Credit: Yui Mok/PA Images, all rights reserved.
We’ve heard more about the impact of EU withdrawal on the rights of the UK's 11,700 active fishermen, than about its impact on our 11.5million children, including the half a million non-British European national children living here (38% of whom were born here).
“Let them eat spam,” said someone on Twitter in response to the no-deal Brexit guidance on food for school meals in England, issued by the Department for Education last month. The guidance suggests that there are “significant flexibilities within the school food standards,” to accommodate change. There’s no mention of new funding, and it made less press than Theresa May’s mouldy jam, but the no-deal statement is clear, “where the pupil meets the criteria for free school meals, the meal must be provided, free of charge.”
Heads are already topping up the gap between the amount they receive for each child in the infants’ universal free school meals programme, and what they have to pay their contracted providers. How much more will they be expected to find from budgets already in the red, when food costs go up from April?
Children’s charities and advocates appealed to MPs during the autumn 2018 reading of the Withdrawal Bill, to put safeguards in place to protect children’s rights in future, as they exist today within the EU legal framework.
Ministers at the Department for Education then made a statement on World Children’s Day in November to, "reaffirm the value that this Government places on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)” and ensure “children’s rights are further embedded in policy and law making."
The government says children’s rights are already fully protected in domestic law, but the reality is that as we pull out of the EU, the government continues to pull out ever more of the support structures in children’s daily lives.
The outlook for their education, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights to which all children everywhere are entitled, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, religion, language, and abilities, is neither strong nor stable.
For example, parents of children with special educational needs, are having to fight cuts to Special Needs education provision in the courts across England, most recently in Hackney. Local authorities are accused of failing to meet their legal duty to “have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children when taking a decision to significantly reduce funding for services for a group of highly vulnerable children.”
To take another example, predominantly Muslim children find their rights to freedom of expression, family life and privacy (all protected rights under UNCRC) routinely curtailed by the Prevent programme. School children are viewed through the lens of terrorism, profiled using software designed to find signs of radicalisation, without risk assessment or independent regulation or oversight. The new one-wrong-click-and-you’re-criminal law could be catastrophic for children subject to online monitoring in school and at home.
Then there’s the young people who have been locked out of student funding and abandoned courses, because the Student Loans Company surveilled their social media, and made mistakes while looking for evidence of fraud in relation to family estrangement. But rather than safeguards, the government brought in new laws in May last year, to give the loans company even more new powers and more access to students’ and staff personal information in Higher and Further Education through the Office for Students.
And then there’s the toxic Home Office spill into education policy since 2010. Young people who have spent their whole childhood in England are regularly refused access to student loans or attend university, through oppressive Home Office checks, and can expect to pay over £10,000 in making multiple applications for indefinite leave.
Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan “had to ‘fend off ideas’ from Downing Street” in 2015 including to deprioritise undocumented children in the school admissions system, but as a compromise, the Departments began a secret policy using national pupil records for immigration enforcement which continues today.
After a successful boycott, campaigners at Against Borders for Children are calling on the Department to destroy the nationality data collected since 2016 and end the use of all school records in immigration enforcement. There’s no safeguards in place to stop this misuse by the Home Office post-Brexit. On the contrary, the exemption for immigration the UK government put into law in May 2018 actively infringes on rights set out under the GDPR - another encroachment that is being challenged in the courts. And in parallel, the Windrush scandal demonstrates, there is often no adequate route to redress when things go wrong.
That list is long and getting longer - even before sorting out settled status for non-British children, lack of access to legal aid, or the fact that every British child is about to lose their future rights to work, live and travel freely in the EU.
Children’s right to be heard in decisions about them is routinely ignored in all sorts of ways, but the absence of their voice in this decision about their future and long term wellbeing of the country will have long term political significance. Seeing the PM dismiss young people campaigning for action on climate change prevention to protect their future, was astounding. They will not forget that at the polls, when their time comes to express how they feel about their bleak outlook and being let down across so many aspects of everyday life.
The common thread in many families’ lives, as Helen Barnard, deputy director for policy and partnerships for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has described, is a “rising tide of work poverty sweeping across the country.”
Cuts to library services, schools, public transport, housing, and police, and well-documented Universal Credit welfare changes and job instability, all affect family life and pull out the infrastructures children need growing up.
At the same time, support services in Child and Adolescent Mental Health have been withdrawn.
Government ministers decry children joining gangs, but have cut youth services by over 60%. They passed laws used to ban children from being outside in a park, but seem surprised to find children increasingly into gambling on computers. Then there’s mixed messages and inadequate solutions, telling children don’t be obese, but don’t access pro-thin social media sites. Scrap Sure Start Centres and if children are struggling to read? There’s an app for that, says the Minister for Education.
The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is 10 years old and yet Ministers have decided children cannot use social media safely alone until 13. They demand national screen time limits, without evidence of any causal relationship in mental health problems. Yet where children need mental health support, from as young as 5, what does the Minister for Health propose, not properly funded human care, but another austerity driven app.
There is no obvious holistic vision of what children need set out in policy and delivery of it across government.
If the Department is serious about delivering the intent of the statement Ministers have put their names to, to "give due consideration to the UNCRC when making policy and legislation” and “across government” then they must put words into real action. Stop trying to use software to solve social problems. Stop undercutting the infrastructure that supports children’s well-being, blaming everyone but yourselves and wringing hands, when children show the symptoms of its effects.
The Children’s Commissioner believes that “we are failing in our fundamental responsibility as adults to give children the tools to be agents of their own lives.” Those tools are not apps, but respect for children’s human rights, to protection and prevention of harm; to privacy, to education, to participation in political, economic, social and cultural life, and to enable their freedom to flourish.