©UnicefUK/Sutton-Hibbert All rights reserved
Whoever gets to form the next government has the opportunity to go down in history as the political party that introduced a law to promote and protect the rights of every child.
Nothing has stopped successive governments from doing this before, of course, but this is the first general election in which two of the three main political parties have pledged to enshrine in law the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Liberal Democrats first committed two general elections ago to making this UN children’s rights treaty part of our domestic law. Now Labour has made the same promise. The Conservatives declared an open mind earlier this year.
UK children’s rights advocates and civil servants helped draft the UN children’s rights treaty; it covers all aspects of childhood and guarantees every child a comprehensive set of economic, social, cultural and civil and political rights.
Eleanor Roosevelt said human rights begin “in small places, close to home” and this is precisely where children need them most. Take children’s right to know their rights, contained in article 42 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Despite the UK ratifying the treaty in 1991, there has never been a public education campaign and it remains outside the national curriculum.
More than 4000 schools across the UK have teamed up with Unicef’s Rights Respecting Schools Award, whose aim is to create safe and inspiring places to learn, where children’s rights are respected, their talents are nurtured and they are able to thrive. An independent evaluation found children were more likely to report abuse after hearing about their rights. A primary school manager told researchers:
“We always get some disclosures when we talk about rights at the beginning of the school year. [Children] feel empowered enough to say and we have to follow them up, they feel empowered to tell someone and that is something that probably wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for this.”
My charity’s name, Article 39, is taken from the treaty; it’s the part that guarantees children who have been abused, neglected or exploited the right to recover in environments which nurture their health, self-respect and dignity. It requires governments to do everything possible to help children rebuild their lives and self-worth after rights violations. With central government funding to local councils for child protection services due to be axed from 2020, a legal duty around recovery from trauma could literally be life-saving. It could make all the difference to young people forced out of children’s homes and foster care years before they are psychologically and emotionally ready.
You would be right to retort that children have the Human Rights Act to protect them, like everyone else. This legislation has safeguarded children in countless ways: it led to the creation of independent reviewing officers to monitor and protect the rights of individual children in care and care leavers; it helped ensure children’s wishes and feelings are properly represented in court proceedings held to decide with whom they should live after their parents’ separation; and it brought an end to rules which allowed prison officers to use force on children to make them obey orders. The Act protected young children and their pregnant mother from being unlawfully restrained during deportation; it precipitated a change in the law so that 17 year-olds are given the same protection in police stations as other children; and forced the scrapping of discriminatory rules that took benefits from very poorly children hospitalised for long periods.
The Human Rights Act is vital for people of all ages and absolutely must stay. But it only protects the rights in the European Convention on Human Rights and was not drafted specifically with children in mind. The UN children’s rights treaty was tailor-made to ensure children can lead happy, safe and fulfilled lives and, as with all human rights treaties, it is ever-evolving. Since the UN adopted the treaty in 1989 it has passed three protocols giving additional protection in the areas of sexual exploitation, armed conflict and the creation of an international complaints procedure (which the UK is yet to sign up to).
The Labour Government’s 1997 White Paper on ‘bringing rights home’ — the precursor to the Human Rights Act — said: “over the years [the ECHR] has become one of the premier agreements defining standards of behaviour across Europe”. There is no doubting the Convention on the Rights of the Child is the premier children’s human rights agreement. It is the most widely ratified human rights treaty, with only one country (the USA) failing to take on its legal obligations. A Unicef review of 52 countries published several years ago found two-thirds had made the Convention part of their domestic law. These manifesto commitments are entirely credible and based on years of evidence-gathering (see research undertaken by Queen’s University Belfast) and positive developments in Scotland and Wales.
Back in November 2009, Liberal Democrat Peer Baroness Joan Walmsley introduced a Children’s Rights Bill which would have made the treaty part of our domestic law. The legislation has been in hibernation ever since, though the Peer’s attempt to introduce children’s rights duties for public authorities during the recent passage of the Children and Social Work Act 2017 had impressive backing, including from one of the lead campaigners for the Human Rights Act, Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC. Had the Bill gained government support, it would have required public authorities like schools, hospitals and children’s services to actively consider the treaty when carrying out their functions.
The Convention gives children over 40 substantive rights; many of these relate directly to supporting parents and family life. Its four overarching principles grant children the right to enjoy all of their rights without any form of discrimination (article 2); require that children’s best interests are a primary consideration in all actions concerning them (article 3); provide that children have the right to maximum survival and development (article 6); and entitle children to have their views given due weight in all matters affecting them (article 12). If even these four provisions were legally enforceable for every child, how much easier would it be to advocate for and obtain essential services and support?
Directors of children’s services and councillors with lead responsibility for children’s services in England have been required to have regard to the treaty’s general principles since 2012. More than a quarter of a century after we ratified, it’s time we moved from simply considering the treaty and gave it the full force of law.
During her latest attempt to secure children’s rights in law, Baroness Walmsley drew a parallel with the public sector equality duty in the Equality Act 2010, citing how this has made a tangible difference to many people’s lives. She concluded:
“a culture of concern for equality issues has infiltrated public organisations. I would like to see a similar culture of concern infiltrate public organisations in relation to children’s rights.”
In the same debate, Lord Hope of Craighead, a former member of the UK Supreme Court, described how judges grapple with cases concerning children’s rights by following the well-established legal principle “that when the United Kingdom has signed up to an international convention, it is to be presumed that this Parliament, when legislating, will legislate in accordance with what the convention provides”.
Labour’s Shadow Children’s Minister Emma Lewell-Buck took up the children’s rights baton when the Children and Social Work Bill reached the Commons. The Ministerial response to her children’s rights duties’ amendment indicated the boulder is at last nudging up the hill: Edward Timpson said in January he would “remain open-minded about the right way forward”.
One of the many strengths of the Convention on the Rights of the Child is that it demands action on child poverty and disadvantage. It contains rights which a country as rich as ours (using GDP as the measure, we have the fifth wealthiest economy in the world) is comfortably able to uphold – the right to a standard of living which allows children to fulfil their human potential; the right to enjoy the best of health; and the right to social security and social insurance. Remember when the Supreme Court found that the benefit cap was lawful, but it breached the UN children’s rights treaty? Had the Convention been enshrined in UK law, this breach would have also been unlawful and ministers would have been compelled to revisit the policy.
We shouldn’t be fixated on the courtroom, however. The impact of the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act extend far beyond litigation, which takes us back to those small places, close to home. The core, universal obligation is that we respect and take care of each other in times of need. That we reach out on the basis of shared humanity and social justice, not charity or paternalism. Children are respected and gain the help they need because they are human beings with equal worth to adults, but also because they are precious. Additional human rights for children were borne out of their particular needs and vulnerabilities; their lack of status and powerlessness at an individual and structural level; and in recognition of the magnificent human potential existing in that space we call childhood.
Children feeling empowered, thriving, being listened to and accorded their due dignity wherever they happen to live — this is what making the Convention on the Rights of the Child part of UK law could achieve over time. As we continue to come to terms with the horrific scale and impact of child abuse, past and present, what greater message could we give to children about their integrity and worth than by consulting them and then passing an Act of Parliament devoted to protecting their rights?