Stuart Weir (Cambridge, Democratic Audit): You can hardly have failed to notice that the children’s commissioners for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have combined forces in a joint report to the United Nations to condemn the treatment of children in the United Kingdom. But you may not have taken on board their central message, and you very likely missed an equally significant report last week on the effects of poverty on education and social mobility in the UK.
The point of this unprecedented initiative is to insist that children have human rights, separate from the family, and that their rights are being systematically abused. The commissioners have presented a dossier of human rights abuses of British children in violation of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) that, in the words of the Guardian report (Monday, 9 June) have “denied hope and opportunity to many of Britain’s 14 million children and adolescents”.
The report is to the UN committee set up to review compliance with the Convention; in its last review of the UK, in 2002, the Committee found “serious violations” of the Convention. An additional report from the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, a coalition of more than 100 civil society organisations, says that the government has passed 30 laws that breach the Convention since then.
The biggest complaints centre on the punitive juvenile justice system and public attitudes that demonise adolescents. But there is a deeper-lying cause for complaint and concern. At a Sutton Trust conference on social mobility in New York last week Ed Miliband, the Cabinet Office minister, and UK educationists, heard the results of a massive study of children born in the UK and US in 2000 and 2001. The study found that the damaging effect of being in a low-income home was more pronounced in the UK than in the US and that “there is a stronger income differential in the UK than in the US,” meaning that (as a US academic told the conference) “there are more behavioural problems among low-income children in the UK”, and that the transition from home to school was harder, especially for boys. (The gap between the UK and the US would be even wider were it not for Britain’s childcare provision.)
Meanwhile, the Department of Work and Pensions is said to be releasing figures on Tuesday (10 June) that show that the government is nowhere near meeting the target of halving child poverty by 2010; and that 200,000 more children fell into poverty in 2005-06, measured after housing costs.
For me these reports reinforce the need for us in Britain to press for a “rights-based democracy”. The UNCRC provides for a five-yearly review of the rights of children in the UK. The UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights similarly involves a five-yearly review of such rights here. Britain has signed up to both these UN instruments without taking seriously the commitments that they entail. Neither of course is written into UK law; and there is no domestic equivalent.
If Gordon Brown’s pledge to consult on a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities is to command any credibility, then he must rescind his ban on consideration of economic, social and cultural rights in any consultations that may yet occur. Not that much good would come of it. Brown made a great fuss about consulting on the extension of detention without charge, but he and his Home Secretary have set that process and all informed opinion aside in a blind and obstinate offensive that is now reduced to arm-twisting Labour MPs and apparently concluding dirty deals with the Ulster Unionists.
One of the Labour whips’ argument is said to be that Labour MPs who vote against 42 days could put David Miliband in No. 10. Well, I don’t know about that, but I have very reluctantly come to the conclusion that Gordon Brown is no more fit to be there than his immediate predecessor.