BASW urges social workers not to take jobs with Home Office age assessment body

Association warns that practitioners' professional judgment risks being compromised by Home Office priorities and rhetoric claiming adults pretend to be unaccompanied children to exploit asylum system

Image of Ruth Allen, the Bristish Association of Social Workers chief executive (credit: BASW)
Ruth Allen, the BASW chief executive (credit: BASW)

Should social workers work for the Home Office's asylum age assessment board?

  • It would depend on whether they could practise free from political influence (41%, 60 Votes)
  • No, their professional judgment would be compromised by political priorities (38%, 55 Votes)
  • Yes, it is a perfectly valid job (21%, 30 Votes)

Total Voters: 145

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The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) has urged its members, and other social workers, not to work for a new Home Office agency established to assess the ages of unaccompanied asylum-seeking young people.

Its chief executive, Ruth Allen, said taking a job with the Home Office’s National Age Assessment Board (NAAB) was a “risk to professional objectivity and could compromise the judgment of social workers”, in the light of government rhetoric about adult asylum seekers exploiting the system by claiming to be children.

The 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, with the Home Office intending that it carries out a significant proportion of those 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.

The act also provides for the use of controversial scientific methods to assess age – such as x-rays of wisdom teeth and hand and wrist bones and MRI scans of the knee and collar bones – though Home Office advisers concluded that these needed to be combined with social work assessments to increase reliability.

‘An appalling abuse of our system’ – Priti Patel

When announcing the plans at the start of last year, then home secretary Priti Patel said: “The practice of single grown adult men, masquerading as children claiming asylum is an appalling abuse of our system which we will end. By posing as children, these adult men go on to access children’s services and schools through deception and deceit; putting children and young adults in school and care at risk.”

BASW said that rhetoric such as this, along with the political priorities of the Home Office under Patel’s successor, Suella Braverman, risked “intruding on the professional objectivity” of social workers working for the NAAB because they were, ultimately, accountable to the home secretary.

Last week, Braverman published the Illegal Migration Bill, which received near-universal condemnation from children’s social care bodies because of proposals that would allow for unaccompanied young people who arrive in the UK without leave to enter to be detained, deported when they turn 18 – or potentially before – and to be placed outside the scope of the care system.

“Leaders shape the ethos of their organisations, and given the political rhetoric of both the current home secretary and previous home secretary the challenge is for managers and their staff to retain their professional objectivity,” the association said.

“By contrast, councils had a degree of independence from central government, allowing social workers to “make professional judgements, with appropriate support and guidance that allows them to assess age – and all that that implies – with a greater degree of objectivity free from the constraints and priorities of the Home Office.”

‘Not a criticism of individual social workers’

BASW stressed that its position “should not be interpreted as a criticism of [the] professional objectivity” of practitioners who have, or may, take up jobs at the NAAB, while those social workers would also not be denied any membership services by the association.

Age assessment outcomes

Home Office data shows that age assessments mostly, and increasingly, find that the claimant is under 18. This was true of:

  • 48% of resolved cases (337 out of 701) in 2020.
  • 51% of resolved cases (1,168 out of 2,295) in 2021.
  • 62% of resolved cases (1,042 out of 1,693) in 2022.

The Home Office has been recruiting social workers to the NAAB since last year, with drives to bring in 40 practitioners last spring and 19 towards the end of 2022 and the start of this year. The department is planning for more recruitment campaigns through this year until the board is fully staffed.

In its latest recruitment round, the department said the NAAB would consist of “expert social workers dedicated to the task of conducting ‘Merton’ compliant age assessments”, in reference to the leading case on the issue, B v London Borough of Merton [2003].

It said the NAAB aimed to strengthen and improve age assessment processes “to mitigate against safeguarding issues which arise if a child is inadvertently treated as an adult, and equally if an adult is wrongly accepted as a child and placed in accommodation with children to whom they could present a risk”.

‘Child-centred and trauma-informed’

Addressing potential recruits, it added: “You will ensure that the young people who are assessed are at the heart of what we do and adopt a child-centred and trauma-informed approach to working with young people and undertaking assessments.”

In response to BASW’s call, a Home Office spokesperson said: “Age assessments are challenging but vital to identifying genuine asylum-seeking children and [stopping] abuse of the system. We are taking steps to prevent adults claiming to be children, or children being wrongly treated as adults – as both present serious safeguarding risks to children.

“The National Age Assessment Board’s assessments and members of staff will be distinct from the Home Office’s asylum and immigration decision-making functions. The best interests of children and the aim of achieving accurate age assessments will be the primary consideration.”

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22 Responses to BASW urges social workers not to take jobs with Home Office age assessment body

  1. Rob Mitchell March 16, 2023 at 8:00 pm #

    Great to see from BASW. We must be strong and not allow our profession to be instrumental in facilitating this governments hateful approach to those seeking refuge or asylum in the UK.

    • Sandra March 18, 2023 at 9:58 am #

      Totally agree. Now let’s hear why social workers shouldn’t hide behind “assessments” to facilitate poverty, discrimination, deprivation of liberty, denial of resources, dehumanising rhetoric. Lets get a statement urging social workers to not pander to funding panels, not alter their reports to fit in with departmental priorities over the person. Let’s see Leaders and Principlals and Chiefs of this and that promote and facilitate social work values. Until then pick and mix morality is just chip paper. I speak as an ex-BASW member who received not a jot of support when I was ‘disciplined’ for refusing to collude with making a woman in mental distress homeless because the local authority couldn’t transfer the housing block over to a ‘social enterprise provider’ with her as a sitting tenant. Accirding to BASW that’s an employer policy issue rather than ethics apparently.

      • Alec Fraher March 19, 2023 at 4:59 pm #

        What! Of course they can it’s pretty normal practice forming the very basis behind most supported housing schemes. I have managed several and set several up. It’s normal and so ordinary to make it not everyday but frequent enough to be routine.

        Cherry Picking with Social Enterprise’s of all too common, it is how it goes ~ most can never demonstrate what’s called requisite agility and fail when pressure tested..

        At worst the very people advocating the existence and establishment of a CIC, including gp’s and out-going Council/NHS services managers then betray the very ‘service user’s’ they’d relied on to secure the transfers and funding ~ completely abusive practices.

        I am not surprised by BASW as their own, then, Officers had vested influences and interests in such schemes.

        The Competition and Mergers Authority described the sector as having been sleep walking onto a mess ~ I know that this is being way too polite.

        The pillaged services make Eron look like a walk in the park.

        Other professional bodies like CIMA, CIPFA, CIPP were at such a loss with our professional bodies to conclude, and officially so, That We Don’t Care.

        You should say more Sandra as long as it’s not ar risk to yourself.

  2. Alec Fraher March 16, 2023 at 10:24 pm #

    The conditions for Age Assessment are medical and invasive procedures, especially for a child or teenager, surely a Best Interest judgement ought to be ordinary, No?

    Health screening would, in the fullness of time, and in an ordinary way capture the information, which is only ever really going to be indicative and not definitive. This is bread and butter social work, No?

    In B v The London Borough of Merton the Court held that the Council and social worker couldn’t give reasons for their decision, not least because Shelter as part of proceedings, commissioned the use of the very same Age Assessment as is being suggested.

    So what is going on, really? It’s good to see BASW, as I remember it actually saying something ~ but really, will participant in counselling the HO in it’s uncertainty detract from professional competency ~ what if the opposite were true?

    For sure, Councils will have there hands full. I handled a handful of cases when an IRO and the internal disputes about placement priorities amongst foster carers, disruption to existing children, and the availability of translators made the going tough.

    The HO were next to useless too.

    The children though did thrive in an eventually agreed dedicated Foster Care placement.

    Take the terms of doing the job to the HO and with the appropriate demands.

    If there’s talk of being Trauma Informed then Compassion is front and centre. Service valorisation is crucial too.

  3. H March 17, 2023 at 11:30 am #

    I have mixed feelings on this…Its good that BASW are vocal but as Social Workers we need to maintain our professional values and be at the heart of a system of oppression.
    That’s the only way to make a difference. May be hard to achieve in this role but that is social work isn’t it?
    And isn’t it true to say that you find conflict and challenge and your professional views and professional integrity compromised working in a local authority.
    We are all agents of the state in one way or another.
    I volunteer for refugee charities and I believe that many Social Workers would see this role and want to get in to the service to actually support children and young people to be safe and receive the rightful support.
    I think it’s a positive to have social workers in Home Office roles maybe it’s the beginning of a change.
    Be interesting to know the views of those Social Workers who do work there.

  4. Abdul March 17, 2023 at 11:40 am #

    Interesting how BASW are speaking out about this, but not one word about the abusive, oppressive, punitive, and punishing environments local authority social workers are subjected too, and especially the toll on our physical and mental health. Must be the working conditions are reasonable at the Home Office, so I really should apply.

  5. Sharon C March 17, 2023 at 11:59 am #

    somebody ought to forward the article to the shadow home secretary….. I believe Yvette Cooper might make this known to a much wider audience.

    • Alec Fraher March 17, 2023 at 1:50 pm #

      Yvette Cooper MP constituents, back in 2003, let her know what they thought and felt when placing unaccompanied children in the area. It wasn’t a very pleasant situation at all and despite Ed being SofS too.

      Politicising Children and Childhood is a pretty damning endictment for any Government. But each and every Government will do it ~ look at the bite marks from the dental imprints on society!

  6. Annie March 17, 2023 at 12:01 pm #

    But some adults do pretend to be children – the statistics show that and anyone who has had involvement in migrants’ arrivals in the UK and their subsequent placement will know this to be the case. Often, traffickers and others will have advised this is what the person should do.

    Someone has to check this out and I would rather social workers were involved in the process. Social work training and professional expertise should enable social workers to assist both the people arriving and those tasked with appropriate placement, in these very difficult and stressful situations.

    • Alec Fraher March 18, 2023 at 4:13 am #

      Erik Malmquist et al (2018?) Examined this very issue for the Swedish Government and found that 3% of men had lied about their age to gain the relative advantages of being a child while for women the figure was 7%.

      In the same study the authors found that their was an ethical basis for medical assessment and cited evidence and compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

      Interestingly, the literature review in the Swedish study pointed to work from a previous UK Children Commissioner in a Report called a ‘Culture of Disbelief’ by Crawley and Aynsley-Green.and was largely critical of British Home Office.

      Here’s the rub:

      Not unlike tackling Child Sexual Exploit the issues the Swedish Government and Authorities faced were driven not by domestic concerns but by a demand for EU compliance and competency with EU Regs and EC Directives ~ EU Regs No 604/2013 and EC Directive 2013/32/EU Art 25(5).

      Here’s the choke:

      Like with CSE the impetus for action came from the EU, in this instance EC Directive 2011/62/EU. To explain crudely, the then EC issues a Directive and would over time, usually a matter of years, asks for evidence of compliance.. So, while Sammy Woodhouse triggered the Rotherham Inquiry, and Agency Social Workers were used to force the issues onto the foreground, it was UK Gov compliance, or not as is/was the case, with the CSE EC Directive 2011/62/EU that actually drove the issues.

      If BASW are signalling caution then I’d ask that full disclosure of is made. What has the Children’s Commissioner got to say?

      Brexit is far from done. The adoption of the Windsor Framework is only partially adopted, Stormont is not sitting.

      The Childrens Care Services Review is as much about whether Council’s, as the major employer of sw’s, can fulfil their statutory duties as it is about trade-agreements and creating new markets in Childrens Services.

      Treating Children (and adults) like commodity goods, to be assessed physically to quarantee their quality and provenance, is what is appalling.

      If, as could well be the actual case, that Children are being used, again, as political fodder in trade-agreements-disputes over unfinished Brexit business then shame on those who do so.

      I genuinely can’t work-out who’s telling me the truth ~ Culture’s of Disbelief.

      Where’s the Journalism when it’s needed ~ Where’s the Sector Leadership?

      • Andy March 19, 2023 at 3:24 am #

        It’s hard to imagine why anybody might want to pretend to be under 18 in this context. Given the extremely restrictive immigration policies introduced by the Swedes, I’m not sure many readers here would view them as an ideal reference point on this issue.

        • Alec Fraher March 20, 2023 at 12:40 pm #

          That’s the point ~ ? Scandinavian/US/UK modelling of both health and social services.

          The welfare benefits system is, now, a glaringly obvious illustration of such. No?

        • Alec Fraher March 21, 2023 at 11:13 pm #

          The Illegal Migration Bill is an ERG soothing exercise. There’s plenty of opposition from within the Tories. Not least from former PM May who was also Home Secretary and champion for Sammy Woodhouse, the Lords have yet to have their say. Write to your MP mine has an active interest. Labour has yet to show its colours on the issues.

          • Alec Fraher March 22, 2023 at 7:46 pm #

            The Illegal Migration Bill returns for another reading on Monday 27th March. Do something, now.

  7. Gayle March 17, 2023 at 12:27 pm #

    I think it’s a disgrace. BASW effectively telling Social Workers what they should be thinking and suggesting that it would be immoral to consider employment with the Home Office. BASW might as well tell us that we all have a duty to vote Labour. What happened to impartiality?

  8. Paul March 17, 2023 at 1:27 pm #

    It is better for a social worker to do than any person HO chooses employ.
    Medical evidence may be useful, I had a claimed 16 year old broke his thumb, x rays showed 24/25. Later found wanted by police for serious offences.
    Yes, we have safeguard children, but is a broader inherent duty of welfare of public

    • Alec Fraher March 18, 2023 at 11:30 am #

      Here’s a rather obtuse way of seeing what is going on ~ in hostage taking scenarios there’s two victims, the primary and secondary victim. The actual victim ie the person held or taken is the secondary victim.Working out who or what is the primary victim crucial to their survival and subsequent safety.

      In this scenario the terms of settlement on leaving the EU and UK compliance with is being played out with Children’s lives.

      I say more about this in comments to Annie above.

      BASW, in asserting a moral high ground, are signalling this. But as said previously by others here, most notably Abdul, is it too little too late. The use and abuse of children for political gains as Gayle suggests is as abhorrent as their being without family in a strange place.

      The language of being Trauma Informed is similarly minded towards being an advert. The Children’s Services Care Review is though steeped in this, and bizarrely is a way of modern selling ~ trafficking is systemic and a messy wicked problem, linear disruption to the supply-chain is a fix that will fail.

      The thinking is wrong. How absurd would it be if the Unfair Terms and Conditions of Contract Act provided greater assurance and protection for Children than existing Children Act and LASSA obligations?

      This ain’t new.

      The first time I, then, with York and N. Yorkshire Branch of BASW spoke out publicly was 2003. I was involved, as an IRO, the same issues ~ with incidentally, the now, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper MP.

      For CPD ~ I trained in ‘hostage scenario planning’ when working in the High Security Psychiatric Estate. and in these instances having a knowledge of Systems Archetypes and Systems Dynamics is pretty useful. See Creative Holisms for Managers by M. C. Jackson of Hull University’s Centre for Systems Thinking and Science.

      I have to say that I’m with Abdul ~ it’s too little too late, again.

  9. Steve March 17, 2023 at 3:40 pm #

    As a children and families social worker of almost 30 years who stood next to a bomb placed by someone who had lied about his age to gain entry to the UK while I was going to work one day to work with the survivors of the Grenfell Tower, I live and work with the consequences of these issues every day. I have tried to continue to do social work over the six years since it happened but some weeks ago I had to give in to post-traumatic stress disorder and stop managing a children’s home which I loved so much and now which marks probably an end to a certain part of me and my career. If my reply is therefore personal as well as professional, I make no apology.

    I had to go and read BASW’s entire statement as I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing something. I wasn’t. I find it shocking for it’s naivety in assuming that the NAAB would be any more politically biased than any one of the 151 local authorities it seeks to retain the function for age assessments with and further shocking that it feels social workers would lack the support that it suggests there exists in these authorities if they were to work for the NAAB. It’s for the very reason that the current system is inadequate and does not function effectively that new legislation has been introduced. My own experience is evidence of that. Evidence also of the failure of another government programme, Prevent which my bomber was under for a year before he carried out his attack. This new system may in fact introduce more accuracy and consistency into those age assessments and by creating an agency with this express function, it could be argued that this is placing a higher priority on its importance to those children who seek our help and not less.

    So BASW, I don’t agree with the basis of your argument and nor do I agree with your message to social workers. I actually find your ignorance of the issues and your instruction to us bleakly terrifying. I would remind you that social workers are leaving the profession in droves despite the support you speak of in local authorities. I would remind you too that social workers carry out oppressive practices every single day and if you don’t believe me, go and speak to some of the children and families in this great system you speak of.

    It is a wisdom born out of tough experiences, BASW but can you start engaging with the real issues rather than creating the political bias you seem to be keen to accuse others of please? It’s distracting to those of us who realise how important this is.

    • Alec Fraher March 18, 2023 at 6:45 pm #

      Aftermath management is a totally ignored area. And for me as another work generated cptsd sufferer. Make Absolutely No Apologies Steve. Emotional Regulation, Eh! More not less ought to be said.

    • Ian Mackay March 19, 2023 at 8:22 am #

      I agree. Social Worker’s have always functioned within statutory services as agents of the state. Whilst this has included good intentioned interventions it has also included oppressive judgemental practice. Might an independent thinking Social Worker be better working within the governments age assessment system to challenge the Home Office approach?

      • Alec Fraher March 20, 2023 at 6:53 pm #

        That’s a tough call, Ian, although I get it entirely ~ I’d have looked at secondments as an option which may be what happens in any event.

        I’ve been looking for illustrations of decision-making protocols and the levels of determinations needed for such work. Taket and White (2000) suggest approaches like Participatory Rapid Appraisals (PAR) and Participatory Appraisal of Needs and Developmental Action (PANDA). Both offer a pluralism as is being advocated in the guidance too. And, theoretically speaking are derived from the likes of Habermas notion of communicative action ~ where the importance is attached to the Heideggerian notion of forgottenness ie not burying or losing sight of the child and Being a Child.

        For CPD see Ch13 Postmodern Systems Thinking in Creative Holisms for Managers by Michael.C. Jackson ~ my edition is dated so go for the latest Ed. Like Habermas, Lyotard is cited extensively.

  10. Alec Fraher March 21, 2023 at 3:13 am #

    It does, according to coverage in the Observer, appear that BASW are on point regarding, and specifically, the Braverman Bill. Thoughts….