Ruth Allen, the BASW chief executive (credit: BASW)
The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) has urged its members, and other social workers, not to work for a new Home Office agency established to assess the ages of unaccompanied asylum-seeking young people.
Its chief executive, Ruth Allen, said taking a job with the Home Office’s National Age Assessment Board (NAAB) was a “risk to professional objectivity and could compromise the judgment of social workers”, in the light of government rhetoric about adult asylum seekers exploiting the system by claiming to be children.
The NAAB will oversee a new system for age assessments established by the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, review local authority assessments and carry out its own in some situations, with the Home Office intending that it carries out a significant proportion of those currently conducted by local authorities.
The legislation provides for this either through direct referral from local authorities or where the home secretary doubts the authority’s conclusion as to a young person’s age, with the board’s verdict being final.
The act also provides for the use of controversial scientific methods to assess age – such as x-rays of wisdom teeth and hand and wrist bones and MRI scans of the knee and collar bones – though Home Office advisers concluded that these needed to be combined with social work assessments to increase reliability.
‘An appalling abuse of our system’ – Priti Patel
When announcing the plans at the start of last year, then home secretary Priti Patel said: “The practice of single grown adult men, masquerading as children claiming asylum is an appalling abuse of our system which we will end. By posing as children, these adult men go on to access children’s services and schools through deception and deceit; putting children and young adults in school and care at risk.”
BASW said that rhetoric such as this, along with the political priorities of the Home Office under Patel’s successor, Suella Braverman, risked “intruding on the professional objectivity” of social workers working for the NAAB because they were, ultimately, accountable to the home secretary.
Last week, Braverman published the Illegal Migration Bill, which received near-universal condemnation from children’s social care bodies because of proposals that would allow for unaccompanied young people who arrive in the UK without leave to enter to be detained, deported when they turn 18 – or potentially before – and to be placed outside the scope of the care system.
“Leaders shape the ethos of their organisations, and given the political rhetoric of both the current home secretary and previous home secretary the challenge is for managers and their staff to retain their professional objectivity,” the association said.
“By contrast, councils had a degree of independence from central government, allowing social workers to “make professional judgements, with appropriate support and guidance that allows them to assess age – and all that that implies – with a greater degree of objectivity free from the constraints and priorities of the Home Office.”
‘Not a criticism of individual social workers’
BASW stressed that its position “should not be interpreted as a criticism of [the] professional objectivity” of practitioners who have, or may, take up jobs at the NAAB, while those social workers would also not be denied any membership services by the association.
Age assessment outcomes
Home Office data shows that age assessments mostly, and increasingly, find that the claimant is under 18. This was true of:
- 48% of resolved cases (337 out of 701) in 2020.
- 51% of resolved cases (1,168 out of 2,295) in 2021.
- 62% of resolved cases (1,042 out of 1,693) in 2022.
The Home Office has been recruiting social workers to the NAAB since last year, with drives to bring in 40 practitioners last spring and 19 towards the end of 2022 and the start of this year. The department is planning for more recruitment campaigns through this year until the board is fully staffed.
In its latest recruitment round, the department said the NAAB would consist of “expert social workers dedicated to the task of conducting ‘Merton’ compliant age assessments”, in reference to the leading case on the issue, B v London Borough of Merton .
It said the NAAB aimed to strengthen and improve age assessment processes “to mitigate against safeguarding issues which arise if a child is inadvertently treated as an adult, and equally if an adult is wrongly accepted as a child and placed in accommodation with children to whom they could present a risk”.
‘Child-centred and trauma-informed’
Addressing potential recruits, it added: “You will ensure that the young people who are assessed are at the heart of what we do and adopt a child-centred and trauma-informed approach to working with young people and undertaking assessments.”
In response to BASW’s call, a Home Office spokesperson said: “Age assessments are challenging but vital to identifying genuine asylum-seeking children and [stopping] abuse of the system. We are taking steps to prevent adults claiming to be children, or children being wrongly treated as adults – as both present serious safeguarding risks to children.
“The National Age Assessment Board’s assessments and members of staff will be distinct from the Home Office’s asylum and immigration decision-making functions. The best interests of children and the aim of achieving accurate age assessments will be the primary consideration.”