The United Nations finds much to criticise in its latest report on
the UK’s children’s rights record. When the UN last reported, in
1995, it read like the description of a Hogarth painting,
expressing concerns about the high levels of violence against
children, the low age of criminal responsibility, the alarming
extent of child poverty, the high rates of teenage pregnancy and
the lack of an independent commissioner to promote children’s
rights. Seven years later, despite the huge apparatus of support
services introduced by this government from Sure Start to the New
Deal, the picture painted by the UN committee on the rights of the
child is not so very different.
Generally couched in the bland bureaucratic language that typifies
the committee’s outpourings, the report is moved to something like
passion in describing what it sees as the “high prevalence of
violence, including sexual violenceÉagainst children within
families, in schools, in institutions, in the care system and in
detention”. It renews calls for a ban on smacking, urges the
government to appoint an independent children’s commissioner and
laments its failure to extend the Children Act 1989 principle of
the best interests of the child to those in the criminal justice
system or seeking asylum.
The government will say that it is still too early to judge its
record. Initiatives such as Sure Start, the Children’s Fund and
Connexions are only just beginning to make an impact, while the
programme to abolish child poverty is itself work in progress. But
the government cannot continue to defer judgement on its policies
for much longer.
John Denham’s insistence that a ban on smacking would be
“ludicrous” is unforgivable coming from the minister for children
and young people, as is the government’s dogged attachment to the
Victorian law of “reasonable chastisement” which gives legal
sanction to parents who hit their children harshly and frequently.
The government’s taste for locking up children, and an age of
criminal responsibility which starts at eight in Scotland and 10 in
the rest of the UK, scarcely shows it in a better light. More
children are held in custody in this country than anywhere else in
western Europe and the whole sorry process starts from a much
younger age here too, as evidenced by new powers given to courts to
hold 12 to 16 year olds on custodial remand.
Until the government learns the lesson of the Children Act that
children’s welfare comes first, the UN is unlikely to change its