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Immigration: X-rays

Volume 697: debated on Thursday 13 December 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What representations they have received against the use of X-rays as an aid to age determination in immigration control.

My Lords, we have been consulting about various proposed changes to the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children system, including whether there is scope to use dental X-ray analysis to assess age. We plan to publish the results of the consultation early in the new year.

My Lords, in the changes to the rules that have now been published there is no mention of medical examinations. Does that mean that, apart from the weighty arguments that have been received by the Government from many expert bodies, such as the BMA, the BDA, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and so on, the Government also agree with the opinion expressed by Mr Nicholas Blake QC that it would be unlawful to subject persons claiming to be minors to ionising radiation as, it appears, would have been permitted by the original draft of the rules? I thank the Government for apparently coming to the right decision about X-rays, but would it not have been better to have consulted those professional bodies of experts before publishing the draft?

My Lords, we have been following a consultation process. We issued the paper Planning Better Outcomes and Support for Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children in March this year. The consultation period finished at the end of May, and we hoped to publish a response and a summary of what individuals thought, including medical opinions, in October. However, the timetable has slipped because it has taken rather longer than we expected, particularly with regard to funding and local authority funding. We are aware of the opinion of a number of learned doctors. My honourable friend Liam Byrne was invited to speak with a team of them before Christmas, and that will be part of the consultation leading to where we go from here.

My Lords, how accurate is dental age profiling perceived to be? Does the Minister agree with the Children’s Commissioner that such X-rays have a margin of error of about two years, which might produce fairly inaccurate results on children seeking asylum?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct. In about 95 per cent of cases it is within plus or minus two years, but this technique, combined with a social worker’s assessment and other techniques, can narrow down the possible range of ages. It is therefore a useful tool. People sometimes use dental X-rays to try to prove their own age. They are also used by many EU countries. However, it is because of the concern that has been expressed that we are having further consultation. The technique is part of a package of measures that will enable us to identify the age of immigrants.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is a general opinion that X-rays that are not advisable for medical reasons should be discontinued?

My Lords, we are aware of the point raised by my noble friend, although all the experts we have talked with agree that the risks to health from this radiation are negligible. It is a common procedure in dentistry.

My Lords, the Minister said that it was plus or minus two years. When you are trying to establish the age of an unaccompanied child for immigration purposes, that is very unsatisfactory. Have not two local authorities piloted other procedures which are satisfactory? Is the Minister aware of them?

My Lords, as I stated, we use the X-ray technique in conjunction with other measures such as social workers talking to these people and assessing their age by other means. When these are put together as a package it is very useful. We are talking about significant numbers of people coming in and claiming to be of this age. About 3,000 unaccompanied children come into the country every year and in the region of 1,000 to 2,000 people claim to be of this age. There are very serious issues here. If we put an adult into the children’s arena it raises serious child protection issues when he gains access to their support, accommodation and so on. It is extremely important to try to narrow down the age.

My Lords, if the margin of error can be as much as two years, can we be assured that no decisions will be taken on these matters exclusively on the basis of such data?

My Lords, that is correct. Indeed, we bend over backwards to ensure that the error tends to be the other way. That is why I am concerned about these child protection issues. The number of children who have been returned to any country is very small. We are careful not to use X-rays as the sole data, but they are useful. We are still consulting and this might not be the final outcome. We must wait until the paper comes out in the spring.

My Lords, I have been trying to read dental X-rays for about 40 years. Once the wisdom teeth have been removed it would be impossible to tell how old a patient is from looking at dental X-rays.

My Lords, I admit I am not an expert in reading dental plates but I am assured it is plus or minus two years. As I say, in conjunction with the other methods we use, it is a useful tool. This is why we are continuing the consultation. It would be wonderful if there was a magic bullet which allowed us to identify age exactly. The cost of dealing with these people who are not children is about £140 million a year—which is quite a lot of money—and there are also these risks to youngsters. We must push on to try to do the best we can on this.

My Lords, is it a fact that all our immigration controls now go to Brussels as a result of the Lisbon treaty?

My Lords, that is not correct. We are not fully part of the Schengen agreement. Although the EU has issued a procedures directive there is further work to be done. We have not yet decided fully that dental X-rays are the right procedure and therefore we do not think it is wise to include those EU changes in our rules at the moment. We shall have to wait until we have further consultation.

My Lords, the statement on the changes in the immigration rules has just been published and is now law. The original draft of Rule 352 included the possibility of medical examinations with a view to establishing age. In the final version of Rule 352, that does not appear. The conclusion that was drawn by all the agencies was that the Government had dropped the proposal. If they go ahead with dental X-rays, do they intend to publish yet another statement of changes in the rules?