Children's Rights - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

6  Other issues

Children and armed conflict

139.  Article 38 of the Convention obliges states to take all feasible measures to ensure that children under the age of 15 do not take a direct part in hostilities. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on Children in Armed Conflict, which the UK ratified in 2003,[271] extends this protection by committing states to taking all feasible measures to ensure that members of their armed forces under the age of 18 do not take a direct part in hostilities.[272] At the time of its ratification of the Optional Protocol, the UK made a declaration to Article 1 of the Optional Protocol as to its understanding of the meaning of that provision, which we have previously criticised as being overbroad and serving to undermine the UK's commitment not to deploy under-18s in conflict zones.[273]

140.  The UNCRC reported on the UK's compliance with the Optional Protocol for the first time in its 2008 report. It made a series of recommendations including that the UK should:

  • train all members of the armed forces and all relevant professionals on the Optional Protocol;
  • publicise and promote the provisions of the Optional Protocol to adults and children;
  • review its interpretative declaration to Article 1 to ensure that children are not exposed to the risk of taking direct part in hostilities;
  • review its interpretative declaration to Article 3 (according to which the UK's minimum age for recruitment was 16 years) and raise the minimum age for recruitment into the armed forces to 18 years;
  • reconsider its policy of active recruitment of children into the armed forces and ensure that it does not occur in a manner which specifically targets ethnic minorities and children of low-income families;
  • review the requirements for permitting the discharge of child recruits;
  • adopt and implement legislation criminalising the recruitment and involvement of children in hostilities contrary to the Optional Protocol;
  • ensure and enforce extraterritorial jurisdiction for these crimes;
  • ensure that legislation, codes, manuals and directives are in accordance with the Optional Protocol;
  • collect data on and assist with the recovery and social reintegration of former child soldiers who enter the UK;
  • abolish the handling and use of firearms for all children;
  • ensure that child soldiers captured by UK forces are detained as a measure of last resort and in adequate conditions for their age and vulnerability; are guaranteed periodic and impartial reviews of their detention; and have access to independent complaint mechanisms;
  • ensure that children in conflict with the military law are dealt with within the juvenile justice system; and
  • expressly prohibit within legislation, the sale of arms to countries where children are known to be or may potentially be recruited or used in hostilities.

141.  The Department told us:

We recognise the importance of providing special treatment for young people under the age of 18 serving in the Armed Forces and our policy is not to deploy under-18s on operations and we have introduced administrative guidelines and procedures to ensure they are withdrawn from their units before they are deployed to hostilities.[274]

142.  According to the Quakers, 28% of all recruits to the UK armed forces in 2007-8 were aged under 18 and the UK is unique in the EU in recruiting under-18 year olds into the armed forces.[275] They suggested that this led to risks to the physical and mental well-being of adolescents.[276] Some witnesses questioned whether under-18 year olds should be required to make a binding contract so far in the future and criticized the differential minimum service periods for under-18 year olds compared to adults.[277] The Quakers and the Children's Rights Alliance for England suggested that there should be discharge as of right up until a person's eighteenth birthday.[278]

143.  We note the UN Committee's extensive set of recommendations to the UK on compliance with the Optional Protocol. We recommend that the UK adopt a plan of action for implementing the Optional Protocol, including these recommendations, fully in the UK, together with a clear timetable for doing so.

Child poverty

144.  One aspect of the UN Committee's recommendations on care was to avoid children being taken into alternative care as a result of low parental income. The Committee noted the widening gap in child mortality between the most and the least well-off groups and recommended that inequalities in access to health services be addressed through a coordinated approach across all Government departments and greater coordination between health policies and those aimed at reducing income inequality and poverty. The Committee emphasised that an adequate standard of living was essential for a child's physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development and that child poverty affects infant mortality rates, access to health and education as well as everyday quality of life of children. Specifically, the Committee recommended that the UK should:

  • adopt and adequately implement legislation aimed at reducing child poverty by 2020, including by setting measurable indicators for its achievement;
  • prioritise children and families in most need of support;
  • intensify efforts to provide material assistance and support programmes for children; and
  • reintroduce a statutory duty for local authorities to provide safe and adequate sites for Travellers.[279]

145.  Witnesses welcomed the Government's plan to legislate to achieve the target of eradicating child poverty by 2020[280] but argued that this "should not detract from the pressing need for Government to invest the necessary resources to reach the interim target of halving child poverty by 2010".[281] 11 Million argued that "legislative reform on its own will not be enough" and called for "£3 billion to be invested".[282] Save the Children suggested that for legislation to be effective, it must include a definition of the eradication of child poverty, focus on children living in severe and persistent poverty, introduce statutory duties on each devolved administration to end child poverty and to publish a child poverty strategy, link to Government spending decisions, require policies to be "poverty-proofed" at both national and local levels and provide a clear mechanism for independent scrutiny and engagement with stakeholders.[283]

146.  Witnesses noted that child poverty was more prevalent in Northern Ireland than in Great Britain (38% of children live in poverty in Northern Ireland compared to 20% in Great Britain),[284] specific groups of children are more at risk of poverty (such as children with autism[285] and disabled children[286]), poverty and other forms of disadvantage have a significant impact on engagement with education[287] and educational achievement is lower for children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.[288] In addition, asylum-seeking children are not counted for the purposes of the child poverty measure[289] but, according to the Children's Society, should be.[290] As ILPA put it:

The poverty of certain children under immigration control is not being eradicated, it is being written out of the picture.[291]

147.  We asked the Children's Commissioners whether they considered that the current economic climate should affect the Government's commitment to eradicating child poverty. They considered that the commitment should remain in place, regardless of the current economic downturn.[292] The Northern Irish and Welsh Commissioners expressed concern about the narrowness of the definition of child poverty[293] and suggested that it should not only consider financial poverty but also poverty of opportunity.[294] The Commissioner for Wales told us:

If we are going to [end child poverty], we need a very clear route map and we do not have the route map at the moment.[295]

148.  During oral evidence, we asked the Minister whether it was envisaged that a failure to adopt a target or a strategy to achieve the target of eradicating child poverty could be challenged by judicial review. At the time, Ministers had not decided on this issue but Anne Jackson suggested that at present, targets and local area agreements are not susceptible to judicial review.[296] Since we took evidence on this issue, the Government has published its Child Poverty Bill which we are currently subjecting to detailed scrutiny for its compatibility with human rights. We aim to report on the Bill before its Report stage in the Commons.


149.  The UN Convention recognises the right of the child to education.[297] In its report on the UK, the Committee expressed concern at persisting significant inequalities in school achievement of children living with their parents in economic hardship. It also noted that several groups of children have problems being enrolled in school or continuing or re-entering education (such as children with disabilities, children of Travellers, Roma children, asylum-seeking children, dropouts and non-attendees, and teenage mothers). It also expressed concern at children's limited consultation rights or rights to complain. The Committee made a series of detailed recommendations, including that the UK should:

  • reduce the effects of the social background of children on their achievement in school;
  • provide additional resources to ensure the right of all children to a truly inclusive education, including for children from disadvantaged, marginalized and "school-distant" groups;
  • provide alternative quality education for children out of school;
  • use permanent or temporary exclusions as a last resort, reduce the number of exclusions and provide social and psychological assistance to children in conflict with school;
  • ensure that children without parental care have a representative who actively defends their best interests;
  • tackle bullying and violence in school, including through teaching human rights, peace and tolerance;
  • strengthen children's participation in all matters that affect them; and
  • provide a right of appeal for children who are able to express their views.[298]

150.  Witnesses raised many different concerns around the subject of education, some of which we have dealt with in other Chapters of this Report.[299] We attempt here to summarise the most significant other issues which witnesses brought to our attention, some of which echo the UN Committee's own observations. These include:

  • a lack of suitable educational provision within local areas to meet the particular needs of children with special educational needs and disabilities,[300] and no national strategy for including all disabled pupils in mainstream schools;[301]
  • looked-after children miss schooling, have poor educational outcomes and find it difficult to access extra-curricular activities;[302] they perform poorly at school and are less likely to go onto further and higher education;[303]
  • teenage mothers experience problems in gaining access to education, including lack of child care;[304]
  • unequal access to education and educational attainment for minority ethnic (especially Roma and Traveller) children;[305]
  • widespread bullying in schools,[306] including bullying on the basis of sexual orientation,[307] disability, ethnicity[308] or mental health;[309] inaction on the part of many schools to bullying complaints;[310]
  • high rate of temporary and permanent exclusions, with some groups disproportionately affected;[311]
  • young Gypsies and Travellers complain that they are subject to exclusions and restricted timetables, and receive insufficient support with school work;[312]
  • insufficient or poor quality alternative education for children who are unable to attend school;[313] and
  • children are denied the right to participate in many procedural and substantive aspects of the education system.[314]

151.  Witnesses recommended that:

  • The UNCRC should be included in the national curriculum.[315]
  • Looked-after children with SEN should have an independent right to appeal against decisions made about them.[316]
  • Temporary and permanent exclusions should be monitored more closely.[317] There should be a statutory right of appeal for all excluded children and children's views should be taken into account through the establishment of independent education advocates.[318]
  • Children with sufficient understanding should be allowed to make an informed decision to opt-out of collective worship and religious education[319] or collective worship should be replaced with inclusive assemblies.[320]
  • Discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief should be prohibited in school admissions.[321]

152.  We will return to some of these issues when we consider education as part of our scrutiny of the Equality Bill.

271   Ratified on 24 June 2003. Back

272   Article 1 Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on Children in Armed Conflict. Back

273   Seventeenth Report of Session 2004-05, Equality Bill, HL Paper 98, HC 497, para. 41. UNCRC Concluding Observations on the UK, op. cit., para. 88. Back

274   Ev 77 Back

275   Ev 153 Back

276   Ev 153 Back

277   Ev 151; under-18s and adults must serve a minimum of 4 years, but time served up to eighteenth birthday does not count towards that period. Back

278   Ev 153; see also Ev 62 Back

279   UNCRC's Concluding Observations on the UK, op. cit., para. 65. Back

280   Ev 67, 160 Back

281   Ev 48 Back

282   Ev 29 Back

283   Ev 160 Back

284   Ev 86 Back

285   Ev 183 Back

286   Ev 86 Back

287   Ev 86, 128 Back

288   Ev 56 Back

289   Ev 156 Back

290   Ev 67 Back

291   Ev 111 Back

292   Q 16 Back

293   Q 16 Back

294   Q 16 Back

295   Q 16 Back

296   Q 114 Back

297   Article 28 UNCRC. Back

298   UNCRC's Concluding Observations on the UK, op. cit., para. 67. Back

299   E.g. criminal justice (Chapter 4 above), asylum-seeking, refugee and trafficked children (Chapter 5 above). Back

300   Ev 55, 128 Back

301   Ev 40 Back

302   Ev 179 Back

303   Ev 56, 179 Back

304   Ev 56 Back

305   Ev 56, 86, 91, 95, 198 Back

306   Ev 58, 61 Back

307   Ev 34, 91 Back

308   Ev 198 Back

309   Ev 90, 182 Back

310   Ev 58 Back

311   Ev 58; e.g. children with special educational needs, Ev 187; Ev 94; Ev 158; e.g. looked-after children in foster care, Ev 181; Ev 40 Back

312   Ev 96 Back

313   Ev 57 Back

314   Ev 57, 61 Back

315   Ev 185 Back

316   Ev 94 Back

317   Ev 94 Back

318   Ev 159 Back

319   Ev 64, 135 Back

320   Ev 33 Back

321   Ev 33, 137 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 20 November 2009