Joint Committee On Human Rights Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


42.  Memorandum from Office of Children's Rights Commissioner for London

1.  SUMMARY

  1.1  The Office of Children's Rights Commissioner for London is a fixed-term project demonstrating the value of a Children's Rights Commissioner for all children. Its purpose is to promote and protect the rights of London's 1.74 million children as described in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and to ensure that children's interests and views are taken into account in decision-making processes that affect them.

  1.2  Although there have been some recent advances in developing a culture that values and respects children, the majority of London children still experience breaches of their rights.

  1.3  An independent human rights institution working for children—specifically a Children's Rights Commissioner—would play a unique role in the promotion and protection of children's human rights. Such a role could not be performed by an existing organisation or agency due to the necessary combination of governmental power and independence.

  1.4  A Children's Rights Commissioner could either be incorporated within a universal Human Rights Commission, or could be established separately. There are several advantages and disadvantages to each model, however the debate is less about the model and more about the powers, resources, duties and design necessary in a human rights institution aiming to work for children. There is a description of the types of arrangements needed within the full text of this response.

  1.5  The Office of Children's Rights Commissioner is in favour of the establishment of a national Human Rights Commission that includes the necessary specific provision for children, and believes such a move would significantly advance children's position and ability to participate in society.

2.  INTRODUCTION

  2.1  The Office of Children's Rights Commissioner for London welcomes the inquiry into the establishment of a Human Rights Commission. As an organisation working to promote children's human rights, in particular to politicians, civil servants and other decision-makers responsible for safeguarding their interests, we are well placed to comment on this subject.

  2.2  The primary aim of the Office is to ensure the protection and promotion of children's human rights in London. Our response is written with that priority in mind.

3.  THE OFFICE OF CHILDREN'S RIGHTS COMMISSIONER FOR LONDON

  3.1  The Office of Children's Rights Commissioner for London was established in March 2000 with the purpose of demonstrating the value of an independent Children's Rights Commissioner. It is funded by a substantial grant from the National Lottery Charities Board, with support from the major children's organisations including The Children's Society, Save the Children (UK) and the NSPCC, and further funding from Bridge House Estates Trust Fund and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

  3.2  The aims of the Office are to develop London as an exemplary child friendly city and promote implementation of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. It demonstrates how a Children's Rights Commissioner would work in practice, and makes the case for the establishment of a statutory Commissioner to promote the rights of all children in England.

  3.3  The Office has a particular focus on promoting the rights of socially excluded and marginalised children and young people in London, who experience some of the highest levels of disadvantage in the UK.

  3.4  The Office works jointly with children and young people and seeks to achieve their participation in all areas of its work. An Advisory Board of 12 young people participates in the management of the Office.

  3.5  The Office aims to work in partnership with central and local government, with other statutory bodies and with voluntary organisations concerned with children's issues.

  3.6  Key activities of the Office include producing the State of London's Children report, co-ordinating an alliance of organisations of and for London children, and undertaking specific projects in relation to London children's human rights. The Office is also working in partnership with the Greater London Authority to develop the first London Children's Strategy.

4.  CHILDREN'S HUMAN RIGHTS IN LONDON

  4.1  Nearly a decade after the UK ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child there are some encouraging signs that the political climate is becoming more favourable towards children and their rights. For example the recent establishment of the Children & Young People's Unit has helped to increase the visibility of children in government and included a commitment to cross-departmental and inter-agency working, the new Human Rights Act could have far-reaching effects in strengthening the rights of all young citizens, and there is a growing requirement in local government to consult children and young people in the delivery of services or when making decisions that affect them. Meanwhile Wales has taken concrete steps towards protecting the rights of its youngest citizens by establishing a Children's Rights Commissioner, an option that is also under serious consideration in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

  4.2  Despite these developments there is no room for complacency and London's 1.74 million children continue to face multiple breaches of their human rights. For example, they are more likely to experience poverty than children in any other region of England1, London has more children in total on the child protection register than any other region2, there is considerable evidence to suggest that the right to play and free time under Article 31 of the UNCRC is not being adequately met for large numbers of London's children3, and rates of school exclusion are notably higher in London than in England as a whole4. Furthermore the city is home to large numbers of child refugees and asylum seekers, runaways and homeless children, disabled children, children who are "looked after", teenage mothers, young carers and other disadvantaged and marginalised groups who need particular assistance in claiming their rights. Finally London children, like those elsewhere, rarely know about their rights, have little if any political voice and generally are not consulted in decisions that affect them.

5.  HOW WOULD AN INDEPENDENT HUMAN RIGHTS INSTITUTION HELP?

  5.1  The Office of Children's Rights Commissioner believes an independent human rights institution working for children—specifically a Children's Rights Commissioner—would play a unique role in ensuring that children's rights are realised. It could perform a range of activities including raising the status of children and acting as their watchdog in government, ensuring compliance with national and international human rights legislation, influencing policy and practice in children's favour, conducting investigations, collecting information and carrying out research, reviewing and improving children's complaints procedures and increasing knowledge and understanding of children's rights among children and society as a whole.

  5.2  Due to the necessary combination of governmental power and independence this role cannot be performed by any of the existing organisations or agencies that currently work to promote children's interests. For this reason a Children's Rights Commissioner must be established in order to promote a culture that respects and values children.

6.  WHICH MODEL TO TAKE?

  6.1  It is clear that children need an independent, statutory Children's Rights Commissioner to promote and protect their rights, however it is less clear what this should look like. The first model is a Human Rights Commission within which there is based a Children's Rights Commissioner. The second is a separate Children's Rights Commissioner with formal links to a Human Rights Commission.

  There are several advantages and disadvantages to both models.

  6.2  The advantages of a separate Children's Rights Commissioner are that they would have a clear and single-minded focus on children's human rights and could accord children the priority they deserve, both of which would be some compensation for children's lack of political power. They would also be a clearly identifiable, high profile individual to whom children could easily relate and therefore could be directly in touch with children's views. They could also take on functions specific to children, for example relating to child protection, that other general human rights institutions might not include in their remit. Finally, a separate institution would guarantee a distinct budget devoted to children.

  6.3  The disadvantages of a separate Children's Rights Commissioner are that it could place children outside mainstream human rights advocacy and mean that opportunities for joint working on crosscutting themes are missed or made more difficult. A separate Children's Rights Commissioner also risks marginalisation of children's human rights and lower status or fewer powers than if included within a Human Rights Commission, which could in turn result in a lack of adequate resources. Finally, it might present obstacles to the promotion of human rights as the universal property of all citizens including children.

  6.4  The advantages of integrating a Children's Rights Commissioner within a national Human Rights Commission are that it would help to ensure children's rights are included within mainstream human rights promotion, and would facilitate joint working with other commissioners on crosscutting issues. Where there are not adequate resources to fund separate offices a Children's Rights Commissioner within a Human Rights Commission could use the resources of the whole institution, but still provide an identifiable individual for children to relate to.

  6.5  The disadvantages of integrating a Children's Rights Commissioner within a national Human Rights Commission are that it risks children's issues getting lost in adult's agendas, and the possibility that where conflict arises between the rights of adults and children the Children's Rights Commissioner might be less able to advocate powerfully from the child's perspective. Furthermore children may not easily identify with or use an institution that has been primarily designed with adults in mind. Finally, the scope of a Human Rights Commission may not be broad enough to include the many children's rights issues that do not simply concern the individual and the state, for example in the family or in schools.

7.  WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM EXISTING CHILDREN'S RIGHTS COMMISSIONER MODELS?

  7.1  The devolved governments of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland have all quickly established human rights bodies to protect the rights of their citizens. Wales is the first nation in the UK to appoint a Children's Rights Commissioner, a move that received all-party backing in the Welsh Assembly and widespread support among voluntary organisations, the public and children in Wales. With a £700,000 annual budget and 21 staff the Commissioner will serve a seven year term. The Commissioner has primary responsibility for safeguarding and promoting children's rights and welfare and can make representations to, and review the performance of the National Assembly for Wales in this respect. The bill establishing the Commissioner encompassed all devolved areas such as health, education, the environment and transport and was amended to cover any matter relating to the rights and welfare of Welsh children.

  7.2  Although it is a universal human rights institution the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission clearly also has responsibility for children's rights. The Commission is currently preparing its response to a consultation being carried out by the Northern Ireland Assembly on the establishment of a separate Children's Rights Commissioner. Although it is not yet the formal position of the Commission, in discussion it has given its support for the move and the development of a "memorandum of understanding" to facilitate joint working between the two separate institutions.

  7.3  The Scottish Parliament is also soon to bring an inquiry into the establishment of a Children's Rights Commissioner, a move which has widespread support among voluntary and local government organisations, and Members of the Scottish Parliament.

  7.4  Human Rights Commissions and Children's Rights Commissioners have long been in existence in European countries, and have developed using many different models. Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden, Madrid and Catalonia in Spain have chosen to establish independent offices to specifically promote children's human rights. Meanwhile Hungary, Portugal, Spain and the Ukraine have children's offices within national human rights institutions.

  7.5  Current experience in some European countries might lead us to assume that children's interests are better served by a separate Children's Rights Commissioner, however this is in the absence of a full exploration of how an integrated Commission might be designed to effectively promote and protect children's rights. Furthermore, there are positive models of integrated Commissions working effectively on children's behalf. For example there is a Child Rights Centre within the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, and the Australian Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission has undertaken specific work in relation to children's rights.

  7.6  Therefore the debate is less about whether a separate or integrated Children's Rights Commissioner is best, but rather about what powers, duties and design an institution should have in order to best serve the interests of children.

8.  MAKING A HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION WORK FOR CHILDREN

  8.1  If a Human Rights Commission for the UK is established the following would be essential in order to ensure that it served the interests of children:

    —  The design and development of the Commission must take full account of the special status of children.

    —  The legislation establishing the Commission must be specifically linked to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

    —  The legislation must include provisions setting out special functions, powers and duties relating to children, linked to the Convention. For example:

    —  The duty to pay particular regard to the views and feelings of children and to take active steps to maintain direct contact with children.

    —  Power to have regard to the situation of children in the family, in schools and institutions.

    —  Power to consider the promotion and protection of children's rights in relation not only to government but also private bodies.

    —  The right to have access to children in all forms of alternative care and all institutions which include children.

    —  The right to report separately on the state of children's human rights.

    —  There is an identifiable Children's Rights Commissioner for each country, ie someone who will bring high status and public and political respect to the office, will have a high public profile and thereby enhance the visibility of children, and also be popular and in direct contact with children.

    —  There is appropriate staffing dedicated to the promotion and protection of children's rights, a ring-fenced minimum budget allocated in relation to the percentage of the population, and the potential to attract and use funding from sources other than government.

9.  IN CONCLUSION

  9.1  The Office of Children's Rights Commissioner for London believes children's unique position in society means that they need an independent, powerful, statutory Children's Rights Commissioner to protect and promote their rights. Whether this Commissioner is separate from a national Human Rights Commission or incorporated into one is less important than the powers, design, resources and duties that the Commissioner may have. Therefore the Office of Children's Rights Commissioner is in favour of the establishment of a national Human Rights Commission that includes specific provision for children in the ways described above.

REFERENCES:

  1  DSS, Households Below Average Income, 1994-95 to 1998-99.

  2  Department of Health: Children on Child Protection Registers, 1999-2000.

  3  O'Brien 2000 b; Howarth 1997; Munoz 1998.

  4  Statistics of Education: Permanent Exclusions from maintained schools in England, November 2000.

July 2001



 
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