Joint Committee On Human Rights Tenth Report


International Human Rights Instruments

  1.  The terms of reference of the Joint Committee on Human Rights are "to consider matters relating to human rights in the United Kingdom".[1] These human rights are wider than the "Convention rights" as defined by the Human Rights Act 1998.[2] The UK is also a signatory to a large number of international conventions, covenants and other treaties which, together with the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, form what is sometimes known as the International Bill of Rights.[3]

  2.  The main UN instruments[4] each require the Government to make periodic reports on compliance with their terms to the UN, and to keep under review such matters as ratification of optional protocols and maintenance of reservations. These periodic reports are then examined by UN committees of experts appointed by the member states for the purpose.[5] After initial examination, these committees seek further written evidence from governments, receive submissions from NGOs, hold oral hearings, and issue their observations on the compliance record of the state parties to the treaties. These observations then feed into the next round of reporting.

  3.  At the start of this Parliament, we resolved to examine the observations from these international committees on the periodic reports from the UK Government. In October 2002 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child published its Concluding Observations on the UK Government's compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child (the UNCRC), based on the report made by the UK in 1999. We therefore decided to start our scrutiny of these international instruments with this Convention.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

  4.  In June 1990, the then Minister of Health, Mrs Virginia Bottomley, told the House of Commons—

The UK Government ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in December 1991.[7] It has over 40 substantive articles.[8] But perhaps the fundamental principle of the Convention is that enunciated in Article 3.1—

    In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.


  5.  For the purposes of the Convention, as it applies to the UK, children are defined as those under 18 years of age.[9] This is a legal definition and does not and need not correspond to the way we ordinarily use the term. Since our views on what capacities children develop at what ages are culturally conditioned, different cultures assign different responsibilities to children for different actions at different ages. Thus children are held responsible for criminal acts at 10 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland but at 8 in Scotland. There are different ages at which they can: purchase a pet animal (12); view films of a violent or sexually explicit nature, depending on their parents' or carers' presence or consent (12, 15 or 18); work part time (13), work full time (16), become entitled to the minimum wage (18) but not the full rate (until 22); become entitled to full social security benefits (18 in most cases); purchase an air weapon (14) or be licensed to own a firearm (17); get married with parental consent (16) or without that consent (16 in Scotland, 18 elsewhere) or to a step­parent (21); join the armed forces (16) and be deployed to a combat zone (18); consent to sexual intercourse with a female if male (any age) or with a male if female or male (16 in Great Britain and 17 in Northern Ireland); purchase tobacco products, knives and national lottery tickets (16); drive a motorbike or moped (16) or a car (17) or an HGV under 7.5 tonnes (18) or an HGV over 7.5 tonnes or a PSV (21); go to an adult prison (17 on remand or 18 on conviction if a boy, much more confused if a girl); purchase alcohol products, place bets and vote (18); and stand for election to local authorities or the House of Commons (21).

  6.  These thresholds, not always logically related, reflect a tension in public policy between the restrictions we place on growing children, the responsibilities we invite them to exercise, and the protections we offer them. The Convention requires us to recognise that children are not merely recipients of adult protection, but holders of rights and, importantly, that those rights demand that children themselves are entitled to be heard in decisions relating to their protection, welfare and freedoms.[10]

Our Approach to the Inquiry

  7.  Our approach has been to take the recent Concluding Observations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on the UK Government's second periodic report under the Convention on the Rights of the Child as our starting point, and to seek to address them systematically. We group our consideration of the UN Committee's Concluding Observations under the following headings—

  8.  In its Concluding Observations, the UN Committee expressed its concern—

In our recent report on The Case for a Children's Commissioner for England,[12] we set out our arguments for the establishment of an independent champion of children's rights—whether located within or alongside the human rights commission we have proposed in our Sixth Report of this Session.[13] Throughout this report, we bear in mind the areas of Government activity in which a children's commissioner might be able to help ensure fuller compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

1   Excluding individual cases. See for example Standing Order No. 152B of the House of Commons and the resolution of the House of Lords of 22 January 2001. Back

2   The Act came into effect on 2 October 2000. Back

3   For a more extensive discussion of these instruments, see our Sixth Report of Session 2002-03, The Case for a Human Rights Commission, HL Paper 67-I/HC 489-I, paras 14-25. Back

4   These are: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESC), the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the Convention against Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT). Back

5   Details of the current membership of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child can be found at Back

6   HC Deb., 6 June 1990, c 703. Back

7   The Convention was opened for signature in 1989, signed by the UK in April 1990 and ratified by the UK in December 1991. The only two UN member-states which have not ratified the Convention are Somalia and the USA. Back

8   The text of these is set out in Annex 1 to this report. Back

9   ibid., Article 1. Back

10   Lansdown, Gerison, Promoting Children's Participation in Democratic Decision-Making, UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, 2001 at 1, quoted by Cherie Booth QC in a lecture to the BIHR, January 2003. Back

11   See the Concluding Observations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child published on 4 October 2002 and printed as Annex 3 to this Report (hereafter "Annex 3"), para 16. Back

12   Ninth Report, Session 2002-03, The Case for a Children's Commissioner for England, HL Paper 96/HC 666. Back

13   Sixth Report, Session 2002-03, The Case for a Human Rights Commission, HL Paper 67-I/HC 489-I. Back

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