Ministers have delayed a decision on whether to use dental X-rays to help determine the age of asylum seeking children until the spring.
Home Office Minister Lord West, speaking in the House of Lords earlier this month, said the use of dental radiographs was still up in the air despite the idea being first mooted nine months ago.
The plan has been opposed by the British Dental Association (BDA) on the grounds that the X-rays are an inaccurate method of indicating age. The BDA has also said it would be inappropriate and unethical to compel individuals to take a radiograph when there is no direct health benefit to them.
But Lord West described X-rays, which are already used by some local authorities, as a ‘useful tool’. He stressed the importance of confirming the true age of the 3,000-odd children who entered the country alone each year.
The age of asylum seekers determines the services they are eligible for and how they are accommodated. Establishing their true age is intended to prevent children who arrive in the UK without documents such as birth certificates or passports being housed with adults and adults being accommodated with children.
Lord West said: ‘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.’
The minister admitted that the use of X-rays in age profiling was not perfect and had a margin of error of about two years either way. He said: ‘In about 95% 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. The technique is part of a package of measures that will enable us to identify the age of immigrants.’
Lord West said experts agreed the health risks from such radiation were ‘negligible’. The practice was ‘a common procedure in dentistry’, he added. He went on: ‘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.’
The regular use of X-rays in immigration control was first proposed in a draft government paper, Planning Better Outcomes and Support for Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children, published in March.
The initial consultation period finished in May, and ministers had planned to publish their response this autumn. It has now emerged nothing will come until the new year.
Lord West told peers: ‘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.’ He said later: ‘We are still consulting and this might not be the final outcome. We must wait until the paper comes out in the spring.’
This month the BDA, along with a number of other organisations with concerns about this issue, met Home Office Minister Liam Byrne to reiterate its opposition to the plans.
Peter Ward, chief executive of the Association, said: ‘The BDA opposes the use of dental radiographs to determine whether asylum seekers have reached the age of 18. This method isn’t accurate, appropriate or ethical. The BDA is gravely concerned by proposed changes to immigration rules to allow such practice. The BDA looks forward to the publication of the results of the government’s consultation in 2008.’
By Andy Tate, parliamentary correspondent