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 Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 2:30, 14 Hydref 2014

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Rotherham and my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central for speaking in the debate, and to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North for tabling the amendments. All have spoken with great insight and knowledge, especially my hon. Friend with her experience as an Education Minister. We are grateful for the knowledge she brings to the Committee.

Clause 43 reflects the presumption at article 13(2) of the EU directive on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings. The pre-legislative scrutiny Committee recommended that such a clause be included in the Bill to give clear effect to the UK’s international obligations in the trafficking context with regard to a child receiving appropriate assistance and support as soon as possible.

The Government recognise the particular vulnerabilities of child victims of trafficking. Their welfare must always be a primary consideration for public authorities, and I believe we all recognise that it is in the interests of a child victim, including their safety, that they should not be treated in adult services.

That is why the clause provides a presumption of age that reflects the UK’s international obligations in statute. It will ensure that where a trafficking victim’s age is uncertain and there is reason to believe they are a child, they are presumed to be a child for the purposes of receiving appropriate assistance and support.

Policy and guidance are already clear on this point, but further to assure partners that this is the case, and in line with the recommendation of the pre-legislative  scrutiny Committee, we have reflected that presumption in the Bill. The clause will ensure that child trafficking victims receive immediate and appropriate support and assistance. I welcome the chance that the amendments give me to set out as clearly as possible how the clause will provide effective protection to the child victims of trafficking.

Amendments 101, 102 and 106 aim to make the presumption of age a broader provision. The current provision relates the presumption directly to those public authorities that support child victims of trafficking, through the arrangements for support set out in statutory guidance under clause 42. The amendments would mean all public authorities, with the exception of courts and tribunals, would have to apply the presumption.

However, I can assure the Committee that in practice all relevant public authorities will be covered by clause 43. Public authorities that are required to provide support and assistance to trafficked children will be covered by the clause since those public authorities will be specified in the guidance issued under clause 42, and will therefore be specified for the purposes of the clause 43 presumption about age.

I welcome the challenge that the amendments posed and the opportunity they have given me to satisfy myself that this provision will be effective. However, I want to assure the Committee that the amendments are not necessary to achieve our shared goal.

Clause 43 has been drafted in order to ensure that it properly reflects our obligation under article 13 of the EU trafficking directive, that the presumption of age must apply in order that the person presumed to be a child can

“receive immediate access to assistance, support and protection in accordance with articles 14 and 15”.

Amendment 103 would extend the presumption about age to victims of slavery. The purpose of clause 43, added to the Bill following the recommendation of the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee, is to give clear effect to the EU’s international obligations under article 13 of the EU directive on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings, which does not extend to slavery.

As discussed during the debate on child advocates, it is recognised that victims of child trafficking are particularly vulnerable. They will be alone in an unfamiliar country, often unaware of their right to have a childhood. They will have specific needs that require specialist support and our international obligations set that out.

That need for specialist support has been highlighted by the Refugee Children’s Consortium, which said that it has been

“found that trafficked children are frequently age disputed because they will carry false documents or be forced to lie about their age by their traffickers”.

The Refugee Children’s Consortium also pointed out:

“Children whose age is disputed by the authority are put at risk of re-trafficking, exploitation or serious harm and unable to access the services they need.”

It is, therefore, particularly important that there is clarity in the Bill that public authorities, whose responsibility it is to support trafficked children, treat anybody who may be a trafficked child as such.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central and the hon. Member for Rotherham talked about the quality of age assessment and the related ongoing work. The Government are committed to promoting improvements to the age assessment process. In the interests of safeguarding, it is vital that children should not be managed in adult services and vice versa. The Home Office, the Department for Education and the Department of Health are working closely and constructively with the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and other partners to improve the quality of the age assessment process and of age assessments themselves through improved guidance on information sharing, joint working and practice.

I understand the concerns raised here this afternoon and I can confirm that revised local authority practice guidance and a revised joint Home Office and ADCS protocol will be published in the coming months. We understand the need for the guidance to get the processes absolutely right, and I am happy to discuss achieving that aim outside the Committee. We have alternative arrangements in place to ensure that young people who have been victims of slavery are appropriately supported, including where age is in dispute.