The Nationality and Borders Bill is nearing the end of its stages in the House of Commons, and will be passed over to the House of Lords by the end of the year. Last week, a committee of MPs finished examining each clause in the bill, and a date will now be set for Report Stage – when the bill is debated by all MPs, and when new amendments can be made.
Committee Stage gave MPs an opportunity to reflect on the detail of the main parts of the bill – including the key elements on the asylum system, which would see refugees treated differently for the way they arrive in the UK, be criminalised for entering irregularly, and potentially be flown overseas to have their asylum application processed in another country.
But it also saw substantial changes made to the bill itself, most notably for people seeking asylum whose age is uncertain. Although the Home Office has stated for some time its intentions to reform how it treats these applicants and, crucially, whether they are deemed children or adults, the Government only chose to add the detail to the bill very late, undermining any scrutiny of the plans.
Refugee Council works with hundreds of children every year who have their age disputed – that is, where the Home Office or a local authority believes them to be an adult when they say they are a child.
It is vital that all children are treated as children, and given the support they need, including access to services such as education and foster care. Many children each year are wrongly assessed as adults, and then have to live with adult strangers in asylum accommodation. Ultimately, these children have a right to a full age assessment from a trained social worker, but Government now wants to change the process whereby local authority social workers, by conducting assessments where they see fit, have the main responsibility for deciding who is a child and who is not.
The new clauses that the Government voted to include in the bill enable new methods of assessing the age of an unaccompanied child, including ‘examining and measuring parts of a person’s body’ and ‘the analysis of saliva, cell or other samples taken from a person’.
Determining a person’s age is a notoriously difficult process, and there is no fully objective way to do so. It is tempting to reach for a ‘magic bullet’ as the government is doing, and if there was one, most stakeholders would agree that this would provide the certainty we all seek. Professional bodies like the British Dental Association do not believe that dental x-rays, can ever accurately tell you someone’s age, but do recognise that they are deeply intrusive for young people.
Although under the new plans a young person will have to consent to any such method, the bill explicitly states that a decision-maker should consider the credibility of a young person to be compromised if they refuse to assent to a ‘scientific’ method. The proposals, therefore, seek to acquire consent via a threat, and put vulnerable and traumatised young people in a terrible position.
Ultimately there is no perfect method to assess age, but Government must retain safeguards to protect children who come to the UK seeking protection, and who have often experienced deep trauma.
The Government’s new plans are not supported by the scientific community and are likely to lead to more children being incorrectly identified as adults, losing the support they need and exposing them to risk. Decision-makers must urgently reconsider, and MPs should vote instead at the upcoming Report Stage to ensure the UK retains its commitment to protect all children that seek help here.