In a child’s best interests

Steve Cragg explains how the United Nations
Convention on the Rights of the Child underpins most domestic
legislation and why social services professionals need to base
policy and services around it.

I have often heard it said that most of our
policies and practices in the child care and welfare field must be
carried out in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of
the Child. Is this so, and if it is, what guidance or rules are
laid out in the convention?

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
(the UN Convention) has been given fresh importance by the
introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the recent case
concerning the rights of mothers in prison to keep their babies
with them (Q v Secretary of State for the Home Department, 17 May

In this case Lord Woolf considered the
position of the UN Convention and whether domestic courts need to
have regard to it. He concluded that obligations under the UN
Convention are relevant because the Human Rights Act 1998 says that
courts in this country must have regard to the decisions of the
European Court of Human Rights. And that court, when looking at the
rights in the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), considers
the UN Convention.

So where, for example, the courts in this
country have to decide whether a child’s right to respect for a
home or family life (article 8 of the ECHR), or the right not to be
subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment (article 3) has been
breached, they can look at the UN Convention to see if it gives any

What, then, are the rights protected by the UN
Convention? One of its fundamental guiding principles is that, “in
all actions concerning children, whether by public or private
social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative
authorities or legislative bodies the best interests of the child
shall be a primary consideration” (article 3).

Rights set out with particular reference to
children are:

– Freedom of association and of

– Freedom of thought, conscience and

– Right not to have privacy, home, family and
correspondence unlawfully or arbitrarily interfered with.

– The right not to be subjected to torture and
inhuman and degrading treatment.

The other main rights are:

– The state must ensure that standards are in
place in the area of health, safety and suitability of staff.

– The rights in the UN Convention must be
protected by law and economic, social and cultural rights.

– Children shall only be separated from their
parents where it is the best interests of the child (to be
reviewable by the courts).

– Measures to combat “the illicit transfer and
non-return of children abroad” shall be introduced.

– Children capable of forming their own views
will have due weight given to those views.

– Recognition that disabled children should
lead a full and decent life, in conditions which ensure dignity,
promote self-reliance and facilitate active participation in the

– Recognition of the right of disabled
children to special care, training and education.

– Appropriate legislative, administrative,
social and educational measures to protect children from abuse and

– Encouragement to be given to access to mass
media, children’s books and educational materials.

– Protection for refugee children and
assistance in reunification with their parents.

– Access to the highest attainable standards
of health and to access to facilities for treatment.

– Support for parents in achieving an adequate
standard of living.

– The right to education, in particular free
compulsory primary education.

Although much of the UN Convention is couched
in general and sometimes aspirational terms, those local
authorities and health authorities who have not audited their
children’s policies, services and practices against the UN
Convention will need to do so. Social services professionals will
see with interest that the UN Convention underpins and informs much
of domestic legislation and practice, but the ability to be able to
point to the support of the UN for a policy or practice will always
be of use.

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