We have vigorously opposed Home Office's plans to use dental X-rays to determine whether asylum seekers have reached the age of 18, stressing they are an inaccurate and unethical method for assessing age. Part 4 of the Nationality and Borders Bill gives the Home Secretary the power to define what scientific methods of age assessment could be used in migration cases in subsequent regulations.
Amendments we drafted – tabled by Baroness Lister of Burtersett and supported by Peers across the House – would strengthen the safeguards around the use of dental X-ray age checks. They would ensure any scientific method used for determining age has to first be deemed both accurate and ethical by the relevant dental, medical and scientific bodies, and also that migrants would not suffer consequences for refusing to undergo radiographic age tests.
Despite consideration on these amendments starting at 2.20am, there was a lively debate on this important issue, with Labour, Lib Dem, Green and crossbench Peers all united in their support for our amendments.
Baroness Lister reminded the Minister that "the BDA has been unequivocal in their condemnation of the use of dental age checks." She outlined the evidence showing such tests were not accurate, the ethical arguments against their use, and best practice from other European countries, and urged the Government to listen to dental experts on this issue. She also asked the Minister to ensure the newly created Age Estimation Science Advisory Committee includes a member that represents dental national bodies. "Dentists are health professionals, not border guards. They should be allowed to put their patients' health first" she concluded.
Baroness Neuberger echoed her colleague's comments about avoidable use of ionising radiation being morally wrong. She concluded: "will the Government put a commitment to obtain written approval from relevant medical and dental bodies on the face of this Bill? That is the very least that we can expect of something that is, on the face of it, so unethical."
Lord Paddick stressed that dentists consider it to be unethical to expose anyone to radiation from x-rays unnecessarily for non-clinical purposes. Shadow Home Office Minister Lord Coaker also stated his support for the amendments, arguing no scientific methods of age assessment should be used without the approval from the relevant professional bodies.
Minister Lord Stewart of Dirleton said that "given the challenges of assessing an individual's age, we see no good reason why the use of such techniques should not be properly explored in this country". However, he assured the House that the Home Secretary would consider relevant scientific advice before deciding which methods of age assessment to allow.
Many Lords criticised the Government for not allowing adequate scrutiny of these important measures, reminding them that the part of the Bill which deals with age assessments was added too late for the Commons to seek amendments to it, and stressing it was "ridiculous" that they were made to stay up past 3am to debate it. "An issue as important and sensitive as this deserves detailed and in-depth scrutiny, and the Government have made it very difficult to deliver that" concluded Baroness Lister, adding "this is not the kind of scrutiny these clauses deserve, and I think it will be important that we scrutinise them better at Report Stage".
We hope our amendments will be further debated and voted on at Report Stage next month, and we continue to campaign against the use of radiation for non-clinical purposes.