The joint committee on human rights, parliament’s scrutiny body on human rights, has concluded its inquiry on the UK’s compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It raises a number of concerns relevant to children living in institutional settings.
The committee says the UK’s failure to accept the UN complaints mechanism for children’s rights diminishes children’s access to justice. It urges the UK to ratify the optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on a communications procedure. Seventeen UN member states have done so already.
Particularly pertinent to institutional settings is that the mechanism allows complaints to be made on behalf of children. Children living in institutions are among the most vulnerable in society, and many are unable to voice concerns themselves (for fear of victimisation or because of their young age or disability, for example).
Another justice gap is the continuing ban on the Office of Children’s Commissioner investigating individual cases. Children’s Commissioners in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have such powers. England’s Commissioner is able to investigate cases where the child is looked after, or was looked after. But this excludes many others who live in institutional settings (prisons, mental health inpatient units and immigration detention for example). The committee recommends the incoming government reviews how the Commissioner could be given wider investigatory powers.
Next the committee concludes children have “suffered disproportionately” from government austerity. It did not examine the links between poverty, lack of community support and children being placed in institutional settings, though this is clearly relevant. Official data shows 30 children in England entered local authority care last year primarily because of family low income (50% more than in 2013).
Withdrawing legal aid from very vulnerable children and families has made “a significant black mark” on the government’s compliance with human rights, and the incoming government should “undo the harm”, the committee concludes.
Article 39’s Director had submitted evidence to the committee on successive government failure to implement the recommendations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in relation to child custody. We therefore welcome the human rights committee’s strong recommendation for reviews of both the use of physical restraint, and the methods of restraint that have been authorised for use in child custody. In relation to the age of criminal responsibility, the committee implores the incoming government to review all age-based legislation, including that which is “controversial”. Clearly, the age of criminal responsibility is linked to the use of child prisons: countries that do not criminalise their children early have much lower numbers incarcerated.
On the rights of disabled children, the committee expresses concern at the provision in the Children and Families Act 2014 (carried over from previous legislation), which disentitles disabled children from a place in a mainstream school when this affects the “efficient education” of other children, or “the efficient use of resources”.
The committee welcomes the “significant decline” in the number of children held in immigration detention, though makes no recommendation about ending this altogether.
Finally, the committee urges the government to include scrutiny of the detention of children in military prison in a wider review of the use of children in the armed forces. The UK remains the only country in the European Union, the Council of Europe and the UN Security Council to recruit children into the armed forces from the age of 16.