Also in the forensic context, we recognise that scientific techniques move on. When I was called to the Bar and started to look at criminal work, there was no DNA analysis. Blood testing was available, as was blood group analysis, to assist in drawing certain conclusions. It was not nearly as accurate as DNA testing, but it was available and could in some circumstances exclude a person from suspicion or bring a person into suspicion. Thus, although it did not purport to be able to answer questions with the degree of precision and accuracy that DNA analysis has, it was none the less a valuable technique. It may perhaps be useful for your Lordships to look at what the Government propose ultimately in that context, not as something that will provide a comprehensive answer to exclude all others but, rather, as an additional source of information, which might—I repeat, might—assist, or might be considered to have no value.

Amendment 64A calls for the establishment of a committee independent of the Home Office to consider these matters. It is, however, standard practice for the Home Office to convene its own scientific advisory committees as a forum for policy-making. The Home Office has announced the direct appointment of an interim committee of nine independent members, including the chair, to review the scientific methods of age assessment. The interim chair and committee members were appointed by the Home Office’s chief scientific adviser for a period of not more than 12 months. I return to this point—it may be that I will not need to write to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, but the current interim committee includes experts involved in medical statistics, children’s social work, anthropology, psychiatry, paediatrics and radiology. The intention is that, from this broad range of disciplines, a holistic view of the issues involved in age assessment can be arrived at.

A submission was made, I think by the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, about the different appearances of persons coming for assessment. We acknowledge the contributing factors of ethnicity, diet and life experience that may have an effect on things like bone development, and therefore on the results of a scientific age assessment. We will be in a position to take into account all these factors, and I stress once again that the intention is not to present these scientific age assessments as a means of determining the question once and for all but rather, potentially, as available evidence, depending on the views of a committee.

It was my noble friend Lady Shackleton, I think, who questioned the fitness of the Home Office to assess such claims. The figures that I have been given are that the Home Office grants refugee status on humanitarian or humanitarian protection grounds in 90% of cases of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

The Government are embarking on this process so that more data is available to assist in what is, necessarily, a difficult area, and one where—as I pointed out to the House on a previous occasion—the Merton assessments undertaken by skilled and experienced social workers may throw up radically different conclusions from examinations of the very same persons. Anything that can be done to assist in that process, by providing additional data, ought to be welcome.

I turn briefly but gratefully to—

Noble Lords:


Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

My Lords, I am sorry: by “briefly” I did not intend to suggest that I was about to sit down, however welcome that may be to the House. I am, however, grateful to noble Lords for assisting me on the matter of the time allowed.

I am reminded that the right reverend Prelate, the Bishop of Durham, raised points about the manner in which assessments are carried out, and I again emphasise that the persons carrying them out are trained social workers, and it is not anticipated that that will change.

Amendment 84D, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, deals with the manner in which these matters will be considered across the United Kingdom. The noble Lord wanted to know why it was being done on a national basis as opposed to within the devolved Administrations. We cannot do that, because these matters are reserved to the United Kingdom Government and apply across the UK. These age assessment measures will apply exclusively to those subject to immigration control, and immigration is a reserved matter. The overriding objective of the age assessment measures in the Bill is to ensure that there are appropriate arrangements in place to determine the ages of people coming to this country without evidence—usually in documentary form—of their claimed age. That is why it is the Government’s view that these measures relate entirely to immigration and are therefore reserved to the UK Parliament.

The comprehensive reforms we are making to the age assessment system are designed to help and support the local authorities that will carry out these tasks. For example, the new age assessment board will carry out an age assessment where a local authority makes a referral. It is not quite all-imposing upon the local authorities, but rather, makes available something to assist should they consider it desirable.

Where the new national age assessment board carries out an age assessment on referral by a local authority, it will defend that assessment in the court if challenged. This will reduce local authority costs and legal exposure, while improving the quality and consistency of decision-making. Referral would be entirely voluntary. If we were to follow the terms of the amendment—I appreciate that the noble Lord’s amendment is a probing one to test the position—this would exclude local authorities in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. By that means, we would be penalising those local authorities by removing the benefits of these reforms and taking away important support which local authorities in England would be able to utilise. From a practical point of view, this risks creating a confusing and complex system with significant differences in how age assessment disputes are handled, depending upon where in the United Kingdom these matters are being raised. We consider it unreasonable and undesirable to oblige local authorities and young people, irrespective of whether they are a child or a young adult, to navigate such complexity.

However, the Government recognise the very important role which local authorities will continue to play in age assessment, and we are committed to continuing to work with them to achieve our collective aims. We also welcome continued engagement with the devolved Administrations and look forward to how these measures will be implemented. But we bear in mind that this is a national system for a matter reserved to the national Government, and we consider it undesirable that even slight wrinkles should emerge between treatments across the United Kingdom.

I propose to conclude—

Noble Lords:

Hear, hear!

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

I propose to conclude by merely echoing the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, opposite. She says that it is above all important that there should be confidence in the means by which these decisions are taken, and it is to augment that confidence that we propose these measures. On that basis, I respectfully invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, given the hour and the address by the President of Ukraine, I beg to move that the debate on Amendment 65 be now adjourned, and that further consideration on Report be adjourned until 5.15 pm.

Photo of Lord Carlile of Berriew Lord Carlile of Berriew Crossbench

My Lords, there may well be a Division on the second of the amendments in the group. In which case, can we take it that the House will not resume until we have had the opportunity to come back to your Lordships’ House, even if it is a bit after 5.15 pm?

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

My Lords, there was no attempt on my part to forestall any Division, and I apologise if ignorance of procedure perhaps led to the suggestion otherwise. [Interruption.] I am grateful to my noble friend for indicating that that was not his position.

Photo of Lord McFall of Alcluith Lord McFall of Alcluith Chair, Freedom of Information Advisory Panel (Lords), Chair, Sub-Committee on Leave of Absence, Chair, House of Lords Commission, Chair, House of Lords Commission, Lord Speaker

I can assure noble Lords that it is about the timing of the address by President Zelensky, rather than anything else. All business continues.

Consideration on Report adjourned until not before 5.15 pm.

Photo of Lord Green of Deddington Lord Green of Deddington Crossbench 5:21 pm, 8th March 2022

My Lords, we had a long debate and the House will be glad to know that I shall be extremely brief. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, for her very powerful contribution to my case. To sum up: we need the support of professionals in this matter, as the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, said, but also the support of the public, a point raised rightly by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox. Very briefly, we face having asylum seekers arriving by the tens of thousands, as I mentioned. They are clearly briefed to destroy their documents—only 2% of them have them—and the number of those who claimed to be children but were found to be adults was 1,500 last year. That was five times any previous year, so there is a case there.

The Government are right to get on the case and I hope they will have a useful negotiation with those who think otherwise. This is clearly a difficult policy area, but I leave it to the Government to take matters further. Meanwhile, I beg to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 64 withdrawn.