UK Border Agency suspends asylum X-ray pilot

By Lauren Higgs

| 27 April 2012

The UK Border Agency (UKBA) has suspended plans to pilot the use of dental X-ray assessments on age-disputed asylum-seekers.

The four UK children's commissioners believe the trial could put children at risk of unnecessary exposure to medical radiation

Zilla Bowell, director of asylum at UKBA, confirmed the trial has been put on hold after it emerged that government should have sought ethical approval for the scheme, which qualifies as health “research”.

The move was prompted by chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies, who raised concerns about whether the pilot required such approval when the scheme was announced.

In a letter to stakeholders, Bowell said: “We have discussed our proposed trial with the National Research Ethics Service (NRES) as the chief medical officer suggested.”

“NRES has concluded that our proposed trial constitutes ‘research’ and that, as such, it requires the approval of a research ethics committee before it can proceed.”

She went on: “This conclusion was contrary to our expectations – our view was that the trial did not constitute ‘research’ and that ethical approval was not therefore necessary.  However, the agency respects the view of the NRES.”

The trial was due to be run in conjunction with Croydon Council and Professor Graham Roberts of King’s College Hospital.

UKBA now intends to work with Croydon and Professor Roberts to seek formal ethical approval from the NRES, so that the trial can go ahead.

Bowell emphasised the fact that any trial would be “entirely voluntary” and said that asylum claims would not be conditional on the scheme, insisting “no adverse inference would be drawn if an individual decided not to participate”.

“No X-rays will take place until such time as we have the appropriate ethical approval,” she said.

“The NRES has confirmed that it is satisfied that there has been no activity connected to the trial that would have required ethics approval. On this basis, it is satisfied that we have not breached the Research Governance Framework.”

She added: “I believe that we should strive to improve the age assessment process – because of the potential child safeguarding benefits that it will bring, in terms of ensuring that both children and adults are diverted to age-appropriate services, and because of the potential benefits in terms of improving immigration control.”

The Home Office announced the dental X-ray pilot scheme, which started on 29 March, through a letter emailed to stakeholders the previous day.

The four UK children's commissioners launched a bid to halt the trial when it was announced last month.

They said they were “appalled” by the scheme and warned that it could be illegal since children may be unable to give informed consent to take part and it could put them at risk of unnecessary exposure to medical radiation.

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