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2020 has undoubtedly been a year like no other. The routines of our daily lives have been turned upside-down and many people have faced hardships and difficulties. Children have felt this disruption particularly acutely, with the closure of schools for most, the shutting of play parks and other leisure activities, and the removal of basic rights for some of our most vulnerable children – children in care and children in contact with the criminal justice system. A report published yesterday to mark Human Rights Day looks back at how well the UK Government has respected children’s rights since 2016, as part of the first step in its examination under the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC). Sadly, it concludes that children’s rights have regressed in many areas, with the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating pre-existing issues even further.

The Civil Society submission to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, endorsed by 90 children’s charities and led by the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE), has found that despite some welcome developments to embed children’s rights across Government, children are still worryingly low on the political agenda. England is also lagging behind other parts of the UK –we’re concerned that there has been no progress in incorporating children’s rights into domestic law, as in Scotland, and there is currently no Cabinet Minister with responsibility for children’s rights. During the pandemic, we continued to see this lack of focus on children’s rights in important policy decisions where emergency legislation, regulations, and guidance affecting children were brought in without the usual parliamentary scrutiny, consultation period or consultation with the Children’s Commissioner. Regulations on children’s social care, for example, significantly watered-down legal protections and were recently found unlawful in Court. 

The report also highlights that 4.2 million children are already living in poverty in the UK and families are now living in deeper poverty than five years ago, despite rising employment before the pandemic. During COVID, there was no targeted financial support for families with children in poverty, except free school meal vouchers during lockdown and over the summer holidays, and some temporary funding to local authorities to help families in crisis. Given the impact of the pandemic on jobs and the wider economy, child poverty is expected to increase even further. We’ve also seen the number of homeless households with dependent children increase, as has the number of homeless families staying in completely unsuitable temporary accommodation. 

Unsurprisingly, our findings show that black children and Gypsy and Roma Traveller children have continued to suffer persistent discrimination across many aspects of their lives, including being disproportionately represented in school exclusions and across the criminal justice system. BAME children are also much more likely to experience the use of police force, be held overnight in police cells, and be remanded to unsafe child prisons.   Inequalities in children’s health outcomes, such as mortality and obesity, have also widened since 2016 for children in poverty and BAME children. The educational attainment gap has also increased further as a result of COVID-19, with children from disadvantaged and BAME backgrounds falling further behind their peers.  Despite the urgent need for a solution and numerous reviews, there is still no cross-government strategy for preventing and addressing systematic racism and race discrimination.

Additionally, we have found that suicide is among the leading causes of death for 5- to 19-year -olds, despite increased investment into mental health services. It is estimated that one in six (16%) 5- to 16-year -olds in England have a mental disorder, with recent studies showing that COVID-19 is worsening the mental health of young people even further. 

There have been some welcome developments to children’s social care legislation, but these have been undermined by the fact that funding for children’s and youth services has been decimated, whilst the numbers of children needing care or protection are rising, and with the pandemic putting additional pressure on services. 

Our bleak findings are the result of children’s rights not being prioritised by successive governments coupled with the impact of COVID-19. We hope it acts as a wake-up call. Despite the unprecedented challenges that have arisen during the pandemic, the Government must take urgent action so that COVID-19 doesn’t leave a lasting scar on our youngest generation. 

Louise King is Director of the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, part of Just for Kids Law. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: gratuit]