The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Stewart of Dirleton) (Con)
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will also speak to Motions P, Q, R and S. Let me begin with Amendment 22, which inserts a new clause relating to age assessment. I reiterate to the House that assessments are and will only be used when necessary. There is no appetite to use them when there is no doubt of an asylum seeker’s age. As we have discussed in previous debates, failure to ensure proper assessments are conducted on individuals whose age is doubted creates obvious safeguarding concerns. It can also create a plethora of risks to the most vulnerable, to children in our schools and care systems and to asylum seekers themselves.
The problem with this amendment is that it creates numerous restrictions on our ability to use age assessments and risks, perpetuating the very real challenges within the current system. First, this amendment would mean that only local authority social workers would be able to undertake age assessments under the Bill. This would curtail our ability to support overburdened local authorities in this difficult task, given that there is significant variation between local authorities in experience, capacity and resource to undertake age assessments. It is the Government’s intention to establish a national age assessment board with qualified expert social workers employed by the Home Office, specialising in age assessments, to improve the quality and consistency of decision-making and to relieve the burden on local authorities where local authorities choose to refer a case. It is not our intention to increase the percentage of age assessments conducted, and local authorities will retain the ability to conduct these assessments themselves if they wish to do so.
Secondly, the amendment would mean that scientific methods of age assessment are specified in regulations only if they are
“ethical and accurate beyond reasonable doubt”
as approved by relevant professional bodies. The UK is one of very few European countries that does not currently employ scientific methods of age assessment. We have already set up an independent interim Age Estimation Science Advisory Committee to advise on the accuracy and associated ethical considerations of scientific methods. No one method of age assessment is entirely accurate, so this amendment sets an unreasonable expectation for what scientific methods could achieve, especially when they will be used in tandem with other evidence from social workers and others as part of an holistic approach.
In addition, I stress that although there are questions about the accuracy of scientific methods, we simply do not know how accurate or reliable the current approach of the Merton-compliant age assessment is. We are aware of cases where individuals have been assessed to be of vastly different ages when assessed independently by different social workers in different local authorities. Genuine children whose ages are in doubt will therefore benefit from more informed decision-making as a result of supplementing the current age assessment process with scientific methods with known accuracy—or a known margin of doubt, I perhaps might more accurately say—and reducing the risk that children may be misidentified as adults and vice versa.
We also contest the idea that professional bodies should be required to approve scientific methods, because any scientific method proposed will be considered by the independent Age Estimation Science Advisory Committee. The committee, formed by the Home Office chief scientific adviser, will comprise representatives of the relevant professions and will consider the scientific, ethical and contextual issues and provide advice to the Home Office, via its chief scientific adviser, on appropriate methods.
Finally, the amendment would lower the current standard of proof for social worker age assessments from the “balance of probabilities”, which is long established in case law, to a “reasonable degree of likelihood”. Lowering this standard would require social workers to accept as children individuals whom, on balance, they believe to be adults. On this basis, I put it that we cannot accept this amendment, to which the other place disagrees for its Reason 22A.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has tabled further amendments on age assessment—Amendments 22B to 22F. Although I recognise the intent behind them, I cannot support their inclusion for a number of reasons. First, I reassure the noble Baroness that social workers conducting age assessments for the national age assessment board will of course be able to refer to comprehensive guidance that, in line with standard practice, will be published and accessible on GOV.UK.
Although the vast majority of age assessments are expected to take place following referral from a local authority, the legislation provides the flexibility to enable other public authorities to refer cases in the event that this becomes necessary for the delivery of their official functions. The specification of any additional public authorities through regulation would of course occur following consultation with them and is therefore not considered to be controversial.
Secondly, we have already commissioned the independent interim Age Estimation Science Advisory Committee to advise on both scientific and ethical aspects of scientific age assessment. In line with the noble Baroness’s proposals, this committee in fact comprises expertise from the relevant disciplines, and the Home Secretary will seek advice from it via the Home Office chief scientific adviser before specifying a method in regulations. On this basis I ask the noble Baroness not to move her Motion.
I now bring back to the House’s attention Amendments 23 and 24, to which the other place has disagreed because of its Reasons 23A and 24A. These amendments remove provisions from the Bill relating to late compliance with a slavery or trafficking information notice—or STIN. The Government are determined to deliver the right outcomes for victims while focusing resources where they are needed. This will ensure that potential victims of modern slavery are proactively identified as early as possible.
However, we have listened to the concerns raised by your Lordships’ House and appreciate that there may be particular vulnerabilities for children, which is why the vulnerability of children will be included in our “good reasons” guidance. This is why the Government have now tabled their Amendment 24B, to exempt from the Bill’s credibility provisions those who were under 18 when the most recent STIN was served. Therefore, if an individual were under 18 on the date of service of the most recent STIN, these provisions would not apply and there would be no obligation on decision-makers to find the individual’s credibility to be damaged. I hope that this reassures the House that the needs of children are being taken into account by this Government when identifying victims of modern slavery. I commend this Motion to the House.
Amendments 25 and 25B in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, replace the original provision for disqualification from modern slavery protections where an individual is a threat to public order, or has claimed to be a victim in bad faith, with a new clause. Unfortunately, however, Amendment 25 does not provide a definition for “public order” at all, and Amendment 25B defines “public order” as coming into play only when an individual has been convicted of a terrorist offence—and even then, only in exceptional circumstances.