My Lords, this Government have not commissioned the use of X-rays to assess age. We are aware that some age assessments by local authorities are supported by X-ray analysis. We are considering a change to our policy, as we need to improve age assessment procedures to stop the abuse of the asylum and children’s support system caused by adults claiming to be children.
My Lords, was not the procedure of using medical or dental X-rays on children for age determination brought to an end by William Whitelaw, as he was then, in February 1982? No official X-rays have been taken of children since then for the reasons given by the British Dental Association and other professional bodies: the procedures are inaccurate, inappropriate and unethical. Will the Minister acknowledge that there are no studies that would enable one to compare the dental development of a child seeking asylum at one of our ports of entry against data from populations in the countries of origin, such as Eritrea or China, and to make a reasonably accurate assessment?
My Lords, it is certainly true that the policy on this was settled in 1982, but things have changed since then, and there have been improvements in the reliability of the use of X-ray material for age determination. I accept the general point often made that there is no absolute precision. Several of our EU partners, such as Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, use X-ray records and X-rays as a way of helping them to decide the age of a young person.
My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the consensus in medical opinion is that it is totally inappropriate and, indeed, unethical to expose young people to even the minimal radiation involved in taking such X-rays? It is a potentially harmful technique.
My Lords, I do not accept the noble Lord’s thesis. X-rays are commonly used in dental procedures. Many noble Lords will doubtless have had an X-ray taken of their teeth recently. There are, I accept, some concerns about this, which is why we are approaching the issue with care and sensitivity.
My Lords, is there not a very practical measure that the Government could introduce, which has so far proved successful in America in determining age and in protecting children who arrive at airports with an adult who cannot prove that they are the child’s parent or guardian? Why not start a system whereby the child must have a separate interview, away from that adult, to try to get to the truth of the matter, rather than expose them, perhaps, to the risk of being taken away by a trafficker?
My Lords, that is a practical suggestion; no doubt those interviewing techniques are used from time to time. Most of our concerns are focused on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. One of the most important of those concerns is child protection.