MPs and peers express concern at government reforms on age assessment

MPs and peers have expressed concern at the age assessment provisions in the Nationality and Borders Bill, warning that the legislation could greatly increase the risk that a child is wrongly assessed to be an adult.

In a report, Legislative Scrutiny: Nationality and Borders Bill (Parts 1, 2 and 4) – Asylum, Home Office Decision-Making, Age Assessments, and Deprivation of Citizenship Orders, the Joint Committee on Human Rights said: “The Government intends to retain the benefit of the doubt for certain age-disputed persons, but that it intends to lower the threshold for giving the benefit of the doubt (which is currently extended to those who are assessed as being under 25 years old).

“The Committee warns that it must be borne in mind that there are severe consequences of mistakenly treating a child as an adult, which would amount to a denial of that child’s rights to education, support, and accommodation. Any lowering of the threshold increases the risk of wrongly identifying a child as an adult and unlawfully detaining a child in immigration detention.”

The JCHR also expressed concern at the power in the Bill for the Home Secretary to make regulations setting out specified scientific methods for assessing age is concerning.

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“The accuracy of potential methods, such as x-ray or dental analysis, has been questioned by various medical bodies and the use of such procedures can be considered unethical,” it said.

“The Committee is particularly concerned that refusal to consent to scientific procedures would be taken into account when determining the credibility of an age-disputed person who may be a child, and recommends removing this from the Bill.”

Warning that the Bill would greatly increase the risk that a child is wrongly assessed to be an adult, the JCHR said this “would mean they would not have access to support from children’s services, access to education and could be housed in conditions that are completely inappropriate”.

The report added that this would see the UK fail to meet its obligations under the UN Convention on Rights of the Child and risk breaching article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights depending on the severity of the child’s experience. 

A High Court judge recently ruled that guidance issued by the Home Office to social workers at the Kent Intake Unit (KIU) and age assessments carried out by them in relation to two claimants were unlawful.

Earlier this month the Home Secretary announced that the Home Office would establish a new Scientific Advisory Committee to provide advice on ways of checking how old an asylum seeker is.

The JCHR makes a number of other criticisms of the Bill, saying it risks exacerbating an “already unacceptable” backlog of asylum claims. Legislating to create different categories of refugee based on how they came to the UK would be inconsistent with the Refugee Convention and potentially a discriminatory breach of human rights, it said.

“Instead of combatting people smugglers, the legislation would penalise asylum claimants for not utilising ‘safe and legal routes’ that lack sufficient capacity to support them. This and other proposed reforms, including permitting more asylum claims to be rejected without consideration and introducing the possibility of offshore processing of asylum claims, risk undermining the humanitarian and cooperative principles on which refugee protection is founded.”

The Committee also called for the proposed removal of the obligation on the Secretary of State to give notice of deprivation of citizenship orders in certain circumstances, including in the interests of national security, foreign relations, and the public interest, to be ditched. “The Committee finds that avoiding the duty to give notice to an individual who is being stripped of their rights undermines the principle of fairness.”

Deputy Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Joanna Cherry QC MP said: “The UK has a proud history of championing the human rights of refugees. We should continue in this tradition and do all we can to be a place of welcome and support for people who have been persecuted. The bill is at odds with the refugee convention and with our human rights obligations and should be amended. 

“Rather than coming up with new punitive measures and lambasting the difficulties in rejecting asylum applications, the Government should focus on dealing with the lengthy backlog of cases. This needs to be achieved by better processing and adequate resourcing. Instead we have measures that would harm decision making, through needlessly penalising the late submission of evidence, and even cause further delays due to the new consideration of whether asylum seekers should have applied to another country first. 

"Fundamentally this bill increases the likelihood that the UK turns its back on people it should be helping. This would be wrong and the Government needs to rethink these proposals."

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