Clause 43 - Presumption about age

Part of Modern Slavery Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:30 pm ar 14 Hydref 2014.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Llafur, Rotherham 2:30, 14 Hydref 2014

In the interests of time I will speak briefly. These are probing amendments to try to get clarity on the Minister’s position and to get some reassurance. The amendments seek to strengthen the support available to victims if they are deemed to be under the age of 18 and they would ensure that there are no gaps in the provision and protection offered to them. Deciding whether the victim is under 18 is a fraught exercise. Unless correctly decided, it would mean that the victim does not receive the child-specific protection and support that they really need. The Minister highlighted that there is a real risk of many children going missing in the first 72 hours. That is why we should have a presumption of age as a safeguarding measure to prevent that happening.

Amendment 102 asks for slavery to be included rather than just trafficking. That would make local authorities consider whether a possibility of slavery is apparent. If there are any grounds for considering slavery, the presumption of age should immediately kick in. Such an approach would not require a national referral mechanism decision, which is at best slow and bureaucratic. The hon. Member for Brent Central went into great detail about how the mechanism fails the people it is meant to protect, and I was heartened to hear the Minister say that she recognises such failings.

Amendments 104 and 105 have been tabled because currently there is no statutory basis for age assessment. Clause 43(1)(b) states:

“the authority is not certain of the person’s age but has reason to believe the person may be under 18.”

Can the Minister confirm whether that overrides the existing statutory guidance for local authorities on the care of unaccompanied asylum-seeking and trafficked children released by the Department for Education in July? It states:

“Age assessments should only be carried out where there is significant reason to doubt that the claimant is a child. Age assessments should not be a routine part of a local authority’s assessment of unaccompanied or trafficked children.”

The word is a small addition, but I am concerned about the emphasis and the switch from “reason to believe” to “significant reason” to believe, and I hope that the legislation will override the existing guidance, because age assessment is not a science. There is no reliable means of assessing age. Age assessment is nothing more than social workers sometimes making an educated guess at a person’s age, often based on little more than a short interview. It is a notoriously difficult exercise to perform. The migrant children who are assessed come from many different cultures with varied life experiences and will display very different behaviours as a result.

For example, trafficked children often appear more sexualised than their peers, because of the abuse that they have suffered. Age assessments are frequently challenged in the courts and found to be unlawful. We know that local authorities have financial factors at play that create an obvious disincentive to making a finding that someone is a child. If they make such a finding, that local authority will have to support the child financially. The age assessment process is failing children and redress is beyond the scope of the Bill. We need to protect trafficked and enslaved children who are going through stressful age disputes and the best way to do that is to ensure that the presumption remains in place until the end of any dispute that may have arisen. That is achieved by amendment 105. Otherwise, the presumption of age is entirely toothless—it could remain in place for as little as one day and then be nullified by a wrong social services age assessment.