By Charlotte Webster-
The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) has expressed a strong disapproval of its members and other social workers taking up work for a new Home Office agency established to assess the ages of unaccompanied asylum-seeking young people.
The entire situation arose from the political rhetoric that individuals were claiming to be asylum seekers when they were not, and claiming to be child asylum seekers as a way of exploiting the system.
The BASW report states that children wrongly assessed as adults risk losing vital rights and their needs not being met, and adults wrongly assessed as children can present safeguarding risks for other children. Children wrongly assessed as adults risk losing vital rights and their needs not being met.
It has led to the Home Office seeking to recruit social workers to assess the true age of respective asylum seekers, but the BASW believes the proposal raises a severe conflict of interest.
BASW expressed its concerns that since the NAAB is part of the Home Office and therefore accountable to the Home Secretary, this could lead to age assessment work being influenced by political priorities such as reducing immigration, with worrying implications for child welfare.
The organisation also highlighted a shortfall in adequate resources, appropriate supervision and a line management structure that understands the purpose and function of social work. The organisational capacity and capability held by local authorities has taken many decades to develop and it seems unlikely a new agency can recreate this overnight.
Without these appropriate structures and support, a social worker’s professionalism risks being severely compromised, it added.
It further said: “The Home Office directly employing social workers to carry out age assessments of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children is a risk to professional objectivity and could compromise the judgment of social workers.”
It said given this risk of political priorities intruding on professional objectivity BASW is
informing social workers that currently the context for professional decision making
risks being compromised by working for the NAAB and this has important
consequences for human rights.
BASW is therefore discouraging our members, as well as other social workers, from
applying for, or accepting these roles.
Referring to comments made by the home secretary, Suella Braverman that individuals pretend to be child asylum seekers to exploit the system, Allen said: “Previous statements by the home secretary have undermined confidence that age assessments could be carried out in a Home Office agency that is free from political interference.
The Act made a number of changes to how age assessment is undertaken, one of which was to gradually move age assessments from local authorities to the National Age Assessment Board (NAAB). The NAAB is part of the Home Office, and is accountable to the Home Secretary.
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 board is designed to oversee a new system for age assessments established by the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and review local authority assessments with the Home Office.
The act also supports 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.
Home Office advisers concluded these were needed to be combined with social work assessments to increase reliability.
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 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.
Social care bodies last week slammed Braverman’s Illegal Migration Bill because of its proposals which would allow for unaccompanied young people who arrive in the UK without leave to enter to be detained, deported when they turn 18 or before then, and 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.”
BASW emphasised 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.
The Home Office has been recruiting social workers to the NAAB since last year, and plans for more recruitment campaigns throughout this year until the board is fully staffed.
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”.
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.”