Committee on the Rights of the Child
24 May 2016
The Committee on the Rights of the Child today concluded its consideration of the fifth periodic report of the United Kingdom on its implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Introducing the report, Paul Kissack, Director General, Children’s Services, Equalities and Communications, Department for Education of the United Kingdom, said that since 2008, the country had gone through some of the most financially challenging times in its history, while new or intensified social challenges had emerged, including the need for greater online safety for children, preventing radicalization of children and youth, and the increase in unaccompanied refugee children from Syria and other regions of conflict. Responding to those challenges had led to significant innovation across the United Kingdom, with public services being reshaped, and new local arrangements being put in place. The new Children and Social Work Bill, introduced into Parliament in May 2016, reflected the ambition to make fundamental changes to the children’s social care system, promoting excellence in professional practice and realising the rights of children in the social care system. Since 2008, the United Kingdom had achieved significant progress in education reform, the development of childcare and early years, support for children with special education needs and disabilities, and improvement to health and social care services. Those were great enablers of supporting children to realize their full potential and fulfil the rights set out in the Convention.
In the ensuing dialogue, Committee Experts expressed concern about the possible repeal of the 1998 Human Rights Act as it was feared that the new Bill of Rights would weaken the protection of children’s rights. Experts were very worried about the increase in child poverty, which was up two per cent during the 2008-2012 period, while budget decisions made between 2010 and 2015 had shown that, despite some progressive policies and the apparent commitment of the Government, families with children had lost more as a result of the economic policies than those without children. The Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 repealed much of the 2010 Child Poverty Act and abolished child poverty targets for government and local councils. It was noted that the best interest of the child was not a primary consideration in all legislation and policy making, in administrative and judicial decisions concerning the children, nor in the asylum and immigration decision-making in relation to families and separated children. Experts also discussed the high incidence of domestic violence and violence against women and girls; the continued discrimination against minority children, especially Roma, Gypsy and travellers, migrant children and children born out of wedlock; lack of a consistent definition of the child in the United Kingdom’s legislation, between different laws and different jurisdictions, and the low age of criminal responsibility; and the impact of funding cuts on access to health services, including mental health services particularly for poor and vulnerable children.
In her concluding remarks, Kirsten Sandberg, Member of the Committee and Rapporteur for the report of the United Kingdom, expressed regret that, because of the lack of time, it was difficult to get a good understanding of the impact of the Government’s actions and how they corresponded to the experience of the children on the ground.
In his closing remarks, Mr. Kissack reassured the Committee of the United Kingdom’s continuing commitment to children’s rights and said that although there was a positive story to tell about the progress achieved since 2008, it was clear that more needed to be done.
The delegation of the United Kingdom consisted of representatives of the Department for Education, Department for Health, Department for Work and Pensions, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Defence, Home Office, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Department of Health of Northern Ireland, Department of Education of Northern Ireland, Directorate for Children and Families of Scotland, Directorate for Communities and Tackling Poverty, Education and Public Services of Wales, Jersey Government, Attorney General’s Chambers for the Isle of Man, and the Permanent Mission of the United Kingdom to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The next public meeting of the Committee will be at 3 p.m. today, 24 May when it will start its consideration of the combined third to fifth periodic report of Slovakia under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC/C/SVK/3-5).
The country reviews can be watched via live webcast at http://www.treatybodywebcast.org.
The fifth periodic report of the United Kingdom under the Convention on the Rights of the Child can be read via the following link: CRC/C/GBR/5.
Presentation of the Report
PAUL KISSACK, Director General, Children’s Services, Equalities and Communications, Department for Education of the United Kingdom, introducing the report, said that the large and senior delegation reflected the seriousness with which the United Kingdom engaged with the process of scrutiny from the Committee. The size of the delegation was also representative of a rather complex constitutional landscape across the State party, which complicated – but did not hinder – the way the Convention was being implemented. In the United Kingdom, the powers for legislative changes in education, health services and social care were devolved, to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly. In England, those matters were covered by the Government and Parliament in Westminster, which also led on non-devolved or reserved matters across the whole of the United Kingdom, including matters such as immigration or defence. The Crown Dependencies – Jersey and the Isle of Man – had their own legislative assemblies. Such constitutional arrangements meant that different laws and policies applied in different areas, but it also offered flexibility to respond to local issues and allowed a greater diversity of approach on different issues. Since 2008, the United Kingdom had been through some of the most financially challenging times in its history, which meant that very difficult decisions on Government spending must be continuously made. In addition to those financial challenges, there was an emergence of new or intensified social challenges, including the need for greater online safety for children, prevention of the radicalization of children and youth, and the increase in unaccompanied refugee children from Syria and other regions of conflict, some of whom were victims of trafficking and child sexual exploitation.
Responding to those challenges had led to significant innovation across the United Kingdom, with public services being reshaped, and new local arrangements being put in place. Last week, a new Children and Social Work Bill was introduced into Parliament which reflected the ambition to make fundamental changes to the children’s social care system, promoting excellence in professional practice and realising the rights of children in the social care system. Since 2008, the United Kingdom had achieved significant progress in education reform, the development of childcare and early years, support for children with special education needs and disabilities, and improvement to health and social care services. Those were great enablers of supporting children to realize their full potential and fulfil the rights set out in the Convention. There was however more to do to ensure that every child realized her or his rights; new challenges emerged regularly and across the United Kingdom policies continued to evolve in response to those challenges. Mr. Kissack welcomed the helpful and constructive inquiry by the Committee on areas where it believed further action must be taken and he reaffirmed the United Kingdom’s commitment to taking such action. A vibrant and expert civil society was a great strength of the United Kingdom; it influenced and improved many of the policies in the United Kingdom, while some of the best examples of local services promoting children’s rights could be found amongst third sector providers. The United Kingdom continued to engage directly with children at national and local Government levels in the shaping of policies and services and Mr. Kissack paid tribute to all those children who had helped to inspire and correct policy-makers and service providers over recent years.
Questions by the Country Rapporteurs and Committee Experts
KIRSTEN SANDBERG, Member of the Committee and Rapporteur for the report of the United Kingdom, expressed the Committee’s concern about the possible repeal of the Human Rights Act, which provided for the rights of children and remedies when their rights had been violated, and wondered why it was important for the Government to repeal this act. The concern was that the new Bill of Rights would weaken the protection of children’s rights and the delegation was asked about assurances that the new Bill would uphold the same level of protection. The Convention on the Rights of the Child was not incorporated in the national legislation, which meant that there were gaps in the protection of children’s rights; what measures were in place to ensure that the gaps did not occur? In 2009, the United Kingdom had made a country-wide strategy for the implementation of the Convention, but it had not been systematic in its coverage of issues raised in the Committee’s concluding observations; what were the plans regarding strategy and action plans for the implementation of the upcoming concluding observations?
A child rights impact assessment on budget decisions made between 2010 and 2015 had shown that, despite some progressive policies and the apparent commitment of the United Kingdom, families with children had lost more as a result of the economic policies than those without children, and some of the most vulnerable groups had lost the most. The United Kingdom did not regularly conduct children’s rights based budgetary analyses and impact assessments to clearly evidence how resources were being allocated to progress children’s rights; would such analyses be introduced? The Country Rapporteur commended the United Kingdom for being the world’s second largest development donor and as such, it played a fundamental role in shaping the global development agenda. However, children’s rights were not sufficiently mainstreamed within the United Kingdom’s development policies and strategies and this lack of a coherent approach to children’s rights had significant implications for effectiveness in responding to issues affecting children. Would the United Kingdom consider establishing a holistic child rights framework to ensure the full realization of the Convention in the United Kingdom’s foreign policy in its totality?
In 2013, the Government had adopted its first National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights, however, the plan did not address children’s rights; what were the plans regarding the introduction of mandatory children’s rights due diligence for business operations, and also the plans concerning the adoption of a legal framework obliging business enterprises to respect children’s rights in their global operations? The principle of the best interest of the child was not a primary consideration in all legislation and policy making, in administrative and judicial decisions concerning the children, nor in the asylum and immigration decision-making in relation to families and separated children. The Country Rapporteur also raised issues of the use of restraints and other restrictive interventions in juvenile custodial settings, the use of “pain distraction” techniques on children, the use of Tasers on children in Scotland and in Northern Ireland, lack of prospect of legal prohibition of corporal punishment, high incidence of domestic violence and violence against children and women, as well as sexual violence.
HATEM KOTRANE, Member of the Committee and Co-Rapporteur for the report of the United Kingdom, welcomed the announcement by the United Kingdom of the withdrawal of the reservations to the Convention and expressed concern that this would not apply in the Overseas Territories. Mr. Kotrane asked whether it was possible to invoke the Convention directly in court and how it was implemented by judges, and, welcoming the appointment of four Commissioners for the protection of children’s rights, asked the delegation to explain how their independence was assured and how they received complaints. There was a lack of a consistent definition of the child across the legislation in the United Kingdom, between different laws and different jurisdictions; when would a single definition of the child, in line with the Convention, be adopted?
Committee Experts asked whether the child-rights indicators framework for Northern Ireland had been adopted, and if not, when it would be done. They wished to hear more about the dissemination of the provisions of the Convention among children, parents and State officials directly involved with children. What mechanisms were in place to ensure the engagement of civil society in the implementation of the provisions of the Convention and the Committee’s concluding observations?
What steps would the United Kingdom take to amend the existing legislation, such as the Equality Act 2010, to ensure it was in line with the Convention and its principle of non-discrimination, and to protect certain groups of children such as Gypsy, Roma and Travellers from stigma and discrimination? There was still legal discrimination against “non-belongers” such as migrants or children born out of wedlock across all jurisdictions in the United Kingdom, which resulted in their having to pay higher fees than others in accessing local services. There existed a general climate of intolerance of childhood, children and adolescents in the United Kingdom, especially in the media which was promoting negative stereotypes of adolescence; this was often an underlying cause of infringement of their rights; what was being done to promote the values of childhood, without which it was impossible to promote children’s rights in general? In some jurisdictions, laws on child maintenance still used the terms “legitimate” and “illegitimate” children, and awarded different levels of maintenance depending on “legitimacy”. Children in foster care were often denied the right to express their identity, including religion, language, culture, nationality, sexuality, etc.
Replies by the Delegation
In response to the questions concerning general measures of implementation, a delegate said that the United Kingdom wholeheartedly believed that the Convention should provide a guiding light for legislative implementation across the United Kingdom and that was why in 2010 the Government had publicly declared its commitment to consider the Convention in promulgating all new legislation. It was not usual for the United Kingdom to incorporate treaties directly into the UK law; it believed that, rather than incorporating the whole text, the right approach was to use a combination of law and policy to make sure that the provisions were specifically implemented. For example, the new Children and Social Work Bill, introduced to Parliament last week, had been informed by the Convention, in particularly its Article 3. The policy development in particular was driven by the United Kingdom’s commitment to this Convention and other relevant international treaties.
Children’s rights impact assessment was applied by the Cabinet Office which coordinated policy-making across Westminster, and which had applied it to the Children and Social Work Bill, the 2014 Children’s and Family Act, and the 2015 Modern Slavery Act. The United Kingdom did not believe that introducing statutory children’s rights impact assessments would ensure that children’s rights were properly embedded in the policy; more important was the commitment to children’s rights and children’s interests. The authorities, across the Government, systematically used equality assessments and family assessment to ascertain the impact of new laws and policies.
In terms of taking forward the Committee’s concluding observations, a delegate explained that there would be a public statement or a document which would define how the recommendations would be implemented – this would be defined once the concluding observations were issued. On businesses and human rights, it was explained that the 2013 National Plan of Action had been updated, in which the possible negative impact on the rights of children had been stressed; the vulnerability of children in the supply chain was also highlighted in the Modern Slavery Act, which had spelled out the Government’s expectations of businesses in terms of the protection of the rights of children.
The awareness of children in England about the Convention was rather low and therefore one of the mandated tasks of the Children’s Commissioner was to promote the rights of the child and the respect for the child’s rights and the rights of others. Listening to children at the local levels was included in statutory guidance of the Department of Education. The curriculum of the secondary school included the development of understanding of democracy and democratic systems, and the knowledge of children’s rights. From time to time, the Government would meet with civil society to look into the implementation of the Convention; such was the case for example in preparing for the consideration of this report by the Committee.
The Children’s Commissioner in England was an absolutely independent champion of children’s rights; since the 2014 Act, the office was made even more independent, for example through the extension of appointment to six years, and the provision of reasonable resources to implement the mandate. The Children’s Commissioner did not have the competence to investigate individual complaints, and this was a decision made deliberately to ensure that the Office had the capacity to promote children’s rights and focus on policy; this decision had also been made in light of the fact that there were strong possibilities to complain through other mechanisms within other parts and levels of government.
The Convention was referred to in judicial decisions, for example some Supreme Court decisions had made clear mention of the Convention. In response to the questions concerning the repeal of the 1998 Human Rights Act, a delegate said that the Act had opened the system to abuse, damaging the credibility of human rights, it had put public protection at risk and had increased democratic deficit. The new Bill would bring in the necessary balance between courts, Parliament and the European Court for Human Rights; the focus would be on mitigating the expansion of rights by Strasbourg and it would put in place a modern human rights framework for the whole of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom would consult fully on proposals.
In Scotland, the Government took the Convention on the Rights of the Child very seriously - and in particular its article 4 -, and the Scottish National Action Plan committed the Government to work with civil society to explore the benefits of the full incorporation of the Convention. The best interest of the child was at the heart of every decision affecting them. All ministers were obliged to report to Parliament every three years on the steps taken to ensure the better effect of the Convention. In November 2014, the Scottish Government voted in favour of the 1998 Human Rights Act, and this issue would continue to be the subject of discussion with the United Kingdom. The Children’s Commissioner in Scotland was fully independent from the Government.
In order to promote the rights of children and promote their best interest, the Government of Wales had embedded the Convention in the legislation, and placed the duty on the Ministers to give due regard to the Convention in exercising any of their functions and give due weight to the Convention in decision-making, in order to make children’s right a priority and provide the best health and education possible. A Children’s Rights Scheme – which also contained child rights impact assessment - had been introduced to assist in the identification of opportunities to improve the situation of children. Children’s rights impact assessments were routinely applied to new legislation. Significant funding had been committed for the training of professionals working with or for children; recently, training provided was specific to the sector in which activities were undertaken, rather than providing general training in the Convention. Wales was in the process of introducing a new curriculum, designed on 10 principles, one of which was the inclusion of the principles and provisions of the Convention. The Getting It Right Action Plan had been adopted as a response to the Committee’s 2008 recommendations.
The best interest of the child was always the first consideration in all decisions made in the immigration system. All employees were required to undergo several tiers of training, including on the best interest of the child and on interviewing children, and child rights experts provided specialist advice. The best interest of the child was embedded in the operational practice, there was a network of senior managers who ensured that this principle was taken seriously throughout the process. However, the best interest of the child was not paramount and could be outweighed by public interest considerations.
England had moved from creating a centralized policy for schools, and instead had put its trust in teachers and school governors to know best which policies would work best for their context. The 2014 Children and Family Act placed responsibility on schools to consult directly with children with disabilities and their families on how their needs would be met. A statutory guidance on listening and involving children in schools had been developed, which promoted pupils’ involvement as an indicator of good governance.
Scotland took seriously the right of children to be heard and promoted the great work of the Scottish Youth Parliament; consultations with children took place regularly to enable them to influence policy and change laws. In Wales, the Government was committed to continue to ensure the participation of children in the working of the Government; Young Wales was the national independent youth participation body in Wales. The Government would continue to encourage children to participate and to ensure that everyone could be heard, particularly marginalized children. Northern Ireland was so far unsuccessful in establishing the Youth Parliament, however, the engagement with the young people continued, including through the new Northern Ireland Children Strategy, while the Northern Ireland Youth Forum had taken place recently, and the Government was keen on taking its conclusions forward.
Lowering the voting age to 16 had been discussed in Parliament on several occasions, and the initiative had been turned down; in Scotland, the Government had lowered the voting age to 16 for local and Scottish Parliamentary elections. In Wales, the Government intended to lower the voting age when it had powers to do so.
Negative stereotyping and portrayal of young people in the media was an issue that the Government took seriously, and it had put in place several programmes and initiatives to ensure that the rights of young people were protected in the media and to promote the positive views of young people, such as the National Citizen Programme, while the Scottish Government had committed to celebrate youth throughout 2018 and to promote Scotland as a great place to grow up in.
Generally, a definition of a child in the United Kingdom’s law included anyone under the age of 18, but the age limit could be viewed differently in order to ensure their best interest. Young people over the age of 16 were generally deemed capable of living independently from their parents. The Criminal Law focused on protecting children under 16 years of age, and the delegate explained various reasons why children aged 16 and 17 were included in the Section 1 of the said law. In England, the age of marriage was 16 while in Scotland and in Wales children aged 16 could marry with parental consent. In Scotland the Government was consulting on raising the age of criminal responsibility from 8 to 12 years. The 2013 provisions had reduced the scope and extent of free legal aid and the Government had committed to reviewing the act within three to five years after implementation. The Government believed that individuals should have a strong connection to the United Kingdom in order to qualify for legal aid and did not believe that the resident test would be discriminatory; the application of this test was suspended following a court decision, but the Government would consider next steps.
Questions by the Committee Experts
Due to budgetary cuts, child care consumed half or more of what parents made and many could simply not afford it. One of the austerity measures, which was very worrying, was the loss of early parental services. What steps would be taken to make sure that families were provided with good quality and affordable child care?
Another issue of concern was that the number of children entering care had been steadily increasing, and there were reports of children being removed from very poor parents or from parents who were not considered “good”. Children removed from families were sometimes placed far away, and siblings were separated, which made contact very difficult. What were the criteria for the removal of children from their families, what steps were in place to ensure that removal was absolutely in the best interest of the child, and how was the necessary support provided to children in foster care?
With regard to health, a concern was that many children were not receiving the health services they needed, mainly due to funding cuts, while inequalities in access to adequate and quality medical services persisted for poor and vulnerable children. Mental health for children and adolescents was also an area of concern, due to lack of funding, far too long waiting lists for mental health services, sometimes extending to 18 months’ wait, and children who needed to be placed in a hospital, because of lack of places locally, had to be hospitalized far away from the family. Further, the Committee was very concerned about overmedication of children with behavioural problems, or with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders (ADHD); there was no transparency in this regard as children taking ADHD medications were not officially recorded. Some sources indicated a 500 per cent increase over the past 13 or 14 years. It was surprising to hear that the breastfeeding rates in the United Kingdom were among lowest in the world, and the links between low rates and poverty of mothers was also very worrying.
The delegation was further asked about the system in place to ensure that children with disabilities participated in decision-making where it concerned them, measures to ensure that all children with disabilities were in inclusive education, and the steps to address the barriers children with disabilities experienced in accessing and enjoying their rights. Experts also asked the delegation to provide clarification on the proposed law on mental health and capacity in Northern Ireland, which was discriminatory for children of a certain age, and what was being done to ensure adequate medical care and services to transgender children.
Segregation in schools in Northern Ireland still existed, noted Experts, and inquired about measures to improve the quality of education, especially in Northern Ireland where the considerable percentage of children did not achieve the expected level of literacy and numeracy at the end of each school year. Was education on a democratic structure and institutions, and on human rights, compulsory in school curricula? Could the delegation comment on the removal of parent-teachers associations from schools and the consequences of removing parents from the decision-making process, as well as comment on the bill on excellence in education that Her Majesty Queen had mentioned in her speech last week.
KIRSTEN SANDBERG, Member of the Committee and Rapporteur for the report of the United Kingdom, asked how the rights of children would be included in the upcoming national climate change policy, and about steps in place to ensure access to abortion in Northern Ireland for pregnancies resulting from rape or for foetal abnormalities. The 2014 United Nations Children Fund Innocenti Report Card, which focused on the well-being of children in industrialized countries, said that during the 2008-2012 period child poverty was up by two per cent while poverty among those aged 65 and over was down by five per cent, which was very alarming. The Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 repealed much of the 2010 Child Poverty Act and abolished child poverty targets for government and local councils. Various benefits had been limited lately, including child tax, bedroom tax, household benefit cap and others, and this was very detrimental to children. How did the United Kingdom plan to assess the cumulative impact of the measures taken over the past several years on children and their welfare? Children were bearing a disproportionate burden of austerity measures and the Committee Rapporteur asked about alternative means to reduce child poverty, and in particular among particularly vulnerable children.
In relation to children of imprisoned parents, the delegation was asked how the fact that one had children affected the sentencing, whether judges were aware of the fact that there were children involved and what coordination was there between child protection and prison authorities. Bullying, particularly cyber bullying continued to be a problem, particularly against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex children, children with disabilities and children of minorities. Experts requested the delegation to explain why child poverty had increased disproportionately during the period under the review, particularly for children with disabilities and minority children.
HATEM KOTRANE, Member of the Committee and Co-Rapporteur for the report of the United Kingdom, concerning the situation of migrant children, refugees and asylum seekers, expressed concern about the lack of reliable data guiding decisions, and especially their age, and lack of access to legal aid, and said that the Committee was expecting to see greater action from the United Kingdom’s Government concerning refugee children from Syria. In relation to juvenile justice, Mr. Kotrane expressed concern that some minors continued to be heard in adult courts, that the age of criminal responsibility was still considered to be 10 in some cases, about the large number of children in custody, and about the disproportionate number of minority children in detention. The Committee welcomed the ratification by the United Kingdom of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, and expressed concern about the very low age of recruitment into armed forces which allowed the recruitment of children aged 16 or younger.
Responses by the Delegation
Roma, Gypsy and travellers were protected under the 2010 Equality Act which prohibited any form of discrimination against them, in housing, education and other areas.
The Prevent Strategy had a key objective to safeguard children and others from being drawn into terrorism and to ensure the best interest of children by supporting them, their families, communities and schools to understand the dangers of all forms of terrorism and to develop knowledge and strategies to counter it. There were very clear guidelines for the use of Tasers, which could be used only by specialized police forces, who must consider the vulnerability of persons, including their age. In order to ensure full transparency and access to information about the use of force by the police, a review had been ordered into all instances of the use of force by the police, including force used, circumstances, age and ethnic characteristics of victims, and others; it was expected that this data would be collected regularly and published in the Home Office Annual Report.
As far as stop and search operations were concerned, the delegation stressed the obligation of the police to safeguard the best interest of children, and the changes to the law had empowered communities to hold the police accountable for all stop and search operations. The police service of Northern Ireland regularly reviewed its stop and search powers, while Police Ombudsmen examined all use of Tasers; there were no intentions at the moment to prohibit the use of Tasers by the police.
With regard to the protection of children against abuse and exploitation, the delegation said that in March 2016, the United Kingdom had launched the new Violence against Women and Girls Strategy to address all forms of violence against women and girls, prevent it before it happened, stop perpetrators from moving from one victim to another, and bring them to justice. To date, 80 million pounds had been allocated for support to victims of violence against women and girls. The United Kingdom believed it was a world leader in stamping out forced marriage and was actively protecting people from this practice.
The United Kingdom did not condone any violence against children and it had banned corporal punishment from schools and institutions; the Government however believed that parents should not be penalized for giving children a mild smack and did not intend to change the corporal punishment law. The United Kingdom remained committed to promoting positive parenting techniques across the country. In Wales the Government had committed to take forward on a cross party basis legislation that would remove the defence of reasonable chastisement.
With regard to child care, the Government in England was investing an extra one billion pounds annually to support working families, and intended to extend the current 15 hours of free care per week for three and four years old, to 30 hours of free care per week. Parenting support played a crucial role and the Government was expanding its health visitors programmes and had put universal health visiting pathways. Health visitors worked in conjunction with other social and communal services in finding the best access to the necessary services.
There had indeed been an increase in children entering care in England, from 65,500 in 2011 to 69,500 in 2015 – specific reasons that could explain that could be the increase in the number of asylum seeking children or the impact of a Court judgement concerning homeless children. It was important to note that the increased number of children in care meant that there were more children who were taken care of. The Children’s Act 1999 placed a responsibility on the local authorities to take into account a child’s ethnicity, culture and religion, in matching the child with the foster family; sometimes the perfect match was not possible and what guided the decision was the ability to best meet the needs and interest of the child. The Government was firmly committed to the voice of the child being at the heart of the system; each child had a social worker and an independent reviewing officer who listened to the child’s wishes and needs and advocated on behalf of the child. The law was clear in that families were the best place for children and that the wishes of the child must be taken in consideration of all decisions concerning removal of the child from the family. There were a range of strategies across the United Kingdom to support families and to avoid giving children to care, which aimed to support early interventions. The most common form of child abuse in the United Kingdom was neglect, which was very hard to be established; that was why it was the courts that ultimately made decisions based on the best interest of the child, poured over social workers’ reports, challenged them and also heard the children.
The National Health Services were mandated to ensure the smooth transition from child to adult health services, and the age of transition was determined locally and was based on the needs of the person rather than chronological age. The 2014 review of children and adolescents acute mental health care had found a shortage of beds for young people in some areas of the country, following which the Government had allocated funds to increase the capacity to the current 1,442 beds, which was higher than ever. New funding had been provided to support community-based services which would ensure early intervention in eating disorders, for example, and reduce waiting time for some mental health disorders.
The Children and Families Act 2014 had introduced an important reform to the system for children with special educational needs and disabilities, by introducing a single, unified system across education, health and care, and increasing the participation of children with disabilities in decision-making during the preparation of health and education plans. The Government was committed to inclusive education and the progressive removal of barriers to education. Parents retained the right to choose education for their children, and while many opted for inclusive and mainstream schools, there were some parents who chose special schools, whose numbers across the country remained relatively stable. The key messages of the reform were the involvement of the children with disabilities and special education needs, and the importance of early intervention.
Northern Ireland had rejected the 2015 recommendation to legalize the termination of pregnancies resulting from rape, and for foetal abnormalities. There was no forced segregation in schools in Northern Ireland, said a delegate, and measures had been taken to increase the interaction of children between different communities, including through shared education.
In England, the act of daily worship in school remained compulsory, and generally was based on Christianity; however, schools which were serving communities with majority non-Christian populations could change the act of worship to Islamic, Jewish or others. Parents had the right to excuse their child from worship in any State-funded school, while children could excuse themselves from the age of 16. All schools in England were obliged to promote the values of democracy, human rights, rule of law and tolerance; one way was through teaching citizenship, which was mandatory in secondary schools and a good benchmark for academies.
The Government in England was concerned about fair funding for schools, which was currently based to local formulas whereby decisions were not need-based but location based, and was proposing a single national formula based on the objective measure of needs, which would ensure that children from disadvantaged areas received more.
An issue that the United Kingdom, and particularly England was grappling with was the compulsory mental health assessment for vulnerable children: on one hand, not all vulnerable children had mental health problems so application of assessments could contribute to their stigmatization; on the other, many vulnerable children had mental health problems, so compulsory assessments would enable early intervention. An expert group had been set up to establish the vulnerable children mental health care pathway in order to inform decision-makers.
The new Life Chances Act, which applied only in England, and its upcoming strategy, would set out the plan to address drivers of child poverty, such as family breakdown, drug and alcohol abuse and others. The Government intended to assess the impact on children of austerity measures and would continue to report regularly under the Life Chances Act. Work was a very valuable step in reducing child poverty, but was often not enough; that was why the Government had introduced the new living wage and other tax measures. The welfare system reform must make the system affordable and sustainable, and must be seen as a part of wider reform that would move the United Kingdom from a high-welfare and low tax country to a country of high wages, high employment and personal responsibility. Children with disabilities were protected from benefits caps and additional funding had been provided to protect vulnerable groups from funding cuts.
Scotland took a very different approach to tackling child poverty, which was well defined in the revised Child Poverty Strategy for Scotland 2014-2017, and it contained the child poverty measurement framework, against which the Scottish Government regularly reported. In addition, there was an independent advisor on poverty which helped to hold the Government accountable. Significant resources had been provided for welfare for families, and the Government intended to use new welfare powers to additionally support vulnerable and low-income families, for example it would re-introduce some of the benefits that had been cut in 2010.
In Wales, the revised Child Poverty Strategy had been published in 2015. Wales was well aware of the impact of the United Kingdom Government’s welfare reforms on poverty and low income families, and was committed to supporting its vulnerable families as they dealt with the disproportionate impact of those reforms. One such measure was the allocation of resources to provide housing support to the most vulnerable persons and families.
Responding to questions related to juvenile custody and detention, a delegate said that every death in custody was a tragedy and assured the Committee that all cases of children dying in custody in the United Kingdom are carefully investigated and subject of an inquest. Restraints on young people, and segregation and separation in custody, were only used as a measure of last resort; a number of safeguards had been put in place. The Government in England and Wales had commissioned a review of the criminal justice system for any evidence of bias against children from minorities, which should be completed in 2017.
The United Kingdom remained fully committed to fulfilling its obligations under the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict and had in place robust policies for recruits under the age of 18, which were in line with international standards. The United Kingdom would continue to recruit from the pool of talented people; all applications by those under the age of 18 must be accompanied by a written consent by a parent or a guardian, they were not sent to combat zones, and they also had an option to leave the Army before their eighteenth birthday.
The policy was that children asylum seekers should not be detained; if a doubt existed as to the age, those individuals were treated as children. The United Kingdom did not use scientific methods for age determination. All children had full and equal access to education and health services regardless of their immigration status. Scotland provided a guardianship service for asylum seeker children. The United Kingdom’s Government supported the principle of family reunification, and over the last five years more than 21,000 individuals including children had been allowed entry for family reunification purposes. There was no intention to change the definition of family that was being used in family reunification decisions.
The United Kingdom had responded to the unprecedented crisis in Syria in an unprecedented way and had to date provided 2.3 billion pounds for the relief efforts, and had committed to bringing 20,000 Syrians to the United Kingdom over the next five years. The United Kingdom was also working on a scheme to bringing about 3,000 children at risk and their families from the wider region, as well as a number of unaccompanied refugee children from Europe.
KIRSTEN SANDBERG, Member of the Committee and Rapporteur for the report of the United Kingdom, expressed regret that, because of the lack of time, it was difficult to get a good understanding of the impact of the Government’s actions and how they corresponded to the experience of the children on the ground. Ms. Sandberg invited the delegation to carefully examine the Committee’s concluding observations, which would in fact be a reminder of issues that needed attention.
PAUL KISSACK, Director General, Children’s Services, Equalities and Communications, Department for Education of the United Kingdom, reassured the Committee that this was not just a one day event and that the commitment to children’s rights continued. There was a positive story to tell about the progress made since 2008, and it was clear that more needed to be done. The concluding observations would help to inform the work of the Government for years to come.
BENYAM DAWIT MEZMUR, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation for the responses provided, and expressed hope that the United Kingdom would give serious consideration to the Committee’s concluding observations.
For use of the information media; not an official record
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