Joint Committee On Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 19-36)



  Chairman: Thank you very much for coming and appearing before us today. I presume you heard the preliminary remarks I made at the beginning of the previous session so I will not repeat them.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

  19. First of all, I want to ask a very elementary question for which I have no answer, and I apologise. Is there any international complaints mechanism or an optional protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to which the UK could sign up, or is there no individual complaints mechanism? I apologise for not knowing the answer to this question. Does anyone know the answer to the question?
  (Ms Evans) Our expert tells us no there is not.

  20. No. Fine. I do not know but I can check later. Assuming there is no such mechanism on the international plane, do you have views about how well or badly the UK has been dealing with the monitoring and reporting recommendations made on the international plane by the UN Committee? In the first place there was a recommendation that there needs to be some independent mechanism to monitor the work of the Children's Act and the implementation of the UN Convention. The question really is whether you regard this Committee, this independent Joint Select Committee on Human Rights, as adequately performing that obligation or whether you think there are gaps which need to be filled in some other way in terms of, as I say, the monitoring?
  (Ms Evans) I think clearly there have been changes since the last UN report. We have, as we have discussed, the Children and Young People's Unit and evidently this Committee is also a significant change since the last report. In relation to the reporting, we do feel that there may well be very important functions that this Committee could undertake in relation to continuing to monitor children's rights implementation issues as legislation passes through Parliament and as we go on over the years to the next report which would enable everyone I think to look for the whole picture rather than coming from a snapshot and trying to build things up afterwards. Certainly it is the view of several of us that when we have the concluding observations from this year's reporting that it may be very useful for this Committee to call the relevant ministers and departments whose job it would be to implement those recommendations and issues for the Committee to look at how we are going to respond to those. I think that we would be of the view that there would remain a significant gap in the kind of institutions that many other countries have in terms of constant full-time monitoring and implementation of children's rights, ie someone whose role it is to act as champion of those rights and therefore whose very, very detailed understanding over the period of the report could be brought to bear in a much more expert way than many of us are able to at the moment, including the Committee.
  (Ms Lister) Could I just add to that. There is not any systematic or ongoing review of law, policy or practice to ensure compatibility with the CRC. I think that is something which needs to be looked at when things are being reviewed. That is a useful point this Committee could make.

  21. If I could just ask, to finish up on this topic for the moment, on the reporting process generally. We have heard evidence just before and criticism, but what about the role of the Children and Young Person's Unit in relation to the update, the 2002 update, and the apparent unevenness in reporting on the different countries of the UK? Have any of you got any information that could help us about that when we are looking at the overall effectiveness of the UK reporting mechanism?
  (Ms Lister) I think we have heard a lot about the lack of coordination and the lack of information coming from devolved administrations and as an England wide unit clearly it needs to be much more proactive in seeking information from the other administrations. I think in terms of the report that was produced, whilst people have said some very good things within it, it has still got a bit of a welfarist kind of emphasis and I think if we are really going to look at the perspective of children's rights, as the Convention does, we need to look at the language and the leadership, if you like, that has come in the way it is reported. It is the spirit of the thing that is missing somehow, it is rather dry updating of various welfare reforms almost and that is not what the thing is about. It is about the kind of opinion and the way you think about children.

Lord Parekh

  22. I did not see the programme but there was a programme on the BBC where I think about a third of the families thought that smacking was not a bad idea. I want to explore with you very quickly whether you think parents have a right. There is the kind who think that parents have a right to do that or there is no other way of disciplining people and why should they not do that. What would be your response to that?
  (Ms Marsh) My response would be very clearly that parents do not have an absolute right to hit their children. I am not suggesting in any way that if you were to make physical punishment unlawful that you are looking immediately then to prosecute parents. Indeed those countries that were mentioned to you earlier, a number of countries which have taken a lead on this, that has not led to that kind of response from parents. The fact is that attitudes are changing towards this, as attitudes have changed over time to a number of other attitudes towards violence between people. Violence between spouse: husband and wife, wife and husband, the violence previously to people who used to be in service, that was all acceptable in the past. It is an area, clearly, that is changing but what is absolutely fundamental is that we need to look at this from the perspective of the child and the child's rights and the child's right to protection. Inevitably a casual smack may not lead to child abuse but it is very clear that in those situations where children have been abused that physical punishment is a very significant part of the environment in which that child is brought up. We can see the example. We have the advantage of seeing the example from other people in other countries where the majority of parents did not necessarily support a change in the law but the lead to public opinion has helped people to understand that actually this is a line that you should draw and people should think very hard before they cross the line and recognise that what you are doing when you hit a child is dangerous, is setting them a very bad example about behaviour and the evidence is very, very clear that it progressively does not work.

  23. Where is that evidence coming from? Is there evidence? I was talking about smacking, you immediately started talking about hitting and the two are not the same thing necessarily. Is there any evidence to show that if one smacks occasionally over a period of time the result leads to physical abuse? Is there any evidence separately to show that smacking never works? How would one verify or unverify a hypothesis of that kind?
  (Ms Marsh) The fact that people occasionally smack their children does not lead automatically to abuse but there is no doubt at all that the evidence from all children who suffer from abuse is that they have been in an environment which begins with light smacking and then that smacking becomes harder. It is more likely to be harder where people are hitting children when they are not in control, when they lash out, when it is actually very dangerous. It is quite hard as an adult—when you think of the size of an adult in relation to the size of a child—for an adult to lay a physical assault on a child in a way which does not harm. On your first point, it does not lead necessarily to abuse but we know that in those situations where children are abused, the beginnings of the disciplinary situation in the family, often there has been one where the physical punishment has escalated, and it can happen very easily. It is very difficult for people trying to help those families. The most important thing, when you are trying to advise people to consider alternative approaches to discipline, establishing relationships with a child, relationships which will last, which will see you well beyond younger ages into a child being older, that when you are giving advice and support to people it is much easier to intervene and provide that support and everyone is very clear that actually using physical force for the child is not the right thing to do. With regard to the smacking does not work, there is quite widespread evidence of that and the National Family and Parenting Institute have issued evidence also to this effect. It is a form of discipline that very rarely works for very long. It becomes very easily something which does escalate.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

  24. Can I just ask am I not right in saying Britain and Ireland are the only two Western European countries which allow corporal punishment in schools, known as le vice anglais as I recall? That is mirrored by parental smacking. Are we out of line comparatively with other countries in the degree to which we permit parents to smack their children?
  (Ms Marsh) I think that this is true, this whole thing about how attitudes towards the use of physical violence do change over time and do grow from history. It is true that compared with some other European countries our attitudes to children in this country are very different. The verbal assault children suffer from children sometimes in public places is a further kind of abuse. We have to make it clear that this approach to discipline is something which is wrong and harmful, and in a MORI survey a very high percentage of parents said that if legal reform would not lead to prosecution for trivial smacks they would support it because although they do smack they would like help in doing something different, doing an alternative. I think the example is very clear. You heard the comment about Sweden before. We did some recent work ourselves looking at changes in Germany which have been more recent. It is very, very interesting how rapidly there is a change and the difference it makes to the relationships between parents and children.

Baroness Whitaker

  25. I would like to turn to the Government's reservation under the Convention on Rights of the Child in respect of child asylum seekers. Numerous Members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords asked the Government are they not going to lift this reservation and the Government has remained resolute on the matter. Do any of you see any opening for change on the Government's part? Would you have any compelling argument why they should lift it in the climate where obviously they are anxious to be very firm about speeding up the asylum process?
  (Ms Lister) If I could just take that one. I think you are right it is very ambitious to seek withdrawal and reservation, that was the case also with vouchers. It seemed there was never going to be an opportunity to turn that round, and of course now this has happened. I do not think we should give up. In terms of precise mechanisms, we have had a legal opinion which says that the reservations are necessary and the reasons the Government gives—

  26. Is this the Matrix Chambers one?
  (Ms Lister) Yes. The reasons the Government gives are flawed we believe. There is that argument. The other argument that we would put is that it is discriminatory and ultimately discriminatory practice is revealed for what it is. I think there will then be counter-opinion about children. We have seen this over the education of children in the accommodation centres which says that they are children first and asylum seekers second. We should be making sure that we give them the same chance as other children regardless of their status. Certainly we have to look at the legal arguments but then also the discriminatory aspects as well.
  (Ms Marsh) Clearly we would regard the reservation as incompatible with the principles of the Convention. It seems very wrong, the way in which the children are treated differently because of their status. We heard the cases before. The nature of the care and support that children and young people get is not right under present arrangements.
  (Ms Evans) I think we would want to emphasise that really in the case of both of the reservations that the UK has against the Convention we see that as the end of the trail, and an expression of an unwillingness to apply children's rights thinking equally to those two groups of children rather than the cause.

  27. By the other reservation you mean children in prison?
  (Ms Evans) Children in prison, yes. Really our primary interest is in actually changing the attitude towards those two groups of children. That would result in a commitment to withdraw the reservation rather than seeing the reservation as the cause of the unequal treatment of those two groups.

Mr Woodward

  28. I want to turn to the issue of the Children's Commissioner. Wales has a Children's Commissioner, Scotland and Northern Ireland are looking at drawing one up which leads to the position in England. Just putting aside the point of principle, and I recognise the importance of that principle but nonetheless putting it aside and being very practical, what difference does it make at the moment that we do not have a Children's Commissioner in England? What practical difference would it make if we were to have a Children's Commissioner in England?
  (Ms Evans) I think the starting point is an interesting one as children around the three other countries in the UK begin to see the establishment of children's rights and institutions and people who clearly they are told are their champions, there to uphold their rights and to educate them and to be accessible for their issues to be taken up with those who can affect those decisions. I think the sense of our children in England that they do not have anything that is doing that same job will be its own issue. Clearly the Government is of the view that the combination of the Children's Rights Director in the National Care Standards Commission, the Clinical Director for Children and the Children and Young People's Unit and their intention to review the role of the Ombudsman will combine effectively in most intents and purposes to fulfil the roles that might be fulfilled by those other institutions in the three devolved nations. Even if that argument was sustainable, which we do not think it is, not least because of the specificity of their remits and the complexity, to have such a complex system with very tight remits and very unclear relationships between those four elements is not legible to children and we do not believe that will in any way promote the same kind of cultural change that the Children's Commissioners in those three other countries are committed to changing. The language and the terminology with which we set up these institutions and their legibility for children is actually a core issue rather than a superficial one. I do not think any of us would be satisfied to have four separate institutions by combination attempting to cover the whole set of roles that we would want to see. I think the other issue here is not only the discrepancy in structures in England compared with Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland but when looking at the Paris Principles and the recommendations of the UN in relation to the need for an independent watchdog, none of the institutions and structures we have currently across the UK have independent scrutiny of Westminster, Parliament and primary legislation. That was a significant issue so I understand for the Welsh Children's Commissioner, and would still be if it was only to be the case that there were parallel commissioners in devolved English administrations, if they were to happen. Our feeling is that one of the reasons behind the hesitancy over establishing an English Children's Commissioner is a reluctance to have a powerful independent watchdog at Westminster level. We do think there are significant gaps left by trying to combine the existing and very specific remits of the institutions that are in the 2002 update.

  29. Judy?
  (Ms Lister) I think the key issue is that no-one is fully independent and neither the CYPU or any Government Minister is going to champion the interests of the child if it conflicts with Government policy in any other area or any other Departments. For example, taking our earlier question on segregated education, no-one has said anything on that highly controversial issue. No-one is using the CRC as a framework for their work and as has already been said no-one is undertaking an evaluation of the impact of the new legislation or policies on children's rights. I think the Government's position is going to be increasingly untenable as the other three countries develop a solid practice and some of the evidence of benefits, I think that is going to be the question that Government is going to address.
  (Ms Marsh) I would agree very clearly with that. I think it is the capacity of an independent commissioner who has the authority to speak as the Children's Commissioner does already in Wales, and is planned in Northern Ireland and something similar is clearly emerging in Scotland, to have that capacity to challenge actually will bring the issues up the agenda ahead of the challenge being necessary. That is why I think it is so important to have it very clear; clear, as has been said, to children and young people themselves so that they feel there is an equality of treatment but also to help everybody recognise that actually we can make enormous steps towards our obligations to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child but they are not just obligations, they are also actually the right thing to do for children. I believe that in looking at the outcomes of the Victoria Climbie inquiry, the sort of issues about the reforming child protection, there is a very clear role for children to have an independent champion who can call the different agencies and Government to account.

  30. If we have a Children's Commissioner for England tomorrow which single issue would you each like the Commissioner to take up in the area of children?
  (Ms Evans) I think from the Children's Society point of view we would probably see the biggest children's human rights issue at the moment as being the treatment of children in the youth justice system and in the prison service in particular.

  31. Judy?
  (Ms Lister) I think I would take refuge and asylum issues already raised in terms of children and asylum seekers.

  32. Mary?
  (Ms Marsh) I think if we are challenging the system to have much better evidence about the abuse of children because one of our problems in dealing with these issues is that we do not have very good evidence collected so there are lots of areas of activity. Coroners, everything is very devolved and there is not enough consistency in the way in which we understand what has happened to children, including, in obviously the most extreme cases, where children die but also where children are harmed otherwise.


  33. Just now Ms Lister said that the Government's approach—I summarise—was welfarist, not that any of us are saying there is anything wrong with children's welfare obviously, but thinking about it we had the Quality Protects Programme for children in care which involved children throughout in its design, the Department for Education and Skills consulted with children in the preparation of White Papers on transforming secondary education and training for 14 to 19 year olds, we have had the Core Principles for involving children in Government which is now going to be promulgated, as I understand it, throughout Departments in Government and we have got, also, the Connexions personal adviser scheme which as I understand it was put together after consulting children. Do you think that these initiatives mark a determination to address the questions of children's rights and listening to children as well as to improving their welfare? Are they a good start?
  (Ms Lister) Yes, I would say yes they are a good start and I think in responding to the kind of questions you are putting to us it is not to deny the good work that has been done, that is not where we are coming from. What you are asking is very much where are there gaps, where are there things which can be changed. I would say yes they are a good start but they are kind of patchy, if you like, but—to reiterate the point—they are not framed within this overall sense of children being holders of rights, which is where we are coming from. I did not say that they were welfarist I said there were a number of reforms, I think, which have more of a welfare focus than a rights focus. I think unless the Government gives the lead on this it is not going to become part of the way that we think about children. We are going to continue to look at things in a whole range of different little sections rather than seeing it together in its entirety which is what the Convention aims to do. That is really how I was responding, not that there has not been a good start made.
  (Ms Marsh) The NSPCC welcomes very much those principles about consultation and I am very pleased to have seen the way in which some departments have taken that up already. What we have to ensure is that this approach to children and children's issue is not an episodic matter which happens from time to time when people can see it being constructed to the particular piece of policy they are developing or the relevance of it. It is having that very clear sense of the impact on children of everything that we do as a continuum but that is a very different approach and that is where being clear that you are thinking of the impact on all children all of the time does lead you into a situation where the champion they would have from the Children's Commissioner would help people to do that.
  (Ms Evans) We welcome also and work very closely with all those positive moves that you are referring to. I think it is important though to recognise that it is not just a case of selective moving forward in relation to children's rights, we have seen in many cases a willingness on the part of the Government to actually contravene children's rights where it wants to do so, certainly our understanding of what children's rights' principles would lead us to do.

  34. Can I just interrupt, can you give us an example?
  (Ms Evans) Yes. We have seen the effective decrease of the age of criminal responsibility for all children and along with that went the denial of the right to silence for children as young as 10 despite the explicit concerns raised by the UN Committee in the last report about that policy in Northern Ireland. We have seen increasing incarceration of children in institutions which do not offer them protections of the Children Act. We have seen the introduction of local child curfews, or provision for them, which enable blanket restriction on the rights of freedoms of children under 16. We have seen the refusal to actually remove reasonable chastisement despite recognised human rights bodies calls to do so. We are now seeing the proposal to segregate the education of asylum seeking children. I think we would say it is one step forward and one step back and we seem to be at one and the same time often having to work to stop things which we think are extremely retrograde steps while working with and welcoming moves forward. I think that is evidence to us that children's rights are not really the motivating factor in Government policy in relation to children so much as an adult led focus on what should happen to children. It is understandable, of course, that a large proportion of the voting adult population has significant concerns for the welfare and protection and the situation of children. We think it is that motivation which has driven the Government's children's policy largely. If it was driven by a view that children are equal citizens to the voting adult, I think we would see some radically different policies to some of the ones we are dealing with at the moment.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

  35. I wonder if I could go back to Roma children to ask you as a matter of policy what the position of any of your organisations is about the dilemma that one of the previous witnesses mentioned. You have some Roma parents uneasy about their children being placed in unfriendly schools. You have a separate school that is being created for Roma children. Is the right policy in terms of the Rights of the Child Convention and generally that there should be a choice for Roma parents and children whether to send their children to a segregated school or not or is the right policy that there should be no racially segregated schools? Is there some third approach to this? I ask the question because it seems to me to be a very good practical example about how to implement the non discrimination provision of the Rights of the Child Convention and I am not sure what is the right answer.
  (Ms Marsh) If the Roma schools were allowing those children to have high achievement and giving them full education there might be a case that you begin to make in the direction of suggesting them but they do not. Those children have severe disadvantage in their education development so you would need to have a much, much more specialist approach to even begin to bring them up to a higher level and putting them into a smaller separate school would never achieve that. I think there might be a half way house where you would need an interim step for children who have been out of school a lot—which of course is the big problem for Roma children because they miss a lot of school—in bringing them back in. But segregation must be fundamentally the wrong approach to integrating a community. What is clearly wrong is there are not schools which are able to include Roma children as the law would suggest they should.

  36. Is that true only in Northern Ireland or is that the general UK case?
  (Ms Marsh) That would be my view of the approach to integrating any community, be they asylum seekers, Roma children or any minority group. The moves to bring disabled children into mainstream schools, I think as far as possible integration and inclusion has to be the right principle to give equality. The only way you can balance it is if you are saying you can meet their needs to a higher standard by some other means but that would have to meet all their needs and that is where it gets difficult because if you are not including them then they are missing out on a significant part of what you can never give them when they are on their own.
  (Ms Lister) Could I just add that Save the Children recently did a European consultation, 14 countries across Europe, on the rights of Roma gypsy and traveller children to education. The points which were being made by the children and young people as well as the Roma organisations was the integrated point that Mary has been making. Again, in discussion with young people they argued, also, is against as well because they felt in a segregated school they were free from bullying and could get on with their learning and all sorts of other things. The challenge is to make sure that our inclusive schools actually do respect the rights of all the children and young people which are within them. I think there is another point, which was the one Sheri was raising, about the confidence of gypsy and traveller parents in Northern Ireland to encourage and support children in going to school. If that very first step is potentially at least pre-school provision, or something of that nature, which then leads on to inclusive schools at primary level then that is possibly more the route to go with very, very young children.

  Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I should declare my interest. I have links with the European Roma Rights Centre which I should have mentioned.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for appearing before us today. We have found the evidence very useful indeed.

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