Home Office recruiting 40 social workers to its new asylum age assessment body

National Age Assessment Board 'incrementally building capacity' to take over many of the assessments currently carried out by local authorities, including through use of controversial 'scientific' methods

Asylum-seeking child
Photo posed by model (Jan H Andersen/Adobe Stock)

The government is recruiting up to 40 social workers to join a new Home Office body managing age assessments of young asylum seekers.

The National Age Assessment Board (NAAB) will oversee a new system for age assessments established by the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, review local authority assessments and carry out its own in some situations.

Job adverts (which have now expired) show social workers are being recruited to the NAAB for jobs in Cardiff, Croydon, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Sheffield and Solihull. The Home Office said “several” social work and non-social work management positions would also be filled as part of an ongoing campaign.

The body will incrementally build capacity over the next few months, with the Home Office intending that it carries out a significant proportion of age assessments currently conducted by local authorities.

The legislation provides for this either through direct referral from local authorities or where the home secretary doubts the authority’s conclusion as to a young person’s age, with the board’s verdict being final. This provision led charity coalition the Refugee and Migrant Children’s Consortium (RMCC) to warn that the board would undermine the professional judgment of local authority social workers.

Contentious methods

The job adverts specified that practitioners needed to be able to adopt “a child-centred and trauma-informed approach” and have an “excellent working knowledge and understanding of the Merton age assessment process” – a reference to the leading case of B v London Borough of Merton [2003], which set expectations about the conduct of assessments.

However, the government has previously questioned the accuracy of Merton assessments in justifying its controversial introduction – under the Nationality and Borders Act – of “scientific” measures to help assess individuals’ age.

These include using x-rays to measure body parts or analysis of DNA through a person’s saliva or cell samples.

Ministers will be able to specify such measures for use in regulations so long as they have determined them as appropriate for assessing a person’s age following scientific advice. This will be provided by the Home Office’s chief scientific adviser on the guidance of a new advisory committee.

Assessors will then be able to use them with the consent of the young person or someone deemed able to consent on their behalf, if they lack capacity to do so. However, the legislation allows decision makers to take a refusal to consent without reasonable grounds as damaging to the young person’s credibility.

The government has admitted “there is no single age assessment method (scientific or not) which can determine an individual’s age with precision” but says the measures could help improve decision making.

But opponents, including children’s rights and refugees’ charities, have warned the use of scientific measures will put children at risk, by leading to them 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.

‘NAAB must be child-centric’

Steve Crocker, the president of the Association of Directors of Children (ADCS), said there were already too many cases where children are wrongly assessed as adults, but expressed hope that the NAAB could make a positive difference.

“Conducting age assessments is complex work requiring specialist skills and is frequently the subject of legal challenge, which local authorities are dealing with alone,” he said. “The increasing numbers of children arriving in this country is placing pressure on our staff, who are carrying out these checks, and so the establishment of a new National Age Assessment Board will hopefully create some additional capacity in the system once it is up and running.”

Crocker, the director at Hampshire and Isle of Wight councils, said he hoped a co-ordinated national approach would help to capture best practice.

He added that engagement with local authorities that were gateways to the UK “will be key, as they have a lot of expertise in this area”, but said it was not yet clear how the NAAB would link in with them.

“It is important the NAAB is driven by a child-centric approach and decisions are timely – while the age of an individual is unknown, they should be supported and accommodated as a child,” he said. “The care and best interests of asylum-seeking children must be at the heart of all decisions made.”

Board uncertainties

Coram Children’s Legal Centre senior legal and policy officer Stewart MacLachlan said there was a lot that was still unknown about how the board would work, including whether it would carry out most age assessments.

He said there were potential advantages from the board, in addressing postcode lotteries between authorities in the way age assessments were carried out, but also that there were risks around it adopting a “culture of disbelief” about young people’s claims.

“Where you have social workers whose only job is to age assess, there’s definitely a concern there about a culture within the organisation of decision making not being in the best interests of the child, exacerbated by the board being placed within the Home Office, where there is that immigration focus,” he added.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The government is committed to protecting vulnerable children and the National Age Assessment Board will stop adults falsely claiming services such as school placements.” Home Office spokesperson said.

Transfers of asylum-seeking children rising rapidly

News of the NAAB recruiting drive came as government statistics showed the numbers of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children being transferred away from port authorities to other councils had reached their highest recorded levels.

Data, published in late May, showed that 304 young people had been moved from one authority to another under the national transfer scheme, which was made mandatory last November, up from 293 in the final three months of 2021, and a significant rise from 66 in the third quarter of 2021 and 101 in the second.

The majority of those transfers – 209 and 241 in the last two quarters – came from Kent, which refused to accept any young asylum seekers into its care from June to September 2021 after reaching “an unsafe capacity”.

All 206 local authorities with responsibility for children in care in England, Scotland and Wales, plus all five trusts in Northern Ireland, must now take part in the national transfer scheme.

“With several thousands of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children arriving in the UK every year – many by small boat having been exploited by people smugglers – we face an unprecedented situation and this requires a full national response,” a Home Office spokesperson said. “The mandatory National Transfer Scheme ensures unaccompanied asylum-seeking children receive vital support and we are grateful to the local authorities who are providing assistance across the UK.”

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8 Responses to Home Office recruiting 40 social workers to its new asylum age assessment body

  1. Helen July 3, 2022 at 8:54 pm #

    I’m glad I don’t have to do this job. I actually believe there’s a lot of young men who pretend to be children, however, I’d still struggle to say they’re not because of the outcomes for them. There is a practical and inconvenient truth, sadly. We don’t have places to house everyone or send them to school. This creates an environment of resentment towards immigrants because we’re not housing the people who already live here. In turn, this creates angry young people who can easily be groomed. It’s such a mess!

    • Tahin July 8, 2022 at 10:54 am #

      We are not housing people already here because building social housing practically stopped once right to buy depleted stick and policy prevented councils from investing sales income on building new housing. Actually school rolls are falling and unsurprisingly in rural counties schools are having to merge as a result. Immigration policy isn’t just about numbers or lack of resources given the response to Ukrainian arrivals. My local school seemed able to admit 7 children without it disrupting or destabilising the curriculum. Be for immigration, be against immigration but always be aware of the actual facts.

  2. David N Jones July 4, 2022 at 5:49 pm #

    Firstly, there is absolutely no ‘scientific’ method of determining age. I have heard this discussed in several places around the world and in regional and global meetings of social workers. The paediatricians are all adamant that sufficiently precise scientific assessments do not exist so we should all stop pretending that they do! UN declarations and global treaties do recognise age as a significant criterion so we do need a determination but let’s stop pretending there are scientific and easy ways to do this.

    Secondly, as one of the 10 richest countries in the world, able to find billions to fund support for the war in Ukraine, we CAN find solutions to the refugee challenges if we choose to do so. The current choice is not to do that and to blame the victims. We have seen in Ukraine and former Yugoslavia that war and devastation can happen suddenly and quickly and ordinary people like us carry the consequences. Thank God there is still some compassion in the world. It could be me or you next!!!

    Thirdly, the headline ‘hostile environment’ brings shame on our country and all who live here. Love Your Neighbour as Yourself. A tough challenge but experience shows that such an approach always brings better outcomes and rewards. The world faces a growing migration crisis with climate change. If we cannot respond globally with understanding and compassion instead of hatred and anger, we will all suffer. It is in our interest to build a ‘welcome environment’ which also includes a strategy for global solutions.

    • Lilybright July 4, 2022 at 7:39 pm #

      Well said David.

      I would only add that the Nazis employed social workers to assess the “fitness” of people with learning disabilities and mental disorders for the gas chambers. As a profession we should refuse to be complicit in the Hostile Environment, refuse to be complicit in a process that can end with desperate young people who have struggled across half the world in the hope of of safety, security and a life worth living, carrying their families’ hopes and dreams with, being incarcerated and deported to Rwanda.

    • Anouska July 5, 2022 at 2:57 pm #

      So wonderfully said. I’m a social worker who has been tasked to do these age assessments. I am truly at a loss and have resigned my post due to the pressure of this!

      I feel I am in a minority – seemingly “woke” because I don’t wish to partake in the negative discourse.

      • Alice July 8, 2022 at 12:30 pm #

        Well it’s bad form to remind our betters about “rights based social work” Anouska. Best left for tweets and podcasts and hand wringing over a peppermint tea. I admire your steadfast committment to social work values.

  3. Andy July 5, 2022 at 3:35 pm #

    I would suggest that there is no truly ‘effective’ method of determining age which satisfies all relevant parties, many of whom appear to seek almost diametrically opposing outcomes. It is difficult to feel that this new body of Home Office assessors will be making decisions from a genuinely neutral position. On the other hand, they will effectively take over this responsibility from already hard pressed LA assessment teams which will no doubt please many LA directors.
    It would be very interesting to hear SWE’s perspective on this matter as it could be argued that by carrying out these roles in a manner which satisfies the Home Office (let’s face it, the HO would not be happy with loads of positive assessments) these SWs could be compromising their professional ethical principles and values.
    As ever, this issue will remain one of the most contentious areas of work involving SWs.

  4. Phil Sanderson July 8, 2022 at 5:42 pm #

    The Home Office are responsible for the hostile environment and the negative decision making that will take place. The whole initiative is designed to bring about an increase in negative age assessments and this will be the ethos of the Home Office team. I have no doubt that we will find scores of young people wrongly assessed as adults and all the terrible implications for them. The UK is the 4th richest country in the world and can easily take in more refugees. The resources are available tax the rich.