Children’s human rights need to be central to government thinking

Some people still believe that children cannot be rights holders. In fact, by definition, human rights are for everyone, including the youngest members of society. Children also have their own international treaty that sets out specific rights for all under-18s. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) sets out the basic things that children need to thrive and have a good childhood but also acts as a safety net so children always receive at least the minimum standard of treatment.

The UK signed up to the UNCRC in 1991. This means that all areas of government and public institutions, including local government, schools, health services, and criminal justice bodies, must do all they can to fulfil children’s rights.  However our new report, ‘State of Children’s Rights in England 2017’ has found that the safety and wellbeing of some of England’s most vulnerable children is being ignored by these very public institutions whilst the Government is consumed by Brexit, be that the negotiations with the EU, the parliamentary passage of the ‘Brexit Bills’ or securing new trade agreements.   

Our report takes a look back at the past year to assess how well the Government has met their obligations in implementing the UNCRC, based on evidence from our 150 members (made up of the leading children’s charities and academics) and analysis of new data and statistics. While there are positive examples of government action to improve children’s lives highlighted in the report (for example, steps taken to better safeguard children in care and those with mental health issues) we still have a long way to go until the positive vision of childhood set out in the UNCRC is a reality for children in England. It is clear that the voices of children, and those who work with and for them, are struggling to be heard against the cacophony of debate concerning the UK leaving the EU.

The report contains the story of 17 year old Matthew who feels very anxious all the time and finds it difficult to sleep. He is in such a low mood that he lacks the motivation to do anything. Bravely he approached his GP who agreed with him that he might be suffering from a mental health condition and referred him to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services but Mathew was rejected on the basis he did not meet the eligibility criteria. Unfortunately, he is not an isolated example. Despite the Government making considerable effort to tackle children’s mental health and significant ongoing investment, over a quarter of children referred to specialist mental health services are not accepted for treatment.   

Then there are other children like Fowzia, 16, who had to live in squalid and unsafe bed and breakfasts for six months, well past the legal limit of six weeks, with public bodies failing in their duties to inspect her accommodation and safeguard her vulnerable family:

“The B&B was horrible. There were no cooking facilities or fridge so we had no choice but to buy fast food and my mum was getting very little benefits. We had to all live in two small rooms. It was really squashed and my disabled little brother had to share a bed with my mum. It was cold and dirty and when we complained, no one helped us or ever came to inspect it. At one point, someone broke into our room which scared us all.”

There are yet more shocking findings in the report. Whilst, positively, the number of under-18s being arrested has dropped by more than half in the last six years, the use of spit-hoods, Tasers, stop-and-searches and police-cell detentions on children in England have all increased in the same period. Alarmingly, our research found one police force had used a spit hood on a child aged just 10 years old. Despite risk assessments by the police highlighting the dangers of ‘breathing restriction and asphyxia’ and the Independent Police Complaints Commission investigating the deaths of several adults following the use of spit hoods, their use on children is becoming more and more widespread.

Our report also explores other areas where children’s basic human rights are being breached by public institutions. Examples include the increasing numbers of children being sexual exploited and the greater likelihood of children from disadvantaged backgrounds having poorer health and doing less well at school than their peers, negatively affecting their childhood and long-term life chances. Given the findings of the report, we are calling on the Government to ensure that Ministers have a legal obligation to consider how their decisions and policies will affect children’s human rights. This would help to ensure that children’s basic needs are no longer ignored.

Natalie Williams is a Senior Policy and Public Affairs Adviser at Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE)