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 Teather Sarah Teather Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Brent Central 2:30, 14 Hydref 2014

I want to make a few remarks further to those made by the hon. Member for Rotherham. This is a very welcome clause and I look forward to the Minister’s response to the hon. Member for Rotherham, who raised important issues. I agree with her that a local authority should never undertake an age assessment as a matter of course, but only when it is really necessary to determine the age of a child and there is good reason to doubt the child’s account.

The issue of age assessment is important and has some bearing on this clause. The determination of an age assessment has a profound impact on children and will determine whether they are eligible for a child guardian or local authority support. It can also impact upon an asylum claim where child-specific forms of persecution and risk need to be taken into account.

As Committee members know, there is currently no statutory procedural guidance to local authorities on how to conduct an age assessment. Instead, the current approach has developed over time through local authority practice and emerging case law, giving us what are called “Merton compliant” age assessments. The lack of statutory guidance and training has resulted in confusion within both the Home Office and local authorities about what constitutes a legal assessment, as well as a lack of consistency across authorities. During a case in 2012, a Home Office official admitted to not knowing the meaning of “Merton compliant”, despite having accepted an age assessment that claimed the child in question to be aged 18 to 20. That age assessment was considerably flawed and resulted in a 15-year-old boy being unlawfully detained in an immigration removal centre for 44 days. I have a personal interest in this issue because I was involved in the negotiation of the ending of child detention for immigration purposes. Of the last few children who ended up being detained, almost all fitted into this category, so it is really important that we get this right.

It is not an isolated example, unfortunately. For parliamentarians and civil society alike it is very difficult to monitor the prevalence of the use of age assessments by the Home Office, because statistics on young people who have had their age disputed are not kept as a matter of course and are not available to the public. Organisations such as the Coram Children’s Legal Centre have called for that information to be collected and made public, but those requests have so far fallen on deaf ears.

Age assessment can only ever be that—an assessment. There is no hard and fast way of determining an individual’s age, but the problems of the present system of age assessments are well documented. Back in 2007, Dr Heaven Crawley’s report “When is a child not a child?” found that the lack of statutory guidance has resulted in inconsistencies in the weight given to evidence and information that might be relevant to the decision, including paediatric and medical evidence where that is available. Likewise, the Coram Children’s Legal Centre’s report of May 2013 found that there is

“still much room for improvement” in the assessments carried out by local authorities. High among their recommendations was the need for a multi-agency approach to assessment, rather than leaving assessment solely in the hands of social workers.

Last year, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services established an age assessment strategic oversight group, which includes civil servants as well as practitioners and members of the Refugee Children’s Consortium. I hope that the Minister will pay close attention to the work of the group, so that we can see meaningful reform, rather than pursuing the idea that seems to rear its ugly head from the Home Office every year or so—the magic bullet of X-rays, which every paediatrician will say is less accurate than the rather inaccurate method we currently have, of using social workers. Luckily, the weight of ethical and scientific objections usually beats that back into submission until 12 or 18 months later, it reappears. This is a plea, while we are considering the clause, for the Minister to take note of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services oversight group, which I think will have some interesting and relevant things to say.