Last week, Together’s Director Juliet Harris and Chair Fiona Jones – in partnership with the Scottish Youth Parliament and the Children’s Commissioner – took a lead role in informing the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on the state of children’s rights in Scotland. With no time for Swiss chocolates or cheese, our mission in Geneva was to ensure that the UN Committee had a full understanding of children’s rights in Scotland and that issues of real concern to our members were at the forefront of their examination of the UK. As a result of last week’s examination, the UN Committee will make recommendations on the 10th June to the UK and devolved governments to outline what steps need to be taken to progress the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) across the UK.
It’s been 25 years since the UK ratified the UNCRC and 8 years since the UN Committee last examined the UK’s progress. In this time there have been many changes – for better and for worse – in how children and young people experience their rights in Scotland and more widely across the UK.
To effectively scrutinise the implementation of the UNCRC across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it was essential that the UN Committee had an in-depth understanding of devolution. Although the UK Government has overall responsibility for the implementation of the UNCRC, the Scottish Government has devolved responsibility for many of the areas covered – specifically health and social care, education, housing and youth justice. The UK government retains reserved powers for tax, benefits, immigration and asylum. The UN Committee receives thousands of pages of reports from government, Children’s Commissioners, national human rights institutions and NGOs such as Together – it is a real challenge for UN Committee members to understand the impact that devolution can have on children’s experiences on their rights. Indeed, it can even result in conflicting messages being presented to the Committee by different stakeholders.
For example, in 2014, the Scottish Government published a report outlining the steps it has taken to progress the UNCRC in Scotland. This contributed to an overall UK Government report that was submitted to the UN Committee. Together worked with its membership of over 300 organisations and individuals to submit an NGO report to the UN Committee on behalf of Scotland.
As you might expect, there is quite a contrast between the UK and Scottish Government reports, and perhaps even more of a contrast between the UK Government and Together’s reports to the Committee. For example, the Scottish Government notes that “the reform of the UK welfare system will have a disproportionate impact on those most in need and goes against the universal principle that the Scottish Government is working to protect” whereas the UK Government claims that “reforming the welfare system through Universal Credit…will lift up to 300,000 children out of poverty”. In Together’s report, we highlighted that “the projected increase in child poverty levels in Scotland is widely understood to be a direct result of UK Government welfare reforms, which disproportionately impact the health of vulnerable groups, including adults with learning disabilities, children, women and single parents”.
The Committee was very receptive to learning from Together and other child rights alliances across the UK and to listening to and discussing concerns with children and young people. Committee members made a real effort to give time and space in at the Pre-Sessional (back in October 2015) and last week’s examination for our input and participation.
We were able to talk to the Committee about where progress has been made in Scotland. For example, in 2014, the UNCRC was put on statute for the first time through the Children & Young People (Scotland) Act – albeit falling far short of the UN Committee’s recommendation of full incorporation into law. We outlined the strategies and action plans have been introduced on issues including health inequalities, play, parenting, young carers, domestic violence, mental health, anti-bullying, sport and youth work. The Committee were interested to hear that, for the first time, the voting franchise was extended to include 16 and 17 year-olds for the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum and more recently the Scottish Parliamentary elections.
Despite these developments, the Committee were concerned that there has been a regression in many other aspects of children and young people’s experiences of their rights. They asked direct questions to the UK government to find out why more children are living in poverty and whether their right to an adequate standard of living is being seriously affected by welfare reform. Committee members were concerned that benefits sanctions are seen to be discriminating against children from particular groups, such as children with a disability, children in single parent families and children in larger families. There was real concern regarding UK Government’s plans to repeal the Human Rights Act, the only mechanism through which children can seek legal redress for a number of their rights.
Whilst the blame might be laid at the doorstep of the UK Government for some of these issues, the Committee understood that there are many violations that are within the powers of the Scottish Government to address. The educational achievement gap in Scotland continues to widen, with socio-economic inequality seriously affecting children’s attainment in school. Children still do not have the same protection from violence in law as adults. Although there is currently a consultation underway, the age of criminal responsibility is still 8 years-old, one of the lowest in Europe.
Over the past 8 years, Together’s members have raised new challenges to the implementation of the UNCRC that did not appear in the UN’s 2008 examination – children from ethnic minority communities are feeling increasingly targeted and stigmatised by counter-terrorism measures; there has been an overwhelming increase in the number of children being forced to access food banks; stop and search has been found to be used disproportionately on children; children’s mental health is of increasing concern. The Committee listened carefully to these concerns and ensured that questions were raised with the UK officials during the examination.
The Scotland delegation tweeted live from the State Examination using the hashtag #CRCScotland16 and #CRCUK16, at one point trending worldwide on Twitter, much to the amazement of the UN Human Rights Office (and all those following the examination)!
For those not on Twitter, a summary of the examination is on the UN Human Rights Office website.
The recommendations (known as Concluding Observations) that the UN Committee will make will be released on the 10th June will be key to driving forward progress in implementing the UNCRC in Scotland and more widely across the UK. We are hopeful that they will address issues that are of real concern to Together’s members and children and young people across Scotland. We will continue to work closely with our members and with children and young people to ensure the UN Committee’s recommendations are taken forward by local and national government. Only by turning these recommendations into practical action will we see real progress in ‘making children’s rights real’ for all children across Scotland.