Children's Rights - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

2  Implementation of the UNCRC

An implementation plan?

12.  In December 2007, the Government published its first Children's Plan, which aimed "to put the needs of families, children and young people at the centre of everything we do".[20] It set out the Government's plans for the next 10 years under each of the Department for Children, Schools and Families' strategic objectives. The introduction records that the Plan has been developed with regard to the principles and Articles of the UNCRC. Annex B states that "the content of each chapter relates to the clusters of Articles of the UNCRC and takes forward the recommendations of the UN Committee".[21] Beyond references to an understanding of human rights as part of a child's education, however, the body of the Children's Plan makes no further mention of the UNCRC, or of human rights.

13.  In 2008, the Government published a one year Progress Report on implementation of the Children's Plan.[22] The Progress Report was published after the publication of the UNCRC's latest Concluding Observations. The Government described the Concluding Observations of the UNCRC as a "helpful framework for further action" and stated that the December 2008 update to the Children's Plan "sets out England's priorities for taking forward the UN Committee's recommendations".[23] This is provided in an Annex to the Progress Report which sets out some of the UNCRC's recommendations alongside the Government's priorities for action, in general terms.

14.  We note that the Children's Plan relates only to England. The Scottish Government has published an implementation plan for consultation.[24] It has also established a stakeholders' group to monitor progress in dealing with the UNCRC's Concluding Observations. The Minister told us that "each devolved administration will address the UN Committee's Concluding Observations as appropriate to their national requirement".[25]

15.  Publication of the Children's Plan and Progress Report has been widely welcomed.[26] However, they were not seen by some witnesses to be a sufficient response to the UNCRC's recommendations. Some witnesses criticised the Progress Report for only addressing a small number of the UNCRC's recommendations and stated that they were not clear why some recommendations had been prioritised over others.[27] A number of witnesses recommended that the UK Government should publish a detailed UK-wide action plan on implementation of the UNCRC, to include milestones and interim dates[28] and to be co-ordinated nationally, rather than by the four nations separately.[29]

16.  We asked the Minister to explain how the UNCRC's recommendations were prioritised in order to arrive at the list in the Annex to the Progress Report. The Minister explained that they reflected those areas which the Government had identified within the recommendations where more could be done to further implement the Convention.[30] The Minister suggested that the UK was responsible for "co-ordinating our responses to the progress on the Convention" and that she would be meeting Ministers from the devolved administrations "to discuss a UK wide approach to addressing the Concluding Observations and the possibility of devising a UK wide action plan".[31]

17.  We welcome the publication of the Children's Plan and Progress Report, including the Annex pointing to the Government's priorities for implementing the UNCRC's recommendations in England. We note the Scottish Government's decision to consult on implementation of the UNCRC's recommendations in Scotland and suggest that this is an example of good practice which should be followed across the UK.

18.  Although we recognise that the devolved administrations have responsibility for certain areas of children's rights, we note that the UK Government is ultimately responsible for ensuring that it complies with its international human rights obligations under the UNCRC. The role of the UK Government is both to co-ordinate national efforts on implementing the Convention and to report to the UNCRC on progress.

19.  We agree with witnesses that it is not advisable to leave implementation to each nation to deal with separately. We recommend that the UK Government devise a comprehensive and detailed plan for implementation of the UNCRC recommendations across the UK. This should be completed in conjunction with the devolved administrations and the Children's Commissioners, and be subject to widespread consultation. Crucially, the participation of children and young people should be actively sought and facilitated at all stages in the process, including during the implementation stage. In our view, such a Plan would be beneficial to the Government, devolved administrations, service providers and children and young people themselves. The finalised plan should be published and subjected to regular monitoring and evaluation. We recommend that the Government publishes annual reports in order to monitor progress on implementation more regularly than is required by the UN monitoring process.

Incorporation into law

20.  The UN Committee has recommended that the UNCRC should be incorporated into UK law,[32] a point echoed by numerous witnesses to our inquiry.

21.  All four of the Children's Commissioners called for the UNCRC to be incorporated into UK law. The Northern Ireland Commissioner went as far as stating that "the biggest problem facing the realisation of children's rights in Northern Ireland is the absence of domestic legislation fully incorporating children's rights in legislation".[33] The Commissioner saw the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland as an opportunity to incorporate the UNCRC into law. The Commissioner for Wales remarked on the particular difficulties caused by devolution, noting that "the danger … is we might find devolved administrations moving at a different pace".[34] The Scottish Commissioner drew attention to the fact that the Scottish Government was considering scrutinising all legislation for compliance with human rights and possibly including a statement on children's rights in policy memoranda accompanying Bills.[35]

22.  Children's England and the NSPCC suggested that the UK needed to build a culture of respect for children's rights.[36] According to Children's England, this could be achieved by embedding principles of children's rights in policy-making and practice and ensuring a clear and common understanding of what children's human rights mean.[37] Witnesses also advocated increasing awareness of the Convention amongst children, parents and professionals working with children,[38] through training, professional development and sustained Government funding.[39] The Equality and Human Rights Commission and the NSPCC called for the principle of the paramountcy of the child's best interests to be established in all areas of UK law and practice.[40]

23.  Addressing the issue of incorporation during debate on the Children's and Young Person's Bill, however, the then Children's Minister, Beverley Hughes MP, said:

What matters most is giving children that good experience of childhood and having a Government who progressively want to go further to promote the well-being of children, rather than confirming by referring to the Convention in every single piece of legislation or going through the arduous process of incorporating it all together in one big piece of legislation, which would frankly be a fruitless task.[41]

24.  We asked the Minister to explain why the Government considers that incorporating the Convention into UK law would be "a fruitless task". In response, Baroness Morgan stressed the Government's commitment to the UNCRC, but argued that the Government implemented the Convention through a number of separate pieces of legislation and did not consider it necessary to incorporate the Convention into law in order to honour its international obligations.[42] Pressing the Minister, we requested an analysis to show that there are effective domestic legal remedies for potential breaches of each Article of the Convention.[43] The Minister replied to this request in correspondence stating:

The question assumes that there is a direct legal remedy which could be relied upon in respect of any breach of the UNCRC. However, the UK meets its obligations under the UNCRC through a combination of legislation, policy initiatives and guidance.[44]

25.  The Minister pointed to its commissioning of "an updated high-level mapping of the legislation and policy that supports the UNCRC in England" and promised to provide us with this overview once it is available. We look forward to receiving it. She also noted that where UNCRC obligations are met through legislation, the usual remedies applicable to that provision would apply, as well as the possibility of challenging a decision of a public authority for failure to comply with the Human Rights Act 1998, judicial review or the use of complaints mechanisms.[45]

26.  In our previous Report on the UNCRC, we concluded:

We do not accept that the goal of incorporation of the Convention into UK law is unrealisable. We believe the Government should be careful not to dismiss all the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child as purely "aspirational" and, despite the ways … in which the CRC is currently able to exert influence, we firmly believe that children will be better protected by incorporation of at least some of the rights, principles and provisions of the Convention into UK law.[46]

27.  We note that whilst the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), effectively incorporated by the Human Rights Act 1998, applies to children as it does to adults, it does not provide an equivalent degree of specificity to the UNCRC, but is instead expressed in generic terms. It also does not have the breadth of coverage of the UNCRC. It would not therefore be correct to assume that for every alleged breach of the UNCRC there is a relevant Article of the ECHR which an individual would be able to invoke in court proceedings in the UK. There may therefore be a significant gap between the domestic remedies provided by the Human Rights Act and the ECHR on the one hand and, on the other, the remedies which would potentially be available to individuals were they able to rely on the UNCRC directly in court proceedings in the UK.

28.  The Government has not persuaded us that children's rights are already adequately protected by UK law, nor that incorporation of the UNCRC is unnecessary. We agree with those witnesses who emphasised the benefits of incorporation, accompanied by directly enforceable rights. It is significant that all four Children's Commissioners in the UK, with their extensive experience of working with children, think it would make a real practical difference to children if the UNCRC were incorporated into UK law. However, we recommend that further information be given by the Government about the extent to which the UNCRC rights are or are not already protected by UK law.

29.  The UN Committee recommends that any Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland or the UK should incorporate the principles and provisions of the UNCRC and include a special section on children's rights.[47] In our Report on a UK Bill of Rights, we supported the inclusion of rights relating to children in a future Bill of Rights. Responding to our Report, the Government accepted that a Bill of Rights could make special provision for children.[48] In its Green Paper consulting on a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, the Government stated that:

It is open to exploring whether and, if so, how a Bill could be used to improve children's wellbeing and their standing and respect for children in UK society and how such a Bill could encourage the sense of rights and responsibilities we want from everyone with regard to children in our society. In particular, it seeks views on how the rights of all children, young people and their families might be articulated, along with the responsibilities we all share to secure these.[49]

But that it:

… would not want to create new avenues of redress for individuals in the courts. Rather, it would be seeking to influence the actions of public bodies and to emphasise the importance of children and their wellbeing in UK society.[50]

It did not suggest that a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities would be used to incorporate the UNCRC.

30.  We reiterate our recommendation on the merits of including children's rights within any Bill of Rights for the UK. We are pleased to note that the Government is open to the possibility of their special protection, but are disappointed that this does not extend to creating directly enforceable rights or using the Bill of Rights to incorporate the UNCRC. We urge the Government to ensure that it consults widely on this question to ascertain how many of those working closely with children share the Government's view that it would make no practical difference to the lives of children.

31.  In the meantime we are disappointed that the Government has rejected even our modest proposal that the UNCRC be made the framework of local Children and Young People's Plans.[51] The Government resisted our proposed amendment to the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, which would have required Children's Trust Boards to have regard to the need to implement the UNCRC when preparing their Children and Young Person's Plans. It told us that it considers it to be "unnecessary to have any specific provision falling on the Children's Trust Board to have regard to the UNCRC when preparing its plan", that the UK complies with its obligations under the UNCRC through a mixture of legislative, executive and judicial action, and that its legislation is consistent with the provisions of the Convention.[52] We do not consider the Secretary of State's response to be an adequate answer to the case we made in our Report. We do not understand why the Secretary of State is content to draw up his own Children's Plan with regard to the principles and Articles of the UNCRC, but is not prepared to require the authorities drawing up local Children's Plans to do the same. We ask the Secretary of State to reconsider and to ask the relevant local authorities to draw up their plans with due regard to the need to implement the UNCRC and the recommendations of the UN Committee.

20   Department for Children, Schools and Families, The Children's Plan: Building Brighter Futures, Cm 7280, December 2007, p. 3. Back

21   Ibid., pp 15, 159. Back

22   Department for Children, Schools and Families, The Children's Plan One Year On: A Progress Report, December 2008. Back

23   Ibid., p. 208. Back

24   Consultation on the Scottish Government's Response to the 2008 Concluding Observations from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 15 December 2008. Back

25   Ev 26 Back

26   Ev 47, 72, 157 Back

27  Ev 157 Back

28   Ev 62, 158, 185, 189 Back

29   Ev 28, 186 Back

30   Ev 26 Back

31   Q 40 Back

32   UNCRC's Concluding Observations on UK, op. cit., para. 11.  Back

33   Ev 148 Back

34   Q 31 Back

35   Q 33 Back

36   Ev 47, 139 Back

37   Ev 47 Back

38   Ev 139 Back

39   Ev 47, 185 Back

40   Ev 92, 139 Back

41   PBC Deb, 24 June 2008, col 46. Back

42   Q 109 Back

43   Q 116 Back

44   Ev 25 Back

45   Ev 25 Back

46   See note 5, above. Back

47   See note 32 above, para. 11. Back

48   Third Report of Session 2008-09, A Bill of Rights for the UK? Government's Response to the Committee's Twenty-Ninth Report of Session 2007-08, HL Paper 15, HC 145, p. 18. Back

49   Ministry of Justice, Rights and Responsibilities: Developing our Constitutional Framework, Cm 7577, March 2009, para. 3.66. Back

50   Ibid., para. 3.67. Back

51   Fourteenth Report of Session 2008-09, Legislative Scrutiny: Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, HL Paper 78, HC 414, paras 2.42-2.48. Back

52   Ibid, para. 2.46; HC Deb, 5 May 2009. Back

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