The body which reports on the U.K.’s compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. Its last report was issued last month. While the recent report of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights received quite a lot of media attention, with its criticisms of UK austerity policies, children’s rights do not seem to have received the same level of attention.
Meanwhile, children’s rights have been receiving attention in a different way, in recent online exchanges over the last couple of days concerning the Children and Social Work Bill. Specifically,
- various social work luminaries wrote a joint letter about the Bill, published in the Guardian, which expressed concern among other things that clause 15 “fundamentally undermines a rights-based approach to meeting children’s needs”;
- a twitter response described some of the co-authors as “reactionary on innovation”; linking to a discussion on, among other things, children’s rights;
- the Chief Social Worker for England (Children and Families), speaking at the Association of Directors of Children’s Services Conference defended the so-called “exemptions” provisions of the Bill. “Contrary to the media headlines, this is not some kind of sinister political plot to overthrow public authorities or a ruse to wipe out decades of children’s rights,” Trowler said; and
- the Minister, at the same conference, urged delegates to “to ignore “conspiracy theories” on the motives behind the government’s social care reform agenda”.
I am not really convinced by urgings that we should trust civil servants and ministers in relation to children’s rights, not least in an environment where our commitment to international human rights protection more generally appears to hang by the thread of a politically expedient whim. But I would like to think that I can engage in this debate more positively, because I have read the UN Committee’s report.
So what I would like to do is to share with you some of that report. Some point of clarification first:
- The structure of the report is fairly formal. Where there are positive observations to be made, these usually come at the start of any section, followed by concerns, and then recommendations. I may have reported one, or more, of these sections.
- I have been a little selective in the parts I share below, largely focusing on England, on those parts that have something to do with social work, and on those areas where I routinely offer my observations. On the other hand, you’re welcome to form your own view as to whether I have been too selective, as here is a link to the full text of the report.
- If you don’t agree with the bits in large print below, remember I’m just quoting the UN Committee, so look to the report and its source.
The headings are drawn from the report itself.
7. The Committee recommends that the State party:
(a) Expedite bringing its domestic legislation, at the national and devolved levels as well as in the Overseas Territories and the Crown Dependencies, in line with the Convention in order to ensure that the principles and provisions of the Convention are directly applicable and justiciable under domestic law.
9. The Committee recommends that the State party:
(a) Introduce a statutory obligation at national and devolved levels to systematically conduct a child rights impact assessment when developing laws and policies affecting children
So, at an early stage, we are reminded that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child remains an international treaty obligation that we have signed up to in theory, but that is not directly applicable and justiciable under domestic law. And we are urged to make legislation and policies underpinned by child rights in future.
This bill is a draft piece of legislation. It is specifically about children and social work. It is an ideal opportunity to embed the human rights of children into U.K. law. It is a missed opportunity to do so.
Allocation of resources
11. The Committee is seriously concerned at the effects that recent fiscal policies and allocation of resources have had in contributing to inequality in children’s enjoyment of their rights, disproportionately affecting children in disadvantaged situations.
12… the Committee urges the State party to allocate the maximum extent of available resources for the implementation of children’s rights, with a special focus on eradicating child poverty and reducing inequalities within and across all jurisdictions
Mirroring the concerns of the more widely publicised Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Committee Report, this committee too is concerned by child poverty, disadvantage, and inequality, and urges that the implementation of children’s rights has a special focus on the eradication of poverty.
Best interests of the child
25. The Committee regrets that the right of the child to have his or her best interests taken as a primary consideration is still not reflected in all legislative and policy matters and judicial decisions affecting children, especially in the area of alternative care, child welfare, immigration, asylum and refugee status, criminal justice, and in the armed forces.
While the best interests of the child are widely embedded in our legal system, this reminds us that they are far from being universally embedded.
Right to life, survival and development
27. The Committee is concerned that:
(a) Research indicates that the infant and child mortality in the State party, including suicide, is linked with the level of social and economic deprivation;
(b) Mechanisms for reviews of any unexpected death or serious injury involving children have not been established or operationalized in most parts of the State party.
28. The Committee recommends that the State party:
(a) Address underlying determinants of infant and child mortality, including social and economic deprivation and inequality;
(b) Introduce automatic, independent and public reviews of unexpected death or serious injury involving children, including in custody, care and mental health care institutions in all the territory of the State party.
Serious Case Reviews are, of course, undertaken in respect of unexpected death or serious injury; but a further point is being made here about what we could learn about the role of social and economic deprivation in those deaths and injuries that fall outside of the existing SCR framework.
Torture and other cruel or degrading treatment or punishment
38. The Committee is concerned about…
(b) The increased use of restraint and other restrictive interventions against children in custodial settings in England and Wales, and the lack of data on the use of restraint in other parts of the State party;
(c) The use of physical restraint on children to maintain good order and discipline in Young Offenders’ Institutions and the use of pain-inducing techniques on children in institutional settings in England, Wales and Scotland, and the lack of a comprehensive review of the use of restraint in institutional settings in Northern Ireland;
39. With reference to the Committee’s general comment No. 13 (2011) on the right of the child to freedom from all forms of violence and Sustainable Development Goal 16, Target 16.2, the Committee urges the State party to:
(b) Abolish all methods of restraint against children for disciplinary purposes in all institutional settings, both residential and non-residential, and ban the use of any technique designed to inflict pain on children;
(c) Ensure that restraint is used against children exclusively to prevent harm to the child or others and only as a last resort;
So, I have been wittering on about the breach of human rights that is the continued use of and deliberate infliction of pain on children in custody for years; Panorama earlier this year exposed the continued use and misuse of the practice in privately run institutions; and it is no surprise that the Committee deplores it.
Violence, abuse and neglect
41. The Committee welcomes the introduction of a new domestic abuse offence to capture coercive and controlling behaviour in intimate and familial relationships, as introduced in the Serious Crime Act (2015) in England and Wales. However, the Committee is concerned at:
(a) The high prevalence of domestic violence and gender-based violence against women and girls, which have a negative impact on children whether as victims or witnesses…
(c) The lack of due respect for the views of children in responses to violence against children and in family law proceedings.
42. With reference to its general comment No. 13 (2011) and Sustainable Development Goal 16, Target 16.2, the Committee recommends that the State party:
(c) Increase the number of social workers and strengthen their capacity to address violence against children…
I singled out this one because of the specific recommendation to increase the number of social workers in order to address the problem of violence, abuse and neglect.
Children deprived of a family environment
51. The Committee is concerned about:
(a) The increase in the number of children in care in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and the high rate of children in care in Scotland;
(b) Cases where early intervention measures have not been timely carried out, parents have not been provided with adequate family support, and the best interests of the child have not been properly assessed in the decision of taking a child into care. Children have reportedly been removed from their biological families due to the family’s economic situation or because a foster family may provide a more beneficial environment for the child;
(c) The frequent changes of social workers for children in care, and children often experiencing more than two family placements in a year which negatively affects all aspects of their life;
(d) Children placed at a distance from their biological families which prevents them from keeping in contact, and siblings being separated from each other without proper reason;
(e) The practice of children being placed in secure accommodation in Northern Ireland;
(f) Children leaving foster care or residential care not receiving proper support and counselling, including on their future plans, and often having to live far away from their former carers…
This one obviously also impacts directly upon social work practice, including child protection practice. It reflects human rights concerns at the numbers of children in the care system; at the link between those numbers and the lack of “adequate family support”; and at inadequate support for children leaving foster- and residential care. The reference to frequent changes of social workers also hints at an insufficiently stable social work workforce.
Children with disabilities
55. The Committee is concerned that:
(a) Many children with disabilities do not see that their views are given due weight in making personal decisions in their life, including choice of support and future;
(b) Many children with disabilities are still placed in special schools or special units in mainstream schools and many school buildings and facilities are not made fully accessible to children with disabilities;
(c) Provision of the support for transition to adulthood is often neither sufficient, timely nor well-coordinated, and does not ensure fully-informed decision by children with disabilities
Health and health services
57. The Committee is concerned at the inequality in access to health services and health outcome, negatively affecting Roma, Gypsy and Traveller children, children belonging to other ethnic minorities, migrant children, children living in poverty and in deprived areas, children in care and in custody, children living with HIV/AIDS and LGBTI children.
Here is an extensive list of specific groups of children who do not receive equal access to services.
Standard of living
69. The Committee is seriously concerned that:
(a) The rate of child poverty remains high with a disproportionate representation of children with disabilities, children living in a family or household with person(s) with disability, households with many children, and children belonging to ethnic minority groups, and affecting children in Wales and Northern Ireland the most.
(b) The Welfare Reform and Work Act (2016), which amends the Child Poverty Act (2010), repealed the statutory target on the eradication of child poverty by 2020 and the statutory obligation of the UK Government and the governments of England, Scotland and Wales to produce child poverty strategies;
(c) Recent amendments to the Tax Credits Act (2002), the Welfare Reform Act (2012) and the Welfare Reform and Work Act (2016) have limited the entitlement to child tax credits and social benefits (the “household benefit cap” and the “bedroom tax”) , regardless of the needs of the households;
(d) During the period of review, the number of homeless households with dependent children has increased in England and Northern Ireland, as well as the number of homeless families, including those with infants, staying in temporary accommodation in all four jurisdictions…
And here are some specific pieces of recent legislation that run counter to children’s rights.
Asylum-seeking, refugee and migrant children
76. With reference to its general comment No. 6 (2005) on treatment of unaccompanied and separated children outside their country of origin, the Committee recommends that the State party:
(c) Conduct age assessments only in cases of serious doubt through multidisciplinary and transparent procedures taking into account all aspects, including the psychological and environmental aspects of the person under assessment.
Something else I’ve been wittering on about, including on this blog. Here, my specific concern at social workers undertaking single-agency age assessments is being cited by the UN Committee as a human rights concern.
So, in summary, it feels to me as though “trust the Minister with children’s rights” is a very precarious way forward, when both (a) it will always be legally ill-advised to trust reassurances from an individual whose tenure may be short-lived, in relation to the use that will be made of legislation into the indefinite future; and (b) when measured specifically against the assessment of children’s rights published as recently as last month, there is really no evidence that this Bill addresses, or intends to address, the many deficiencies in our children’s rights framework.