Lagging behind?

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) requires
governments to invest the maximum available resources in meeting
their human rights obligations to children. That one in three of
our children lives in poverty is proof enough that this is not
happening: we are the fourth richest country in the world, yet we
have the highest child poverty rate in Europe. Despite Tony Blair’s
promise in 1999 that his government would end child poverty in a
generation, there is no national strategy for eradicating child

Another policy area that deeply concerns NGOs is the government’s
approach to children involved in crime. The age of criminal
responsibility in the UK is one of the lowest in Europe – eight in
Scotland and 10 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Most
European countries do not define or treat children as criminals
before the age of 13. In Belgium the age of criminal responsibility
is 18 and in Argentina, Portugal and Spain it is 16.

The CRC states that children must be locked up only as a last
resort and for the shortest period of time. Yet we have the highest
numbers of locked-up children in Europe. And since 1995, 14
children have killed themselves in prison – most, if not all, with
care histories.

When the Committee on the Rights of the Child last examined the UK
government in 1995, it strongly urged law reform on corporal
punishment. Since then, hitting children in private schools has
been banned – it was prohibited in state schools from 1987 – but
there has been no progress in reforming the law on parents hitting
children. With disturbing statistics that 77 children died in
1999-2000 as a result of abuse and neglect, we cannot afford to be
complacent. In Sweden, where all forms of parental physical
punishment were banned in 1979, only four child abuse deaths were
recorded between 1981 and 1996.

In November last year, the government announced its decision to do
nothing, saying it wanted to “avoid heavy-handed intrusion into
family life”. Yet it passionately pushes its zero tolerance of
violence between adults in the home. Article 19 of the convention
grants all babies and children the right to be free from all forms
of violence. The committee will not be impressed by the
government’s lack of action and is certain to reiterate that the
defence of “reasonable chastisement” should be removed from

The government’s discriminatory and inadequate treatment of asylum
seekers will also attract criticism in Geneva. Although
unaccompanied children are not currently subject to the compulsory
dispersal system, the prospect of being uprooted on reaching 18
makes planning for education and employment extremely difficult.

The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill proposes to segregate
asylum seekers in accommodation centres. Three centres are planned,
all in the countryside and each holding up to 750 children and
adults. Education and health care will be provided on site, making
integration virtually impossible.

There are many other aspects of the convention that are not being
implemented, such as the provision to actively publicise children’s
rights to children and adults; and the requirement to ensure all
children have equal access to education that is geared to fully
developing their personality, talents and mental and physical
abilities. Young disabled people’s right to active participation in
their communities is only partially recognised in law; and all
children’s right to express and have their views considered
whenever decisions are made that affect them is still not
consistently respected.

When the committee publishes its conclusions in October, children’s
rights advocates across the UK will have a powerful tool to
persuade, cajole and shame the government into action. Our ultimate
task is to get senior politicians to accept children as a political
priority – a job that would become much easier if we had an
independent children’s rights commissioner with the resources and
political clout to get children and their human rights noticed.

Wales already has a commissioner, and Northern Ireland and Scotland
are well on the way. An announcement from Westminster that
England’s 11 million children are to get their own champion and
watchdog would be the first serious sign that the government wants
to honour its obligations to children.

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