Doreen Massey on the need for government to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of Children into English law
Since the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) came into force in 1990, only three countries have failed to sign up – Somalia, South Sudan, and the United States. Its status as an international treaty makes it legally binding on those that have ratified, including the UK which did so in 1991. Next week in the Lords, however, I will ask ministers why the Convention has yet to be incorporated into legislation in England.
The 54 articles that make up the UNCRC focus on the well-being of children with regards to their health and education, as well as social, political, economic, and cultural rights. Article 2 states the right to non-discrimination; article 3 that the best interests of the child must be a top priority; and article 12 covers the right to be heard. With each country’s performance checked every five years by a UN Commission, the UK has been consistently criticised for its lack of coordination; and more specifically for shortcomings in relation to child poverty and youth justice.
In 2005, the then Labour government outlined how legislation underpins implementation of the Convention in England. In 2009, our Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights also reported on children’s rights. And last year, ministers promised to “redouble commitments to strengthening protection for children, particularly those at grave risk of being left behind”; before adding that the promotion of children’s rights is “essential both at home and internationally.” In short, it is now time for a fresh and up to date review.
Much has been done in the UK to improve the lives of children. Wales incorporated ‘due regard’ to the Convention into legislation in 2014, and ministers in the devolved government must now complete Child Rights Impact Assessments on any new policy put forward. In Scotland, meanwhile, the First Minister said last September that a UNCRC Incorporation (Scotland) Bill ‘incorporating the UNCRC “fully and directly” to the maximum of the Scottish Parliament’s powers’ would be introduced in the current parliamentary term.
So, what does the UK government have against putting the Convention into legislation in England? One argument that ministers might make is “we are doing all this already” but how would we know without a structure that is externally observed and monitored? The UK is fortunate in having a committed and expert voluntary sector for children; and various Children’s Commissioners have led successful initiatives. It should, however, be for the government to coordinate action in line with legal obligations.
The lack of coordination and funding for children’s well-being has been made even more apparent during our current pandemic. Problems of child poverty, the lack of attention to mental health services, indecisions about school meals, and educational deprivation for the most vulnerable have been highlighted. Most of these problems were there long before the multiple impact of Covid-19 kicked in.
Expressions of support are easy, and the government needs to make a definite statement on reforming the structure of collaboration on children’s rights, with a timetable for following a route similar to Wales and Scotland. In doing so, they must communicate their intent widely and involve a range of Whitehall Departments, public bodies, and voluntary organisations to reinforce a commitment from everyone in our country to the well-being of all children.
Baroness Doreen Massey of Darwen is a Labour Peer
Published 13th November 2020