Human rights committee inquiry report

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.

Read the report here.

Safeguarding report published following death of Ryan Clark

Leeds Local Safeguarding Children Board has published part of its serious case review into the death of 17 year-old Ryan Clark in Wetherby young offender institution. Ryan was on remand, which means he had not been convicted of the offence that led him to prison. He hanged himself after just 20 days.

Serious case reviews must be undertaken when a child dies in custody. The statutory reason for these reviews is to identify the lessons to be learned.

In care from the age of 16 months, and still the responsibility of Leeds city council at the time he was remanded, Ryan had not had a “stable placement” since the age of 13.

The serious case review points to many failings by many agencies, including a notable lack of curiosity about why Ryan’s behaviour was so difficult. The author observes, Ryan’s “overall behaviour conveyed a sense that he did not value himself”.
There is no exploration in the report of the legal and ethical justifications for sending such a vulnerable child to prison.

Read the report here.

What’s the point of children complaining?

The Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) published a short report yesterday (10 March) giving the results of its survey of councils about the children’s social care complaints procedure. It includes five case studies where complaints were not investigated or resolved properly by local authorities. One of the complaints came from a 17 year-old girl who ran away from home because of abuse by her father. Children’s services refused to help her, telling her to return home or stay with a friend. It failed to follow its legal duties to assess her as a ‘child in need’ or provide her with accommodation as a ‘looked after’ child. The girl made a complaint under the Children Act 1989 procedure, and received two apologies – though no response to the main issue, which was the lack of support provided by the council. With the help of an advocate, the girl contacted the Local Government Ombudsman and her complaint was upheld.

Councils taking part in the LGO survey reported that the majority of individuals using the statutory complaints procedure are adults, not children. The LGO reports that many councils see this ‘as evidence that the process isn’t supporting the people it was designed to benefit’. More than 20 years after the statutory procedure was introduced, partly in response to the children’s homes abuse revelations of previous decades, this is a very depressing finding. It shows local authorities still have a great deal to do to inform children of the procedure; reassure them their complaints will be dealt with swiftly and fairly; and to ensure that complaints are an effective mechanism for identifying where the law is not being upheld, and quickly rectifying this. Even with the assistance of an advocate, the 17 year-old in the case study was unable to obtain the support from social care she is legally entitled to and had to take her complaint to the LGO. What a disincentive to other children. The LGO observes that ‘some question the best use of public funds when costs for [the independent element of social care complaints] can run into thousands of pounds for each complaint’. In human terms, the cost to extremely vulnerable children of not receiving the protection and services to which they are entitled can be devastating, as recent reviews in Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxfordshire make clear.

Since April 2014, the Children’s Commissioner for England has been empowered to give advice and assistance to children living away from home and receiving social care services in England. The advice line is open weekdays 9am to 5pm: 0800 528 0731.

No signature on secure college contracts urges Howard League

Frances Crook, the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, has today (12 February) written to the Cabinet Secretary seeking his assurance that no contracts for secure colleges will be signed this close to the general election. Crook lists some of the many organisations opposing the plans, noting ‘The Ministry of Justice has been unable to find the support of any individual or expert organisations for the proposals’.

The Criminal Justice and Courts Bill is due to receive Royal Assent today. It establishes a new type of child prison, the ‘secure college’. The first is planned to be built on the grounds of Glen Parva, an adult prison in Leicestershire. It will hold 320 children, making it one of the largest child prisons in Europe.

Preparations for the new East Midlands prison go back several years, to the last Labour government, though originally it was to hold 360 boys aged 15 to 17 and it would have been called a ‘young offender institution’ like other prisons for children and young adults. The ‘secure college’ branding came with the announcement that children as young as 12, and both boys and girls, would be detained in the Leicestershire prison.

The Labour Party opposed the controversial plans as the Bill went through Parliament. Strong opposition in the Lords, led by the cross-bencher and former chief inspector of prisons Lord David Ramsbotham, resulted in a government concession that girls and children aged 14 and under would not be imprisoned in any secure college without the express agreement of both the Commons and the Lords at some future date.

Peers failed to remove provisions in the Bill empowering custody officers to use force on children to ensure good order and discipline. Similar powers given to officers in G4S and Serco secure training centres were quashed by the Court of Appeal in 2008 as they were deemed unnecessary and a breach of children’s human dignity.
Read Crook’s letter here.

Child in police cell for 44 hours with no food or water

The report of a child protection inspection of Nottinghamshire police, published today (11 February), reveals a 16 year-old girl was held in police cells for 52 hours before being taken to hospital. It was only after 44 hours had passed that police officers realised the child had been given no food or water. A paramedic treated the girl before her transfer to hospital. She was one of 11 children detained by Nottinghamshire police under mental health legislation between June 2013 and May 2014. Inspectors described the custody suite as being ‘imposing and an unsuitable environment in which to safeguard a vulnerable child’.

Last week, the Home Affairs Committee in Parliament backed a change to the law to prevent police cells ever being used as a place of safety for poorly children, a move which also has the backing of the Home Secretary Theresa May.

Read the inspection report.