Age assessment overhaul to go ahead as planned after peers withdraw opposition

Charities warn introduction of ‘scientific’ assessments and ‘culture of disbelief’ will place young asylum seekers at risk, but government claims reforms will reduce risk of children being misidentified as adults

Young asylum seeker
Picture posed by model (photo: pixelrain/Adobe Stock)

By Rob Preston and Mithran Samuel

The government’s overhaul of age assessments of young asylum seekers will go ahead as planned, after peers withdrew their opposition.

The provisions, in the Nationality and Borders Bill, will allow the introduction of “scientific” measures to assess age and enable the government to press councils to have children in their care assessed and refer their decisions for review by a new national body.

Children’s rights, refugee and social work organisations have warned the changes will put children at risk – by leading to them being misidentified as adults – and undermine social workers’ expertise.

Last month, the House of Lords amended the bill to require age assessments to be carried out by council social workers, only be conducted when there are significant reasons to doubt age and only involve scientific methods that are “ethical and accurate beyond reasonable doubt”.

The government used its majority in the House of Commons to overturn the amendment and then, when the bill returned to the Lords last week, opposition peers did not revive it. Liberal Democrat Baroness Hamwee tabled a weaker amendment that she later withdrew.

Though the two houses still need to agree a final version of the bill when Parliament returns from its Easter recess next week, this means the age assessment changes will go ahead as the government plans once the bill becomes law.

‘Undermining social workers’

The legislation will create a national age assessment board (NAAB), appointed by the home secretary, to oversee the system, review local authority assessments and carry out its own in some situations.

In cases where the government doubts the age of a claimant under the care of a council, the authority will have to refer the case to the NAAB for assessment, assess the claimant’s age itself or inform the home secretary it is satisfied the person is the age they claim to be.

In the latter two cases, the council will have to provide the home secretary with reasonable evidence. However, the provisions also allow the NAAB to carry out an assessment if the home secretary doubts a council’s decision regarding a claimant’s age – though the board’s decision as to age will be binding on the government.

These measures led the Refugee and Migrant Children’s Consortium (RMCC) to claim the changes would undermine social workers’ knowledge and expertise, following their introduction last October.

The legislation will also enable the home secretary to make regulations specifying scientific methods that can be used for age assessments, including x-rays or analysis of saliva or other bodily samples.

These will only be permissible with the consent of the person being assessed, or someone able to consent on their behalf. However, the legislation allows officials to take a refusal to give consent as damaging the person’s credibility.

‘Culture of disbelief’

Following the latest round of parliamentary debate, the Refugee Council, which provides support to unaccompanied children at entry points to the UK, warned the government’s plans risked more children being misidentified as adults. In that event, they would not be educated, and supported and accommodated within the care system, but simply housed and given £40.85 per week to live on.

“We have seen first-hand the additional suffering and trauma which is caused by this culture of disbelief,” said Helen Johnson, head of children’s services at the charity.

“We are really concerned that the government is pushing forward with these new plans – which risk more children and young people being ascribed the wrong age, losing the support they need and exposing them to danger.

“These ‘scientific methods’ are not supported by the scientific community and can be stressful, intrusive, frightening and re-traumatising for the young people involved.”

‘Social workers may feel pressured’

Stewart MacLachlan, senior legal and policy officer at Coram Children’s Legal Centre, said the bill’s proposals will “make it more problematic for social workers to do their job ethically and correctly”.

“You may find that social workers feel pressured into doing assessments or feel they are not adequately prepared to [undertake scientific assessments],” he said.

MacLachlan said some children were already being sent to inappropriate accommodation after initially being assessed as adults and later found to be children.

“The UK government’s proposals will lead to even more children being put at risk and further delay a child’s path to safety,” he said.

“There is no accurate way to assess age, and ‘scientific’ methods have been criticised by human rights bodies in other European countries.”

Under the legislation, the home secretary will only be able to specify scientific methods for use after determining they are appropriate, based on scientific advice.

The Home Office has set up a scientific advisory committee to advise on appropriate methods of assessment and, in January, appointed forensic anthropologist Professor Dame Sue Black as the committee’s interim chair. The department said it would make a permanent appointment “in due course”.

However, anti-trafficking charity Love 146 said it was not reassured by the government’s insistence that it would consult expert advice on scientific age assessment methods.

Need for ‘holistic, trauma-informed assessments’

A spokesperson said these methods had been “previously discredited by the scientific community” and were “invasive, unethical, non-child centred and disregard children’s rights and needs”.

Instead, age assessments needed to be carried out “in a holistic, child-focused and trauma-informed manner, something which has been shown can be a positive experience”.

The charity called for investment to train social workers “to assess [young asylum seekers] with the sensitivity, care and respect they deserve, whether their claimed age is accepted, or they are found to be an adult,” the spokesperson added.

Government questions reliability of ‘Merton’ assessments

However, defending the government’s plans in parliament last week, advocate general for Scotland Lord Stewart questioned the current approached to age assessments, based on the leading case of B v London Borough of Merton [2003].

“I stress that although there are questions about the accuracy of scientific methods, we simply do not know how accurate or reliable the current approach of the Merton-compliant age assessment is. We are aware of cases where individuals have been assessed to be of vastly different ages when assessed independently by different social workers in different local authorities.

“Genuine children whose ages are in doubt will therefore benefit from more informed decision-making as a result of supplementing the current age assessment process with scientific methods with known accuracy – or a known margin of doubt, I perhaps might more accurately say – and reducing the risk that children may be misidentified as adults and vice versa.”

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6 Responses to Age assessment overhaul to go ahead as planned after peers withdraw opposition

  1. Christy April 14, 2022 at 7:17 pm #

    Bottom line here is there are [in fact] some who will pose to be children when they are not. The same can be said in cases where children are treated as adults when they are not. The margin for error is ridiculously vast and wide with Merton-compliant age assessments and this is highlighted very well by the comments of Lord Stewart, in that one social worker will conclude one result, another will conclude something different. So there is no consistency or reliability in Merton-compliant assessments. So introducing and developing more empirical measures, notwithstanding their own margin for error, and working toward narrowing those margins as far as possible, why on earth is this not being welcomed?

    • Helen April 21, 2022 at 10:28 am #

      Because “… these methods had been “previously discredited by the scientific community” and were “invasive, unethical, non-child centred and disregard children’s rights and needs”.

      For example:

      Why would anyone welcome any method already dismissed and decided upon as unethical?

      • Christy May 2, 2022 at 11:17 am #

        This notion that Merton age assessments are any more amicable, ethical, child-centred or protective of the rights of children is just not true. A Merton assessment is very invasive, trawling through some of the most sensitive and personal aspects of a potential child’s life, testing their credibility, with decisions varying so vastly from one social worker to the next. The degree of openness to interpretation is too great and the risks too high. What I welcome is the notion of a uniform methodology which promotes greater consistency and less possibility for error. I dont dispute that there is a lot of groundwork to be done, but the evidence is out there that this is ethically possible. But you have to look a bit further than headline articles and perhaps look at the science?

  2. John April 14, 2022 at 7:37 pm #

    I am not quite sure how medical assessment is considered any more invasive than subjecting individuals to numerous hours of interviewing about often very traumatic experiences and testing their credibility, nor am I sure how it is deemed that Merton style assessments promote any less of a degree of mistrust. No matter how “child-centred and trauma-informed”, having doubts about a persons age is a position of mistrust. It has nothing to do with the assessment process itself.

  3. Andy April 18, 2022 at 1:56 pm #

    As long as rich European countries continue to exist as blazing beacons of sanctuary for people from poor and/or dysfunctional countries, the various processes of asylum will continue to be put under ever greater levels of scrutiny. There is clearly no consensus on the accuracy of social OR scientific age assessments. Government and refugee advocates approach the issue from opposing perspectives. The subjects and the administrators of these assessments will be be part of this very complex and contentious problem for some time to come.

  4. Phil Sanderson April 21, 2022 at 12:10 pm #

    The Tories have an absolute hostility towards refugees and the whole basis of this legislation is to make asylum even more difficult. This will enshrine a culture of disbelief and condemn many children to the hands of traffickers yet again. If the government is so convinced that scientific methods can be used can they publish the evidence for this?. This is part of a blatant piece of legislation to attack the most vulnerable people on the planet it should be opposed not welcomed