Leaders and campaigners split over controversial plans for new age assessment board

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services says it supports the establishment of a new National Age Assessment Board, with the caveat that it “must be driven by a child-centric approach”, but campaigners oppose the changes.

12/05/21

Leaders and campaigners split over controversial plans for new age assessment board

In March this year, the Home Office published their New Plan for Immigration (NPI), a document outlining changes to process and legislation regarding refugees and migrants in the UK, including the establishment of a new National Age Assessment Board (NAAB).

The new immigration plans were accompanied by an engagement and consultation process that ran for 6 weeks, with many social workers and campaigners criticising the “serious ramifications” of the proposals.

Claiming that the UK is one of the only countries in Europe not to use scientific age assessment methods, the Home Office proposed to “strengthen and clarify” the framework for determining the age of people seeking asylum.

The proposal to introduce a new National Age Assessment Board (NAAB), the Home Office says, will “set out the criteria, process and requirements to be followed to assess age, including using the most up to date scientific technology.”

“NAAB functions may include acting as a first point of review for any Local Authority age assessment decision and carrying out direct age assessments itself where required or where invited to do so by a Local Authority,” the NPI states.

Charlotte Ramsden, President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, gave conditional support for the plans.

“ADCS supports the establishment of a new NAAB, however, this must be driven by a child-centric approach,” Ramsden said, adding that “any assessment carried out must also be thorough as well as timely as whilst the age of an individual is unknown they will likely be supported and accommodated as a child.”

Ramsden added that the NAAB will need to be “sufficiently resourced given the significant number of age disputes” local authorities see on an annual basis, and warned against plans in the NPI to consider creating a requirement on Local Authorities to either undertake full age assessments or refer people to the NAAB for assessment where they have reason to believe that someone’s age is being incorrectly given.

The new ADCS President added that the organisation supported the introduction of codified age assessment criteria – including the future use of scientific methods – so long as they were “subject to agreement and thorough research evidence as to their effectiveness.”

The Home Office says the controversial plans will “increase the fairness and efficacy of our system so that we can better protect and support those in genuine need of asylum,” deter illegal entry into the UK, and remove more easily from the UK those with no right to be here.

However, Social Workers Without Borders (SWWB) – a charity offering voluntary support to asylum seekers and refugees said that – contrary to the Government line that the plans are to build a fairer and safer system, say that “the tone and content of the plan is clearly intended to build a narrative of illegality and criminality around people in the UK who have insecure immigration status and people who are seeking refuge here.”

SWWB draws attention to the “scant detail” about who the board will employ, the increased powers for immigration officials, and the proposed change to doubt a person’s claimed age if they “appear significantly over the age of 18 years” – moved from the current standard which questions only where their physical appearance and demeanour strongly suggests they are over 25 years of age.

“Our experience is that these assessments at the border are fundamentally flawed because they are undertaken by immigration officers or Home Office social workers doing 'short-form' assessments, and they are not child-centred, multi-agency, holistic assessments.

“Children need recuperation and safety before a proper assessment of their needs can be undertaken.”

In a specialist newsletter on the changes, SWWB say that so-called scientific methods to assess age have been previously debunked, and the use of the phrase ‘scientific evidence’ “creates the illusion of certainty where there cannot be”. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health itself states that there is a 5 year margin of error with medical assessments.

“NPI presents the issue of age assessments as a safeguarding concern by stating that adults are ending up in services for children and it completely fails to recognise the very serious safeguarding concern for children being wrongly assessed as adults and ending up unsupported in adult accommodation or detention facilities,” SWWB say.

On the subject of the increased powers for immigration officials, the ADCS President added “it will be essential that immigration officials receive thorough training so that we have consistency in decision-making at the initial stage.”

“Engaging with gateway local authorities in particular will be key here as they have a lot of expertise in this area. The safety and best interests of asylum-seeking children must be at the heart of any reforms or decisions made.”

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