The four UK children’s commissioners will visit Geneva this Wednesday to deliver a damning report on the UK government’s children’s rights record since 2002.
The report, published today, highlights the poor treatment of some of the UK’s most vulnerable children – placing the country in clear breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which England’s children’s commissioner, Al Aynsley-Green, calls “our moral compass”.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child will receive the commissioners’ report in advance of its third review of the UK’s compliance with the convention, due in October.
“The UK government will be under an intense spotlight – they can’t evade it,” says Aynsley-Green. He recalls the “scathing” criticisms of the government’s record in the last UN review in 2002, which pointed out dozens of shortcomings.
The UK commissioners’ report recognises some progress has been made, but identifies 192 areas of concern and makes 110 recommendations. They conclude that some of the UN’s recommendations have failed to be implemented and some areas have worsened.
The asylum system sees young people seeking refuge as “statistics” and is not based on their interests, Aynsley-Green says. “Of all the issues we have considered, the asylum system has the greatest number of injustices to children and breaches of the UN convention. It is at odds with our noble tradition of tolerance and fairness.”
The commissioners say that the UK government is ignoring recommendations in the 2002 review by deciding against providing guardians for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and failing to use detention only in the last resort and for the shortest possible time.
They add that care and support for this group remains inconsistent in England and Wales, particularly for 16- and 17-year-olds, and many do not have their own social worker.
Among their 10 recommendations for improving the process, the commissioners call for statutory guidance to ensure all unaccompanied minors remain in the formal care system until 18 and that children are only ever removed if their guardian believes it is in their best interests.
In 2002, the UN committee expressed “serious concern that the situation of children in conflict with the law has worsened”, highlighting growing rates of incarceration and the poor conditions experienced by children in custody. It called for the age of criminal responsibility for children to be raised from eight in Scotland and 10 elsewhere, but this has not happened.
Indeed, the commissioners report that more and more children in England and Wales aged under 10 are being brought into contact with criminal justice agencies and criticise the youth justice systems of these countries for their “punitive” nature.
Among their 10 recommendations in this area is that Scotland’s welfare-based children’s hearing system is adopted across the UK, and for the rest of the UK to follow the Scots in not imposing a custodial sentence on under-16s who breach antisocial behaviour orders.
They also call for an inquiry into the number of children held in custody in England and Wales, which would also cover child deaths in custody, of which there have been 30 since 1990.
In a section of the 2002 UN review headed “Torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”, the committee was “concerned at the frequent use of physical restraint in residential institutions and in custody”.
But little appears to have changed. The commissioners report that between January 2004 and September 2005, restraint was used 7,020 times on young people in secure training centres (STCs), 5,133 times in young offender institutions (YOIs) and 3,359 in eight secure children’s homes.
Aynsley-Green welcomes the government-commissioned review into the use of restraint, which is due to be published this summer. But he agreed that the committee would view the deaths of Adam Rickwood and Gareth Myatt, teenagers who died in separate incidents in STCs in 2004 after being restrained by staff, as signs of failure.
“We wish to pursue the training of staff who deal with adolescents, particularly in young offenders institutions. One idea is to have specialist staff who work only with adolescents.”
At the time of the last UN report, Wales was the only nation in the UK to have its own commissioner to protect and promote the rights and welfare of children. But despite the three other posts being set up since then, the scope of their mandates remains contentious, and the commissioners highlight “varying degrees of independence”, which they believe may limit their powers.
For example, they express frustration that the controversial issue of asylum can only be dealt with by England’s commissioner, because the matter is non-devolved, and that their appointments are controlled by governments in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
They also point out that the English commissioner’s mandate, unlike those of his colleagues, is tied to the Every Child Matters outcomes rather than the convention’s rights-based approach.
The report says “this ties the office directly to government policy in a way that can be seen as restricting his independence”, although Aynsley-Green adds that he is obliged to “pay regard” to the convention.
Meanwhile, only the commissioners in Wales and Northern Ireland can investigate individual cases. Scottish commissioner Kathleen Marshall says it is difficult to explain to “children that ‘we’re here to make life better for you’ if I can’t take on their case.”
On the other hand, she accepts the possibility of becoming “swamped” with complaints that could limit her capacity for strategic work, in which she has been successful.
The children’s rights impact assessment, introduced by Marshall in 2006, is a tool used by government and councils to assess the impact of law and policy on children’s rights. Marshall says interest from “all over the world” led her to explain its merits before the House of Lords and European parliament.
Although Aynsley-Green says he is “not a human rights institution”, he vows to continue his attempts to put children’s interests at the centre of all relevant policy by advocating for their rights. “I’m very concerned indeed at the way policy is reflecting the public mood towards children who come into conflict with the law.”
He says that “significant progress” has been made in England since 2002, particularly with Every Child Matters and the 10-year Children’s Plan, launched by children’s secretary Ed Balls last year.
But he adds: “But we still have a very long way to go before we can really claim to be, as Ed Balls wants us to be, the best country in the world for children to grow up in.”