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Lord Brightman: My Lords, if the noble Baroness will forgive me, she may have slightly misunderstood the amendment. There is no question of the health authority, local authorities or anyone else having to interrogate children. The amendment states:


and so on. It is entirely passive. No duty is thrown on any of the services unless the suspicion that a child has not been referred comes to light. There is no interrogation whatever.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord.

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I wish to make the point that if it came to the notice of any of those agencies that the child was an asylum seeker, under the present arrangements that fact would have been picked up and notified to the panel. There are all the informal arrangements. Social services departments telephone the Home Office from time to time about a child and so do health authorities and others. We prefer to leave it to the good will of authorities if it came to their notice that a child was an asylum seeker. The very fact that a child was an asylum seeker means that the authorities would know of it and a reference to the panel would have been made.

Lord Brightman: My Lords, I believe that my proper course is to read what has been said during the course of this short debate. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Brightman moved Amendment No. 61:


Before Clause 8, insert the following new clause--

Determination of age of asylum seeker

(". If apart from any travel documents held by a young unaccompanied asylum seeker a doubt would arise as to whether such child is or is not over the age of 18 years, such child shall not be assumed to be over the age of 18 years by reason only that the travel documents or any of them held by such child so state.").

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, together with this amendment I ask leave to speak also to Amendment No. 62. The amendments deal with the difficult question of the age of a young unaccompanied asylum seeker. Age is very important because special procedures and practice directions apply to an asylum seeker who is under the age of 18. I can give your Lordships five examples. The first is that once an immigration officer establishes that he is dealing with an unaccompanied asylum seeker who is under 18, he is required to alert the social services department of the local authority responsible for the area in which the entry point lies. Secondly, the Department of Health has issued a practice guide devoted entirely to unaccompanied asylum seekers under the age of 18. Thirdly, unaccompanied asylum seekers under the age of 18 have access to the Refugee Council's panel of advisers, as your Lordships know. Fourthly, there are special immigration rules issued by the Home Office which apply to asylum seekers under the age of 18. An important and well known rule is that interviews with a child under 18 have to be conducted in the presence of an independent adult. Fifthly, immigration officers are not supposed to send an unaccompanied asylum seeker to a detention centre if he is under 18, except as a last resort.

Amendment No. 61 provides that:


    "If apart from any travel documents held by a young unaccompanied asylum seeker a doubt would arise as to whether such child is or is not over the age of 18 years, such child shall not be assumed to be over the age of 18 years by reason only that the travel documents or any of them held by such child so state".
I am told by the Refugee Council and the Refugee Legal Centre that passports not infrequently exaggerate the age of an asylum seeker. The reason seems to be that some

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countries will not issue a passport to a person who is under the age of majority, which may be 18 years. So the asylum seeker arrives here with a passport saying that he is 20 when really he is only 16.

I have been given a number of examples by the Refugee Council and the Refugee Legal Centre of what may happen. In 1994 a refugee came from Angola, passport age 19, real age 16; he spent two-and-a-half years in a detention centre before his real age was established. Similar cases include a refugee in 1995 from Nigeria, passport age 23, real age 17, who spent almost a year in detention, another refugee from Nigeria in 1994, passport age 19, real age 16, who spent five months in detention, and a refugee from west Africa, passport age 29, real age 15, who was detained for three months; all until their real ages were established.

I turn to Amendment No. 62, which is intended to speed up the immigration process. As the leader in The Times said on Saturday in relation to immigration:


    "It cannot be beyond the powers of invention for Britain to speed up its procedures".
My invention for speeding up immigration procedures and so avoid wasting time ascertaining the age of an asylum seeker in cases where it is relevant is Amendment No. 62. The amendment reads:


    "The Secretary of State shall have power to establish a panel of paediatricians to enable him when he thinks fit to refer a child claiming to be a young unaccompanied asylum seeker to a member of such panel for the purpose of expressing an opinion whether such child is or is not over the age of 18 years. The opinion of such paediatrician shall be final in the absence of conclusive evidence to the contrary".
I wish to emphasise that the establishment of the panel and the use made of it is entirely at the discretion of the Secretary of State. The members of the panel will be selected by the Secretary of State. The amendment places in the hands of the Secretary of State a facility which he can use or not use, as he thinks fit. In my submission, the amendment can only be helpful to the Home Office. I hope that the Minister will feel able to give it favourable consideration. I beg to move.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon: My Lords, at Committee stage we discussed the difficult question of establishing the age of a young person, particularly when there was some doubt about whether the person was over or under the age of 18. I had some exchanges with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who resisted any means of determination which would somehow be invasive, particularly of the body of anyone concerned.

The proposals now before us are much more modest than those discussed in Committee. Amendment No. 61 simply asks that the travel document be not taken as in any way conclusive as to the age of a young unaccompanied asylum seeker. We have already given reasons why such people might travel on documents which give a false age and I do not wish to go over that ground again.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, made clear, Amendment No. 62 is a permissive power. It does not require the Secretary of State to do anything but gives him the power to establish such a panel and to refer a child claiming to be under the age of 18 to that

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panel. It meets the concerns expressed by the Minister when we discussed the matter in Committee. It seems to me that the set of amendments is a good way of responding to the concerns we expressed. As we said in Committee, there are a number of cases of those whose age is undetermined but who later are discovered to have been under the age of 18. In the meantime, they may have been treated as adults for a considerable period. It is important that we find some way of resolving the difficulty. I hope that the noble Baroness will find the proposed procedure acceptable.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I, too, am happy to support these amendments. The difficulty of determining the age of children is one that was extremely common in societies that did not have the benefit of large quantities of written records. Parish registers in this country were introduced precisely in order to bring an end to problems of exactly that type--which is why Thomas Cromwell remains to this day the great hero of English demographers.

There has to be some procedure one uses in the absence of written records. In this country they used to use the testimony of the oldest inhabitants. The difficulty with that was that it was not numerically determined in its memory of chronology. They remembered the "year of the great flood", or "the year when I broke my leg", which does not get us very much further. That will have been the state of affairs in the countries from which many asylum seekers come. That is why the age stated on their passports may not necessarily be correct. It will have been determined by methods that are rough and ready, very much like the ones we used to use here.

The method of determination by the oldest inhabitants is of course not available to us in the case of asylum seekers. The oldest inhabitants of the place where they were born are not here--and one presumes would hesitate to testify on their behalf if they were. So there has to be a method of refereeing the problem of determining age. My noble friend Lord Avebury made a very powerful case against the use of X-rays, which I understand also has the support of the BMA. If we are not to use that method--and in this case the Home Office is likely to be judge and jury in its own courts--the proposal for a panel of paediatricians to be appointed by the Home Secretary is the nearest way I can think of to bring the procedure under some sort of quasi-judicial regulation. It has to be done somehow. I cannot think of a better way of doing it than this. Therefore, I am happy to support the amendment.


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