Our children are our most important resource, and as the Declaration on the Rights of the Child reminds us, "mankind owes the child the best it has to give." They are also especially vulnerable and need protection. At the same time, children are entitled to respect for their human rights.
In this report we consider aspects of the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in the UK. We take as our starting point the Concluding Observations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on the UK Government's second periodic report under the Convention.
The Role of the Convention
The Convention on the Rights of the Child binds the UK in international law, but has not been incorporated directly into UK law. It is capable of having effect on judicial and governmental decisionmaking, whether in respect of the progressive realisation of economic, social and cultural rights or in relation to guarantees of civil and political rights. Unless and until any of its provisions are incorporated, however, the role of the Convention within the UK will be principally as the source of a set of childcentred considerations to be used when evaluating legislation, policymaking and administrative action.
Children and the Criminal Justice System
We remain unconvinced that criminalising young children, by a relatively low age of criminal responsibility, is the best way to ensure that they turn away from a life of crime. More cogent and convincing evidence of the effectiveness of maintaining the present age of criminal responsibility in reducing crime and disorder needs to be presented by the Government to support its argument against change. We recommend an increase in the age of criminal responsibility to 12.
We share the concerns of the UN Committee about the increasing levels of imprisonment of children and young people, and their treatment in custody. To bring the UK more fully into compliance with the Convention, the Government should devote more resources to devising alternatives to custody, and to rehabilitative opportunities for children in custody to ensure that they are more able to rebuild their lives constructively upon release.
We also share the concern expressed about the numbers of children and young people in custody who commit suicide and selfharm, and who are the victims of assault. We welcome the recent court decision that the Children Act applies to children in custody. The Government should take the necessary legislative steps to ensure that this duty also applies to prison authorities as well as to local authorities.
The education of young people in custody is fundamental to their life chances upon release. To achieve fuller compliance with the Convention, the Government should legislate to provide a statutory right to education and access to special needs provision equal to that enjoyed by all other children.
In relation to all young people under 18 serving custodial sentences, it is arguable that their best interests (and ultimately those of society as a whole) would be better served by their being removed from the responsibility of the Prison Service, making children in custody the responsibility of a separate organisation which is more fully imbued with a culture of respect for children's rights.
Other issues raised by the UN Committee
While acknowledging positive aspects of the UK's record of achievement, the UN Committee expressed concern about a large number of issues affecting children's rights in the UK. We examine the Government's responses, both in word or deed, to certain of these concerns, including those relating to child poverty, children in armed conflict, child health and parental identity.
We recommend that the UK's reservation to the Convention relating to nationality and immigration is withdrawn.
We conclude that the retention in UK law of the defence of "reasonable chastisement" is incompatible with the provisions of Article 19 of the Convention.
The Case for a Children's Commissioner for England
We reiterate the conclusion of our Ninth report of this Session that the protection and promotion of children's rights throughout the UK would be best advanced by the establishment of a children's commissioner in England, to work with the commissioners for children and young people already established by statute in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.