Children's Rights - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

1  Introduction

1.  In 2007, UNICEF published a report assessing the well-being of children and young people in 21 industrialised countries.[1] It covered educational achievement, health and safety, poverty, behaviour and relationships. The UK came bottom. In April 2009, the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) published a similar assessment of child well-being in 29 European countries.[2] The UK ranked 24th, ahead only of Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Malta. These findings were widely reported and prompted media discussion about why the UK's children were apparently so unhappy.[3] It is certainly not difficult to hear or see negative depictions of children's lives in the media. Stories concerning children as the victims of crime - particularly sexual abuse, assaults and murder - are given extensive coverage. The reporting of crime committed by children is similarly copious, often leading to lengthy public debate about the condition of children today. Concerns about children being less well educated, less disciplined and less respectful than their elders are often expressed.

2.  All of these issues relate to the human rights of children, which are principally enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).[4] The Convention rights include the right to "a standard of living adequate for the child's physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development"; rights to education, health care, freedom of expression, and play, as well as the right to life and to be protected from abuse. The UNICEF and CPAG research suggests that children's rights are not being adequately respected and promoted in the UK. A consistently negative portrayal of children in the press may risk creating a culture in which this situation is tolerated.

3.  Children's rights have been a consistent focus of our work, and that of the JCHR in the 2001 Parliament. The Committee's first Report in its programme of scrutinising the UK's implementation of the main international human rights treaties was on the UNCRC in 2003.[5] The Committee also published Reports on the case for a Children's Commissioner for England[6] in 2003 and on the Bill which became the Children Act 2004.[7] Since then, we have frequently reported on children's issues in the context of our routine scrutiny of Government Bills, including five Bills in the current session.[8] In addition, we have often reported on issues concerning the rights of children in our other work, such as our 2006 Report on the Treatment of Asylum Seekers, which included recommendations on unaccompanied child asylum seekers and asylum-seeking families;[9] our work on the implementation of human rights judgments, including those concerning the retention of children's DNA;[10] and our Report on the use of restraint in secure training centres.[11]

4.  States which have ratified the UNCRC and the Optional Protocol are required to submit periodic reports on implementation of the Convention. The UK's most recent report was submitted on 16 July 2007.[12] Reports are considered by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (the "UN Committee"), which issues "Concluding Observations" on each country. The most recent Concluding Observations on the UK were issued on 20 October 2008.[13] The UK's next report must be submitted by January 2014.

5.  The Concluding Observations made a number of positive comments about the UK, particularly in relation to the UK's withdrawal of reservations to Articles 22 and 37 of the UNCRC, the initiation of the process of ratification of the Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography as well as the ratification of several other international instruments relating to children since the UK's last report, in 2002, and measures in the Children Act 2004 and the Childcare Act 2006.[14] Numerous areas for concern were also recorded, several of which are discussed in this Report. Many of these areas of concern overlap with the concerns expressed by the UN's Human Rights Council in its Universal Periodic Review of the UK, which included the high incarceration rate of children, children's privacy, the use of painful restraint techniques, the problem of violence against children and child poverty.[15]

6.  When we reviewed our working practices at the beginning of this Parliament, we indicated that we would continue to scrutinise the implementation in the UK of the provisions of the main international human rights treaties to which the UK is a party, and that we regarded this as an important part of our work.[16] However, we also indicated that, while we would take the latest set of Concluding Observations and recommendations as our starting point, we would not necessarily aim to be comprehensive in covering every observation, but rather would be more selective and focus on those issues we regarded as the most important or topical and in relation to which we were in a position to add value to the work already being done in the relevant field. In this Report we therefore consider a number, but not all, of the UN Committee's Concluding Observations in greater detail.

7.  We decided to issue a call for evidence on the Concluding Observations, focusing on the following matters:

  • children in detention (including the use of restraint and deaths in custody);
  • the practical impact of the withdrawal of the UK's reservations to the UNCRC on immigration and children in custody with adults;
  • discrimination against children on the grounds of age or disability;
  • asylum-seeking children;
  • child trafficking victims (including ratification of the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography);
  • discrimination against children in education (including access by vulnerable groups, child participation, complaints, bullying, exclusions and segregation);
  • how best to enshrine in law the Government's goal of eradicating child poverty by 2020, in view of the right of every child to an adequate standard of living under Article 27 of the UNCRC;
  • criminalisation of children; and
  • participation of children in the armed forces.[17]

8.  We received nearly 60 written submissions from NGOs, children and young people, academics and others. We heard oral evidence from Sir Al Aynsley-Green, Children's Commissioner for England, Kathleen Marshall, Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People, Keith Towler, Children's Commissioner for Wales and Patricia Lewsley, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, on 10 March 2009. On 24 March 2009, we took oral evidence from Baroness Morgan of Drefelin, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State and Anne Jackson, Director, Child Wellbeing Group, Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF). We are very grateful for all of the evidence we received.

9.  We have focused on some of the matters on which we have previously reported, including implementation of the UNCRC, children in the criminal justice system, and asylum-seeking children. The written evidence we have received on matters not covered in detail in this Report will be of interest to all those concerned with children's issues, both inside Parliament and beyond, and we will seek to use it in our future work on legislation and thematic matters.

UK report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child

10.  In our previous Report on the UNCRC, we recommended that the UK's next periodic report to the UN Committee be structured to:

  • show the general principles of Government policy and action in the UK related to each of the Articles of the Convention;
  • report separately on the activities relating to children's rights issues of each central Government department together with relevant non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs) and inspectorates related to each department, and each of the devolved administrations, and to make some effort to capture related activities at local government level;
  • provide a specific response to each of the recommendations in the UN Committee's previous Concluding Observations; and
  • include a strategic plan of action in relation to children's rights for the coming five years, indicating measures of success against which implementation can be judged.[18]

11.  The UK's report to the UN Committee met some of these recommendations.[19] It dealt thoroughly with the Committee's previous recommendations and also set out how the UK had implemented specific Articles of the UNCRC in law. The activities of the devolved administrations were covered, but not in separate sections, and there was little to delineate the activities of departments and other public bodies in relation to children. Some account of future plans was given in the narrative, but generally without an indication of how to measure whether policies had been successful. We recommend that the UK's next report to the UN Committee should again focus on addressing the UN Committee's most recent Concluding Observations, but with clearer links to future plans (and how their success can be assessed) as well as to the work of the devolved administrations and local Government.

1   UNICEF, Report Card 7, Child Poverty in Perspective: An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries, February 2007. Back

2   Child Poverty Action Group, Child Wellbeing and Child Poverty: where the UK stands in the European table, Spring 2009. Back

3   Eg Miserable Children broadcast on Radio 4 on 12 April 2007. Back

4   The UK ratified the UNCRC in 1991. It has also ratified the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. Back

5   Tenth Report of Session 2002-03, The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, HL Paper 117, HC 81. Back

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

7   Nineteenth Report of Session 2003-04, Children Bill, HL Paper 161, HC 537. Back

8   See e.g. Ninth Report of Session 2008-09, Legislative Scrutiny: Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill, HL Paper 62, HC 375 at paras; Tenth Report of Session 2008-09, Legislative Scrutiny: Policing and Crime Bill, HL Paper 68, HC 395 at paras 1.62-1.66; Fourteenth Report of Session 2008-09, Legislative Scrutiny: Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, HL 781, HC 414 at paras 2.1-2.51; Fifteenth Report of Session 2007-08, Legislative Scrutiny: Children and Young Persons Bill, HL Paper 81, HC 440 at paras 1.1-1.50. Back

9   Tenth Report of Session 2006-07, The Treatment of Asylum Seekers, HL Paper 81, HC 60. Back

10   Tenth Report of Session 2008-09, Legislative Scrutiny: Policing and Crime Bill, HL Paper 68, HC 395. Back

11   Eleventh Report of Session 2007-08, The Use of Restraint in Secure Training Centres, HL Paper 65, HC 378. Back

12   Third and Fourth Periodic Reports of States parties due in 2007: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, CRC/C/GBR/4, 25 February 2008 ("UK's Report to UNCRC"). Back

13   UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, Concluding Observations: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 20 October 2008, CRC/C/GBR/CO/4 ("UNCRC's Concluding Observations on the UK"). Concluding Observations were also issued on the same day on the UK's Report on the implementation of the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict (CRC/C/GBR/OPAC/CO/1). Back

14   Ibid., paras 4, 5, 8 and 10. Back

15   Human Rights Council, Universal Periodic Review, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, A/HRC/8/25, 23 May 2008. Back

16   Twenty-Third Report of Session 2005-06, The Committee's Future Working Practices, HL Paper 239, HC 1575 at paras 64-67 and 77. Back

17   Press Notice No. 3, Session 2008-09, 17 December 2008. Back

18   See note 5 above, para. 13. Back

19   See note 12 above. Back

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Prepared 20 November 2009