UK in the dock

Next week, the UK government goes before the United Nations
Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva to discuss its
record of putting children’s rights into practice. The committee is
the international treaty monitoring body for the Convention on the
Rights of the Child (CRC), which was adopted by the UN General
Assembly in November 1989.

With only two countries – the US and Somalia – failing to sign up,
it is the most ratified human rights treaty in the world. The UK
ratified the CRC in December 1991. By doing this, it took on a
legal obligation to make all laws, policy and practice compatible
with the treaty’s principles and provisions. Every country has to
submit an initial report to the committee two years after
ratification, followed by periodic reports every five years.

The committee examined the UK government’s initial report in 1995.
The government’s first periodic report was submitted in 1999 by the
Department of Health, but a backlog of reports from other countries
has meant that it is only now about to be looked at. During this
time, responsibility for this issue has passed from the DoH to the
children and young people’s unit (CYPU), which duly submitted an
addendum to the report. And it will be the CYPU’s director, Althea
Efunshile, who will head the governmental delegation to

Before the committee examines a government, it holds a
pre-sessional meeting with non-government organisations (NGOs) from
the country. It is the only time that the government is held to
account for its treatment of children so in the absence of a
children’s rights commissioner in England, the UN’s review is
especially important.

The pre-sessional meeting for NGOs in the UK was held in June, when
a report from the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, backed by
80 NGOs, was presented.1

The report says: “It is plain that the government has so far failed
to get to grips with its human rights obligations to children.” It
charts breaches in children’s human rights, and the NGOs “hope it
will generate outrage and then action with and for children in our
country”. Criticisms include:

  • The UK has the fourth richest economy in the world, but 32 per
    cent of children live in relative poverty.
  • Vulnerable children still have no entitlement to independent
    and confidential advocacy services despite concerns about the high
    levels of children in need who fail to approach statutory
  • There is no systematic review to ensure that legislation is
    brought into conformity with the CRC’s principles and
  • Age-based legislation in England continues to be muddled and
    inconsistent, with concerns among NGOs that the government’s drive
    to reduce crime has resulted in initiatives that have brought
    younger children into the criminal justice system.
  • In England and Wales, the statutory complaints and
    representation procedure for children using social services has
    been poorly implemented and is generally inaccessible and
    ineffective in resolving children’s concerns.
  • Government treatment of refugee children and asylum-seeking
    children is inhumane and discriminatory.

The CYPU begs to differ. A spokesperson says that the 1999
report “records clear progress towards establishing and supporting
a greater focus on children’s rights and well-being. There have
been significant developments in the government’s approach to
children since that report was written and mechanisms are now in
place to ensure a more strategic and coherent approach to
children’s issues across government.”

The CYPU also disagrees with the NGOs’ view that progress has been
sparse since 1995, citing the commitment to eradicate child
poverty, the newly created post of children’s minister and the
existence of the unit itself.

These arguments cut little ice with NGOs, which say there are five
key areas where the government could do better in implementing the
CRC. First is poverty, says Pam Hibbert, principal policy officer
at Barnardo’s, one of the NGOs backing the report. There is still a
long way to go despite the pledge to eradicate it, particularly for
families with disabled children, which are among the poorest in the

The second area is the number of children the UK locks up, which is
more than almost any other country in Europe. “We are concerned
about the conditions for children in prison,” says Hibbert. “And
prison doesn’t work. Over 80 per cent of children will reoffend
within two years of leaving prison. It should be the last resort,
according to the CRC, and we don’t believe that principle is being
adhered to.”

NGOs are also disappointed that the legislation allowing
“reasonable chastisement” to be used as an excuse for physical
punishment within the home has yet to be overturned. In 1995, when
the committee last examined the government, it recommended banning
all corporal punishment in the family and schools. “It has been
banned in schools but nothing has really happened in terms of the
family,” Hibbert adds.

There is also anxiety over the fate of asylum-seeking children,
particularly those detained with their families in detention
centres, and those subject to dispersal.

Finally, NGOs are convinced that a children’s commissioner for
England would improve matters. Wales already has one, while
Northern Ireland and Scotland are both in the process of appointing
one. So why not England?

“The government would argue that we have a children’s minister and
the CYPU, and they provide that function,” says Hibbert. “We
acknowledge the work they have done, but they aren’t independent.
We need a robust instrument committed to the rights of children
that is prepared to challenge the government.”

According to the CYPU, the government has not ruled out proposals
for a children’s commissioner for England, and is monitoring
experiences in Wales and other countries to see what lessons can be
learned. “We need to be sure any new mechanisms in England would
genuinely add value to the current bodies, with a central interest
in the well-being and rights of children,” says a

Failing to appoint a children’s rights commissioner for England is
the single greatest way the government has ignored children’s
rights, says Ianthe Maclagan, children’s rights commissioner in

Her post was created by Save the Children – another NGO backing the
report – and Oxfordshire social services. Her role is to work at a
strategic policy level to promote children’s rights and the CRC in
Oxfordshire. Her brief covers all children aged up to 18, not just
those looked after or in need. Although she lacks statutory powers,
she sits on cross-agency strategic planning bodies for children’s

“My powers are persuasion, plugging and nagging, prodding and
picking,” she says.

In Maclagan’s opinion, the government has failed to heed children’s
rights in several areas, including the lack of consideration given
to lifetime and social costs of not meeting needs early; the
perverse effects that can result from being too target-driven; and
failure to make the rights in the CRC known to both children and
adults as stated in Article 42.

After next week’s meeting, the committee will in October publish
its concluding observations on areas of progress, principal areas
of concern and recommendations. It has no power to force the
government to implement these, so in the absence of a children’s
rights commissioner for England, NGOs will continue to press
government to do so. The government promotes human rights on an
international level – isn’t it about time it promoted them for its
own children?

1 CRAE, Report to the Pre-sessional Working
Group of the Committee on the Rights of the Child
, CRAE, 2002
– available from

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