Tony Waterston: Children’s rights in England–a long way to go

Five strong women addressed the packed chamber at the Palace of Westminster, perhaps illustrating the predominance of women in the children’ sector. The subject was the launch of the 2012 state of children’s rights in England by the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE). The report is a scorching condemnation of the government’s lack of whole hearted support for children’s rights, and the continuing failure to implement UN recommendations: many of which relate directly to health.

CRAE, to which the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health is affiliated, reviews government action every year and offers a hugely valuable critique after consultation with many NGOs and organisations supporting children. The College contributes to the report on each occasion on health issues. One might ask, what have children’s rights got to do with health?  The answer is that every article in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is directly relevant to health.  For example: Article 16 relates to privacy and confidentiality; Article 17 to access to information; Article 19 to protection from violence; Article 12 to the child’s right to express his or her views.

So, what did the meeting say about the state of children’s rights in England? Those addressing the audience included Lisa Nandy (Shadow Minister for Children), Shami Chakrabarti, the dynamic director of Liberty, and Aoife Nolan, professor of Human Rights Law in Nottingham, as well as Paola Uccellari, Director of CRAE. The key message was that England is not fulfilling its responsibilities as directed by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. Of 118 recommendations made in 2008: 30 have shown an improvement; 51 no change; and 37 a worsening of the situation, according to CRAE. In relation to health and welfare, two examples of failure to implement are in “developing a comprehensive national strategy for the inclusion of disabled children in society” and in “fully implementing the International Code of Marketing of Breast milk substitutes.” Other more general issues very relevant to health are the failure to prohibit corporal punishment in the home, the failure to end the use of all harmful devices, such as handcuffs, on children—in fact the use increased—and the continued use of restraint on children in secure custody—the monthly average increased from 577 uses in 2009-2010, to 599 in 2010-2011, despite there being fewer children in custody. Taser use on children increased by 41% to 144 occasions. CRAE also consider that the government has gone backwards on its commitment to end child poverty.

One of the scariest quotes in the report was by the Home Secretary in 2012: “I still believe that we should scrap the Human Rights Act altogether—but for now, we’re doing everything we can to stop human rights law getting in the way of immigration controls.”

Yet as Chakrabarti said, human rights is about treating people as human beings. Clearly we have some way to go in this direction.

Tony Waterston is a paediatrician in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, working mainly in the community with long term conditions, disability, child abuse and social and mental health concerns. His interests are in child public health, children’s rights and global child health and he leads the RCPCH teaching programme in the occupied Palestinian territories.