Children's Rights in the UK
Extract from the NGO alternative report on the UK Implementation of the Convention on the rights of the Child
Submitted to the Committee on the Rights of the Child – England by the NGO (England) drafting committee, co-ordinated by the Children's Rights Alliance for England, February 2008
The committee, established in 2007, includes Action on Rights for Children (ARCH); APPROACH; Brook; Child Poverty Action Group; Children's Rights Alliance for England; The Children's Society; ECPAT UK; Howard League for Penal Reform; Medical Foundation for the Care of the Victims of Torture; National Association for Youth Justice; National Children's Bureau; National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC); Refuge; Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health advocacy committee; Save the Children UK; and UNICEF UK.
This report has been compiled by the Children's Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) and endorsed by other NGOs in England. A separate submission is being made by children and young people from the Get ready for Geneva project. We make 152 recommendations for improvements in the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in England; we consider 100 of these to be urgent – action is necessary within at least six months of the UK examination.
There have been some significant improvements since 2002, with new legislation requiring local authorities to tackle inequalities among young children a strengthening of equality legislation, and a continued emphasis by government on children's right to be heard and taken seriously. Child protection legislation has in some respects been strengthened, and the fight to end child poverty – and its symptoms such as homelessness and health and educational inequalities – continues. Children now have their own Cabinet Minister who, among other things, advocates their right to play and take risks, and for the first time the UK is undertaking a public consultation on its immigration and nationality reservation to the Convention. The 10-year Children's Plan makes reference to the Convention in a way that has never before been seen in a Government document.
Yet still this is not a country where every child can enjoy their human rights and reach their maximum potential. We have the fourth richest economy in the world and the second worst infant mortality rate of the 24 wealthiest countries. There is a 14-year difference in life expectancy between children born into the best and worst circumstances.
In our capital city alone, 41 babies' lives each year would be saved were it not for poverty.
A third of children in the UK live in poverty; in some places this rises to 50 per cent. The Government has a policy of deliberate destitution for failed asylum seeking families, according to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. Our report shows the discriminatory treatment of asylum seeking families and separated children, not least in the continued use of immigration removal centres (detention). Alternatives to detention are currently being piloted but still families are subject to institutionalised rules, with the last meal of the day at 5.30pm and children having to miss school one day a week to report to immigration. The benefit rate to asylum seeking parents is 30 per cent lower than it is to other parents; asylum seekers are not allowed to work; and local authorities too often shun their legal obligations to separated children.
In 2002, the Committee expressed strong concerns about the treatment of children in trouble with the law. Other human rights bodies have repeated these concerns. There has been no increase in the age of criminal responsibility (10 years in England), no significant reduction in the number of children held in custody, and no review of the impact on children of orders in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Six more children have died in custody, taking the total number of child deaths since 1990 to 30. There has not been a single public inquiry into a child's death in custody. The Howard League for Penal Reform has managed to force a public inquiry relating to the treatment of an extremely vulnerable child in custody. SP was moved from a secure children's home to a women's prison on her seventeenth birthday. She was put on suicide watch and in solitary confinement, often staying in her cell for 22 hours a day. She ate meals alone in her cell and her only exercise was taken in a metal cage. SP's self-harming injuries were so serious whilst in prison that she had to be taken to hospital for blood transfusions. After leaving prison, she was placed in a mental hospital.
The inquests of two children that died in restraint-related incidents were held in 2007. These, and a host of Parliamentary Questions and Freedom of Information disclosures, brought information into the public domain that we assume was already known by Ministers and senior Prison officials. Children being deliberately (and routinely) hit on the nose as a means of restraint; oxygen being used to resuscitate children following restraint; handcuffs being used on children in custody; staff glorifying their violence by giving each other nicknames like 'mauler' and 'crusher'; and surveys of children in custody revealing high levels of victimisation – from staff as well as other children. The UK's report says that each child has access to an independent advocate. What the report doesn't say is that most children do not get to spend time with an advocate. The majority of children know how to make a complaint in prison, but few believe complaints will be sorted fairly. Inspections of nine prisons between 2005 and 2007 show that most children do not get more than two visits from their family and friends a month. Growing boys usually get less than an hour of outdoor exercise a day. One in 10 children in custody have children of their own.
The civil rights of all children have been eroded since the last examination, with plans for a national electronic database of all 11 million children. Another database will keep records of children using services – it is estimated about 50 per cent of the child population will be included in this. Local councils have powers to disperse groups of children (as well as adults) and the police can remove children from the streets after 9pm.
Schools have much wider powers to punish the behaviour of children, including for actions away from the school building. Extended powers of restraint, as well as the growth in cameras, electronic tracking and body searching are changing the culture of schools in our country. At the same time, teacher unions point out that children in England are the most tested in Europe, with children taking about 70 tests by the time they reach 16. The school day has been extended, with breakfast and after school clubs yet Ministers still resist giving students the kind of consultation rights they have in other settings such as health and social care. Parents must keep children indoors for the first five days following school exclusion – even a trip to a museum or theatre is not permitted. Sanctions are being introduced for 16 and 17 year-olds that do not take up their 'right' to education.
In October 2007, the Government announced the results of its review into the impact of section 58 of the Children Act 2004, which removed the defence of reasonable chastisement for actual bodily harm, grievous bodily harm, wounding or ill-treatment but introduced the "reasonable punishment" defence for common assault. Only 1 per cent of respondents said that the 2004 Act had increased child protection, yet Ministers claim no further action is necessary. The Committee in 2002 urged the UK "as a matter of urgency" to remove the defence: this is one of many recommendations that have been wilfully ignored. In addition to this, there have been nearly 30 pieces of legislation introduced in England since September 2002 that in part breach the Convention. [These are listed in Annex A to the full report.]
There are big opportunities ahead to increase protection for children's human rights, notably in the forthcoming consolidation – and strengthening, we hope – of discrimination law and in the promised British Bill of Rights. A new Equality and Human Rights Commission has the potential to make a significant impact on public awareness and respect for the human rights of the young. England's Children's Commissioner, appointed in 2005, continues to challenge harmful attitudes and treatment, in spite of his narrow legal mandate and weak independence. We very much welcome the Committee's examination, and we will do all we can to ensure this process brings real change for all of England's 11 million children.