The Government is to bring forward plans to introduce a new National Age Assessment Board (NAAB) and consult on creating a fast-track statutory appeal right against age assessment decisions it makes “to avoid excessive judicial review litigation”, the Home Office has said.
The New Plan for Immigration: Policy Statement, unveiled by Home Secretary Priti Patel this week, claimed that the current legal process to assess age is “highly subjective and often subject to prolonged and expensive legal disputes”.
It suggested that adult claimants “can take advantage of a fragmented system to pass themselves off as children, benefitting from additional protections properly reserved for the most vulnerable”.
As a result, many adults claimed to be children, the policy statement argued.
“In some cases, multiple assessments are required before confirming whether an individual is a child or not. The cost of repeated assessments and legal challenges can exceed thousands of pounds of public money. The result is prolonged uncertainty over many months, sometimes years, for the person to be assessed,” it claimed.
“Conversely, we have examples of adults freely entering the UK care and school system, being accommodated and educated with vulnerable children.”
The policy statement puts forward reforms the Home Office argues “will overhaul the end-to-end process for determining the age of claimants whose age is uncertain, making it more consistent and robust from the outset, whilst harnessing new scientific technologies alongside existing methods”.
The Home Office said it would strengthen and clarify the framework for determining the age of people seeking asylum.
The NAAB, once introduced, will set out the criteria, process and requirements to be followed to assess age, “including using the most up to date scientific technology”.
Such new age assessment criteria, once proposed by the NAAB, will be set out in secondary legislation.
The policy statement added that 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 New Plan for Immigration also proposes legislation so that front-line immigration officers and other staff who are not social workers are able to make reasonable initial assessments of age.
“Currently, an individual will be treated as an adult where their physical appearance and demeanour strongly suggests they are ‘over 25 years of age’. We are exploring changing this to ‘significantly over 18 years of age’,” the Home Office said, adding that social workers would be able to make straightforward under/over 18 decisions with additional safeguards.
The Home Office will also consider creating a requirement on local authorities to either undertake full age assessments or refer to people to the NAAB for assessment where they have reason to believe that someone’s age is being incorrectly given, “in line with existing safeguarding obligations”.
There will also be a consultation on creating a fast-track statutory appeal right against age assessment decisions of the NAAB “to avoid excessive judicial review litigation”.
The Home Office insisted that the Government was committed to protecting children and vulnerable people. “But we cannot allow adults to claim to be children. In 2019, the UK received more asylum claims from unaccompanied children than any other European country, including Greece and Italy. Since 2015, the UK has received, on average, more than 3,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children per year.”
It suggested that where age was disputed and resolved from 2016-2020, 54% were found to be adults.
The policy statement said that on average, the Home Office provides £46,000 each year to local authorities to look after each unaccompanied asylum-seeking child.
“We cannot take lightly the very serious safeguarding risks if people over 18 are treated as children and placed in settings, including schools, with children. As well as the obvious safeguarding risks, it also reduces the resources available to help other children,” the document said.
It also suggested that the UK was one of the only countries in Europe not to use scientific age assessment methods to help determine a person’s age when they arrive into the country. Various scientific methods are used to assess age in, among others, Sweden, Norway, France, Germany and the Netherlands, it said.
The Home Office said the New Plan for Immigration had the following three objectives overall:
- To increase the fairness and efficacy of our system so that we can better protect and support those in genuine need of asylum
- To deter illegal entry into the UK, thereby breaking the business model of criminal trafficking networks and protecting the lives of those they endanger
- To remove more easily from the UK those with no right to be here
Among the headline proposals is that, for the first time, whether people enter the UK legally or illegally will have an impact on how their asylum claim progresses, and on their status in the UK if that claim is successful. The plan also sets out a ‘one-stop’ process to require all claims to be made upfront.
The engagement and consultation process will run for 6 weeks from 24 March 2021.