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Major Government defeat on dental age checks

This week the Government suffered a heavy defeat in the House of Lords on the issue of dental age checks. We were delighted to see Peers vote with a majority of 70 to pass an amendment we've lobbied for, which strengthens the safeguards around the use of scientific methods of estimating age of undocumented migrants.

We have vigorously opposed the 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.

We drafted a series of amendments on this issue for the Bill's Committee Stage, which would curb the use of so-called scientific methods of age assessment. Our amendments, tabled by Baroness Lister of Burtersett, were supported by Labour, Lib Dem, Green parties, as well as a number of crossbench Peers.

Due to time constraints, there could only be one vote on scientific methods of age assessment at the crunch Report Stage. So, opposition Peers combined key amendments on this issue into a longer composite New Clause 64A. This included our proposed requirement that any scientific method used for determining age has to first be deemed both ethical and accurate beyond reasonable doubt by the relevant dental, medical and scientific bodies.

New Clause 64A was supported by Lords from all parties and passed – despite the Government's opposition – by a significant majority. Of the six amendments the Lords defeated the Government on last night, this one enjoyed by far the most support.

Sponsor of New Clause 64A Baroness Neuberger outlined the evidence showing dental age checks were not accurate and the ethical arguments against their use. She reminded the Minister that the BDA have been "unequivocal in their rejection of the use of dental X-rays", considering them both unethical and inaccurate.

Co-sponsor Baroness Lister echoed her colleague's comments, challenging the Minister's assertion that the UK is an exception in Europe in not using ionising radiation for age checks, quoting BDA research on this issue. She urged the Minister again to ensure dental bodies are represented on the Age Estimation Scientific Advisory Committee, which has been tasked with determining which scientific methods are appropriate to use.

"Age assessment techniques must be proportionate and fair" urged Lord Carlile. "If any intrusive measures are to be taken —including dental X-rays — that must be based on proven evidence of scientific reliability, not vague opinions that it might add something."

In his first acknowledgment of the serious limitations of this method, Minister Lord Stewart of Dirleton said "we fully appreciate that these assessments are not of themselves accurate". He assured the Lords X-rays "are intended not to replace, but merely to augment" the existing social worker-led process.

New Clause 64A will now be subject to the approval of the House of Commons, and we will continue to lobby to ensure these measures remain in the Bill as it progresses onto the statute book.