The UK's compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents


Conclusions and recommendations


PURPOSE OF THE INQUIRY

1.  We very much hope that our successor Committee will use the opportunities presented to it to continue to use the UNCRC as a tool for assessing policy and legislation, and will consider taking forward one or more of the problematic policy areas we have highlighted in this Report for an inquiry at an early stage in the new Parliament. We would also commend to our successor Committee the need to recognise the different approaches of the devolved administrations and the challenges presented in achieving a coherent overarching implementation of the Convention. (Paragraph 2)

2.  We welcome the recent moves in the UN to encourage greater parliamentary involvement in its human rights machinery, including the work of the treaty bodies that monitor states' compliance with their obligations under the UN human rights treaties. We hope that this Report will be of assistance to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child when it examines the UK Government's periodic review report. (Paragraph 3)

THE GOVERNMENT'S 2010 UNCRC COMMITMENT

3.  We acknowledge as an important and progressive move the commitment made by the Government in December 2010 to give due regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child when developing law and policy. We believe that such a commitment, made at the beginning of the new Parliament by an incoming Government, can help keep up the momentum for the progressive realisation of children's rights for the next five years. It will also signal the intent of the new Government in taking international human rights treaties seriously. While such a commitment alone can only do so much, we nonetheless call on the next Government to renew the 2010 commitment. We were also very impressed by the personal commitment to children's rights and the Convention shown by the Children's Minister during our evidence session with him. (Paragraph 25)

4.  We believe that the 2010 commitment did change things for the better. However, aside from a few recent clear examples where good practice has been sustained outside the Department for Education, the momentum for spreading good practice and awareness throughout government concerning the Convention—and to encourage departments to take the articles of the Convention seriously—seems to have lessened over the course of this Parliament. There does not seem to have been any attempt made to gauge how well the commitment was being fulfilled or to monitor the extent to which the Convention was being taken substantively into account by government departments. While we believe the commitment has proved to be worth far more than just the words which made it up, it is important for governments in future to follow up such commitments more avidly and to ensure that the good intentions they signify have practical and positive effects. (Paragraph 26)

5.  There has been some better practice this Parliament from Government departments in capturing in their human rights memoranda the impact on children of their legislative proposals particularly with regard to the Children and Families Bill and the Modern Slavery Bill. However, departments' policies on assessing compatibility with the United Convention on the Rights of the Child and potential impacts upon children is far from consistent across Government, resulting in some surprising failures to assess the impact on children of policies which clearly affect them very significantly. This is one area where the 2010 commitment ought to have been capable of achieving significant progress. If all government departments were required to take the trouble to consider how their legislation is compliant with the UNCRC articles and to report on that assessment to Parliament, that would constitute a very necessary, and significant, step towards making those departments more aware of their duties under that Convention. The new Government should take steps to ensure that all memoranda accompanying legislation provide a detailed assessment of this sort as a matter of course, and that all departments have access to the necessary expertise in the UNCRC to help them carry out this necessary task. (Paragraph 28)

6.  Ideally, we would like to see the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child incorporated into UK law in the same way that the European Convention on Human Rights has been incorporated by means of the Human Rights Act. However, we are mindful that these two Conventions differ considerably in how they are framed and in the mechanisms which exist to support them internationally. In practical terms more must be done to realise the aims of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child through legislation and through policy. The Modern Slavery Bill shows this can be done in a particular policy area. If such a dedicated focus on children's rights were manifest in legislation and policy across the board, much of the debate about incorporation versus non-incorporation would become an irrelevance. It would also be a better way of proceeding in terms of allowing for fruitful discussions to take place on particular areas of children's rights that were being addressed at any given time. (Paragraph 34)

7.  We believe that the Government should ratify the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which would give children the right of individual petition to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. The Government's view that it needs to wait to see how ratification of similar Optional Protocols for the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Convention on Ending Discrimination Against Women works holds no water. Moreover, the Office of the Children's Commissioner for England lacking any power of individual investigation of complaints means that children in England are less well provided for in terms of access to possible recourse to justice than children in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. This makes the need for the Optional Protocol more real and not just powerfully symbolic of the Government's commitment to the Convention. (Paragraph 38)

THE PLACE OF CHILDREN'S RIGHTS WITHIN THE MACHINERY OF GOVERNMENT

8.  We are very aware of the challenges that exist within government in terms of communication and cooperation between departments with very different policy priorities and spending constraints. It is clear that some departments are fully aware of the 2010 commitment and have made an effort to reflect upon children's rights in terms of their own policy responsibilities. However, some are not in this position. Some departments seem to believe that children's rights are only a matter for the Department for Education. More needs to be done across Government to spread knowledge and expertise and more importantly to impress upon ministers outside the Department for Education the central importance of children's rights for a just and healthy society. Despite some good work undertaken by the Home Office in connection with Modern Slavery Bill, we are concerned that certain policy areas within that Department and the Ministry of Justice remain seemingly unaffected by the 2010 commitment, most notably with regard to the treatment of child migrants and the provision of legal aid for children. (Paragraph 47)

9.  We are also concerned to hear from the Children's Minister that he does not feel party to the Home Affairs clearance process for legislation which, amongst other things, looks at whether the rights of the child are being upheld in legislative proposals. We believe that it does not reflect the importance of children's rights if the Children's Minister is not sufficiently involved in the clearance process for legislation that will impact directly on children in this country. (Paragraph 49)

10.  We have concerns that the role of Children's Minister is not senior enough in Government to command attention to children's rights issues at the top levels of policy-making. While the current Secretary of State for Education is no doubt aware of her responsibility for matters relating to children, she is also Minister for Women and Equalities. In giving evidence to us in our inquiry into violence against women and girls, she stressed the importance of having that portfolio at that level in order to advance women's rights issues. This only emphasises the need for someone at Cabinet level to hold the named brief for children. The new Government must give serious thought to how it arranges its portfolios and policy responsibilities better to reflect the prime importance of children's rights to a fairer future for all the people of this country. The growing focus on the impact of family breakdown and issues surrounding troubled families should also give children's rights particular prominence for the new Government. (Paragraph 53)

THE GOVERNMENT'S 2014 UNCRC REPORT

11.  The Government should be commended for aspects of its May 2014 report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, since it represents a considerable improvement on previous reports. However, whether because of the process by which it was put together, or whether by intention, the report is too abstract, its analysis too patchy, and there are some significant omissions from its content. It also fails to recognise those areas where there is still considerable disagreement outside government about whether its policy has indeed been compatible with the Convention, presenting a somewhat optimistic picture in places. Perhaps more importantly, the report does not adequately reflect the 'grass roots' contact which the Government helpfully facilitated during the consultation on its report; nor does it represent the practical reality for many children, particularly the disadvantaged, in areas where policy may have been misjudged or good policies perhaps not properly implemented. (Paragraph 67)

THE REFORM OF THE OFFICE OF THE CHILDREN'S COMMISSIONER FOR ENGLAND

12.  The reforms to the Office of the Children's Commissioner for England represent a progressive move towards strengthening the power and independence of the Commissioner and, although they have only been in place for a short time, have already begin to have an impact on a number of children's rights issues. In particular the redefinition of the mandate explicitly to incorporate children's rights, which we believe must be seen to lie at the centre of all that the Commissioner does, has been of signal importance. (Paragraph 74)

13.  However, we do have concerns that, unlike her counterparts in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the Commissioner is not empowered to take up individual cases on behalf of children. We accept that granting these powers to the Children's Commissioner for England would need to go hand-in-hand with a possibly significant increase in resources, but we believe that this would be a good use of public funds, especially since it would give children in England the same recourse as children have currently-or, in the case of Scotland, from next year-elsewhere in the UK. It would also respond positively to criticisms made of the current limit on the Commissioner's powers made by the UN Committee. The next Government should undertake assessments of how the Children's Commissioner could be given such powers, without impacting upon the strategic overview required of the Office, and of the quantum of new funding that would be required. (Paragraph 75)

14.  We remain concerned that the power the Children's Commissioner has to undertake Children's Rights assessments—and which has been effectively used—is not an acceptable alternative to the Government carrying out such assessments itself more comprehensively across all departments, and in particular for policies or spending decisions that are cross-departmental. The Government should be engaging more proactively with the recommendations from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to carry out such assessments itself. (Paragraph 76)

15.  We welcome Anne Longfield to her new position as Children's Commissioner for England. We also thank the last Commissioner, Dr Maggie Atkinson, for all that she has done to further the promotion and protection of children's rights in England over the last five years. Her powerful evidence to us showed the capacity of the role of Children's Commissioner for England to communicate very effectively to parliamentarians, and to others, the importance of children's rights and the need for policy and legislative action. We hope that the links between that Office and Parliament—and in particular this Committee—will be strengthened over the next five years. We also reiterate what we said in our earlier Reports on the reforms to the Children's Commissioner's role, that our Committee is best placed to undertake the pre-appointment hearing for that position. (Paragraph 77)

16.  We still have a few concerns about the independence of the Office-and the appearance of its independence to external bodies or individuals, particularly children. Clearly, through appointment and funding any government potentially has some influence over the capacity of the Office to undertake the sort of work that might be critical of Government policy. We also feel that the Commissioner should be able to establish a non-governmental web-site, and to locate her premises somewhere outside Government premises, although we accept that this latter might have resource implications which the Government should attempt to mitigate. (Paragraph 85)

CHILDREN'S RIGHTS IN A TIME OF AUSTERITY

17.  All the evidence with which we have been presented during this short inquiry points to the fact that the impact on children of this current period of austerity has been greater than for many other groups. Certain categories of children may have been protected from the worst impacts of austerity, but other groups—in particular migrant children, whether unaccompanied or not, and children in low-income families—have been hits by cuts in benefits and in the provision of services. Inasmuch as austerity was a necessary response to the financial problems besetting the country—and it is not our role to take a view on this—some proportionate impact may have been inevitable. However, we are disappointed that children—in particular, disadvantaged children—have in certain areas suffered disproportionately. (Paragraph 100)

18.  Child poverty, along with the statutory duty on the government to eliminate it by 2020, must be seen as a phenomenon which impacts very considerably on children's rights, as is reflected in the child poverty strategies adopted by the governments of Northern Ireland and Wales. As such it should be regarded as a human rights issue, and the Government should undertake an assessment of any new policy or law in terms of its impact on child poverty, integrated within or alongside its assessment of the compatibility of that policy or law with the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Government needs to work harder to minimise as much of the effect on children of cuts to funding as possible. The Government should also have monitored more closely the impacts of these cuts with a view to modifying its policy in those areas where children were clearly suffering more than other groups. (Paragraph 101)

CHILDREN'S RIGHTS: ONGOING POLICY CHANGES

19.  The Government's reforms to legal aid have been a significant black mark on its human rights record during the second half of this Parliament. The two Reports we agreed on the subject, at the end of 2013 and early in 2014, set out our concerns and what we feared might be the outcome of some of those reforms in terms of reducing access to justice for children. We acknowledge the few discrete areas in which the Government helpfully accepted our concerns and reviewed elements of its reforms. However, the evidence we heard from the outgoing Children's Commissioner for England and from all the NGOs we took oral evidence from provides firm grounds for a new Government of whatever make-up to look again at these reforms and to undo some of the harm they have caused to children. (Paragraph 118)

20.  We remain very concerned about the use of force on children in custody and believe that the recent provisions with regard to secure colleges in the Criminal Justice and Courts Act cannot be considered compatible with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The progress that has been made in this area over the last few years is in danger of being lost. The Government must consider not only the circumstances in which force can be used but revisit the methods of restraint which can be employed. (Paragraph 127)

21.  We welcome the fact that the Government has committed itself to dealing with the issue of children with mental health problems in custody. We are also concerned the Special Educational Needs reforms put in place by the Children and Families Act do not extend to children in custody despite education being seen as key element of the secure college system. We call for this to be addressed as a matter of urgency by the next Government. In addition, a number of other justice issues relating to children have been raised with us, such as the lack of anonymity for children in legal proceedings, which we think our successor Committee may want to examine in greater detail. (Paragraph 128)

22.  We reiterate the point that we made in our Report on the Serious Crime Bill that we have come across a "series of issues which have arisen in different contexts raising the wider question of the lack of a consistent legal definition of the age of a child in the UK". We again call on the Government to review this whole area of law. We understand that this will necessarily be a complex and occasionally controversial question, but children and young people deserve greater clarity from the law than it currently gives. The start of a new Parliament would be an opportune time to tackle a complex issue of this kind. (Paragraph 132)

23.  We acknowledge the considerable improvements that the Government has made in the area of special educational needs, particularly in the Children and Families Act 2014. However, we do remain concerned at the potential effect of section 33 of the Education Act which could be used significantly to dilute the benefit of the Government's reforms in this area. The high proportion of children excluded from schools who have special educational needs points to the fact that more needs to be done. The Government must monitor the impact of section 33 on the fair and equitable provision of education in schools and take steps to remedy any harmful impact of this section of the Act. (Paragraph 139)

24.  While we welcome the reduction in the number of migrant children held in immigration detention, we are disappointed that so little other progress appears to have been made by the Government since we reported on the human rights of unaccompanied migrant children and young people in the UK back in June 2013. All the evidence we have received suggests that the treatment of child migrants is an area where, despite some improvements, if anything the situation has grown worse overall during this Parliament. The Home Office seems still to prioritise the need to control immigration over the best interests of the child. This is unsatisfactory. The Government must ensure that the best interests of the child are paramount in immigration matters and work with other departments to ensure that the needs such children are met and their rights safeguarded. The UNHCR evidence that guidance for Home Office and UKVI staff is not good enough and training patchy must be acted upon. (Paragraph 152)

25.  We hope that our successor Committee will have an opportunity to scrutinise this issue, which we know is a controversial one in the UK, in the light of the UN Committee's Concluding Observations which will be delivered in 2016. (Paragraph 156)

CHILDREN'S RIGHTS AND DEVOLUTION

26.  We are aware of the complexity of the devolution settlement which will no doubt continue to evolve over the next Parliament. We are likewise aware of the sensitivities surrounding which areas are appropriate for a Committee such as ours to examine; and we are rightly respectful of the special relationships the devolved human rights institutions have with their legislatures and executives, and indeed with the people of each of their countries. Nonetheless, we do believe that a UK-wide examination of the impacts of devolution on the protection and promotion of human rights is required after the Election. Such a review is in our view necessary to provide reassurance that there is consistency across the four countries of the UK in those areas where that is required and that the different arrangements which very properly have been adopted in those countries do not reduce the level of protection for children but, where they have increased that protection, rather provide useful best practice for the rest of the UK to follow. (Paragraph 171)






 
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