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In early June, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UN Committee) published its verdict on how well the UK is respecting children’s rights. While it recognised some areas of progress, including the Government commissioned independent review of children’s social care and steps to outlaw child marriage, it highlights a large number of areas where the UK needs to do much better if it is to meet its obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). 

The UN Committee’s report raises concern about the high numbers of children in poverty, facing food insecurity or living in temporary or inadequate accommodation; inequalities in educational attainment; and the high prevalence of domestic abuse, sexual exploitation, and other forms of violence against children. It also shines a light on how the Government is failing to respect the rights of the most vulnerable, including asylum seeking children, children with mental health issues, and children in contact with the police and criminal justice system. 

Particular disquiet is raised over the Government’s controversial Illegal Migration Bill, currently making its way through parliament, which will lead to severe regression in respecting the rights of children seeking sanctuary. Measures in the Bill include effectively introducing a ban on claiming asylum for anyone who does not come to the UK via one of the few, extremely limited, resettlement routes, including children in families, and reintroducing the routine detention of children in asylum seeking-families – previously phased out by the Cameron-led Coalition Government nearly ten years ago. The UN Committee urges the Government to repeal all the provisions in the Bill which would violate children’s rights both under the UNCRC and the 1951 Refugee Convention.   

Deep concern is also expressed about the long waiting lists for children seeking mental health services. Latest figures show that only around 32% of children with a probable mental health disorder were able to access treatment, and 53% of GPs reported that at least six in 10 referrals for children experiencing anxiety, depression and self-harm are routinely rejected by CAMHS (Child and Adolescent mental health services) as their symptoms are not deemed severe enough.  The UN Committee recommends that the UK Government takes urgent action to address long waiting times for children needing to access mental health services and ensure greater availability of community-based therapeutic treatment. It also calls for the underlying causes of poor mental health, eating disorders and other self-harming behaviours among children to be addressed and for further investment in preventive measures.

Urgent reform of the child justice system so it respects children’s rights is also recommended, including raising the mandatory age of criminal responsibility (MACR) to at least 14 years of age. England and Wales have the lowest MACR in Europe – at just 10 years old – and raising it has been a consistent recommendation of the UN Committee. Other action called for in this area include ensuring that deprivation of liberty is only used as a last resort and that the over representation of children in prison from Black and other minority ethnic groups (currently standing at 52%) is addressed. Given the many recent high profile media stories in relation to harmful interaction between children and the police, it won’t be surprising to hear that the UN Committee also calls for action to end Taser use and strip-searching on children and the detention of under-18s in police custody overnight.  

Children’s rights are the basic things children need to thrive – the right to an adequate standard of living, an education, to play, be protected from violence and be healthy. They should act as a safety net – meaning that children always receive minimum standards of treatment. The UK agreed to implement these minimum standards for children when it ratified the UNCRC in 1991. But the UN Committee’s verdict shows that, over thirty years later, children are still being failed across many aspects of their lives. They remain low on the political agenda and too often Government decisions are made without proper consideration of how children’s rights are affected.   

It’s therefore imperative that the Government now takes urgent action to address the issues raised by the UN Committee by putting children at the heart of its agenda. It must do this by publishing a child rights action plan, with a clear road map for how it will meaningfully improve the daily experiences of our most vulnerable children and appoint a cabinet minister for children to drive the changes so desperately needed. 

Director of 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: Piron Guillaume]