Clause 43 - Presumption about age

Part of Modern Slavery Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:45 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 2:45, 14 Hydref 2014

The pre-legislative scrutiny Committee, of which my right hon. Friend was a very distinguished member, highlighted that establishing age was most difficult for child victims of trafficking. The presumption of age in the clause will apply where a young person is a victim of slavery after they have been trafficked. Where they have not been trafficked and they are a victim of slavery, it should not be as difficult to establish age because they will be UK nationals and there will be records available to assist. Clearly the whole issue of age assessment for all young people is important and needs to be looked at, but I want to keep the discussion today focused on the victims of trafficking where there is this identified problem with establishing age due to the nature of the crime that has been committed against these young people, who are moved from one place to another, usually with false documents.

Although the EU directive and therefore this clause does not extend to victims of slavery, our domestic policy is set out through statutory guidance for local authorities on the care of unaccompanied and trafficked children. This ensures that as soon as any young person becomes looked after, including victims of slavery, the local authority must aim to provide them with all necessary support to offer them the safety and stability  they will require. Ideally this should be provided by offering the young person the chance to form a relationship with a reliable and consistent adult, to support them and to contribute to planning for their care—an issue that we discussed this morning.

The responsibilities of local authorities towards such children should not be hampered by disputes about age. Where a young person’s age is in doubt, they must be treated as a child unless and until a full age assessment, drawing on all available sources of relevant information and evidence, shows them to be an adult. We agree wholeheartedly that age assessments conducted by default would be undesirable. That is why the clause states that the presumption applies only where a public authority with functions under relevant arrangements is

“not certain of the person’s age”.

In most cases there will be no doubt that the person is a child and they will be treated as such; the clause should apply only where there is a doubt about the person’s age. Amendment 104 raises an important issue, but as I have set out, the amendment is not necessary to prevent unnecessary age assessments. At a technical level, the amendment would not materially change the meaning of the Bill.

Amendment 105 seeks to ensure that all those persons who have been determined to be an adult by the appropriate authority but who are challenging that decision should be treated as a child for the duration of the challenge. Although we agree with the sentiment behind this amendment, there would be unfortunate and, I am sure, completely unintended consequences were it to be accepted. Guidance is clear that where the age of a person is uncertain and there are reasons to believe they are a child, they should be offered immediate access to assistance, support and protection. As I mentioned—this is a point on which we agree with the Refugee Children’s Consortium—age assessments should not be a routine part of a local authority’s assessment of a potentially trafficked young person. Age assessments should take place only where the local authority has reason to believe that a person may in fact not be a child.

Local authorities are frequently required to make careful judgements based on findings from professional assessments in a wide range of areas involving child protection and welfare. A difficult balance has to be struck between ensuring that child victims are properly identified and ensuring that public authorities are not unduly hindered in performing their important statutory functions, particularly in cases where the challenge is ultimately judged by a court to be “totally without merit”. Undesirable consequences could result from creating the proposed requirement: for example, a local authority might have to keep someone assessed as an adult in a placement intended for children, which could significantly increase pressure on local authority resources or risk the safety and welfare of other children within that placement. That would be unnecessary if the victim was ultimately found to have been correctly assessed as being over 18.

Given the clarification and explanations I have set out, I hope that the hon. Lady will feel able to withdraw the amendment.